Rising above us all is North’s Seat, the town’s highest point above sea level. This resting place is on top of Fairlight Down, once an important landmark on the south coast, visible from more than 40 miles away. Today the many trees and bushes along the skyline partly obscure views from the Down, but in pre-telecoms days, when the landscape was much more open and the sky less polluted, the Down played a crucial role as a signalling station when communications networks were needed.
The Down’s most historic moment came in 1787, when it took part in a triangulation survey that linked London and Paris, enabling the British and French governments to produce compatible maps and charts that made international sea trade much safer, and therefore more profitable.
In September 1787 General William Roy of the British Army set up a 32-feet high scaffold tower about 100 yards north of where North’s Seat is today. On this tower he fixed a unique, highly-sophisticated theodolite with which he could make long-range observations of Sussex and Kent landmarks, and of two places in France.
Fairlight Down and Dover Castle were the only English locations that could see both these French sites, and without Fairlight the survey would probably not have taken place. Its success resulted in the setting up in 1791 of the Ordnance Survey, the world’s first official surveying body, which today is also often credited with producing the best maps.
In 1825 the Down was again an essential link in a cross-Channel survey, which aimed to match the English and French settings of geographic longitude. An artillery detachment on Fairlight Down spent 12 nights firing rockets into the sky, sending messages to a signal station in the mouth of the French river Canche.
Today, a three-feet high concrete triangulation point stands in the middle of some gorse bushes on what was probably the site of the 1787 survey, a few yards to the north of North’s Seat. It is registered as being 576 feet above sea level, the highest spot in the borough.
In 1787 the nearest buildings to the survey were a windmill and farm further north along the aptly-named Mill Lane.
North’s Seat was set up in early 1870 on the site of another windmill, built in 1819, which burnt down in April 1869. A large circular seat was erected in memory of the highly respected Liberal MP Frederick North, who died in October 1869. Born in Hastings in 1800, he had helped many local charities and had been MP and mayor many times.
His home had been Hastings Lodge in Old London Road. One of his daughters was Marianne North (1830-1890), who became a famous botanical artist and naturalist.
She documented plant life in all parts of the world, and in 1882 she paid for the building of the recently restored Marianne North Gallery of Botanic Art in Kew Gardens to house hundreds of her highly-regarded pictures.
Marianne had been very close to her father, greatly lamenting his death, and she arranged the creation of the memorial seat on Fairlight Down. But it was subjected to vandalism periodically and had to be replaced several times.
A large viewing platform was erected in 1930, which was used as a look-out during the Second World War. But this was vandalised in 1982 and so was demolished and replaced by two seats, with a large round direction plaque, which are still there today.
North’s Seat has been owned by Hastings Council since 1938, and is part of the Hastings Country Park Nature Reserve, whose rangers maintain it and its surroundings.
More details on the history of the Country Park are on Steve Peak’s website