“We’re here because it’s Pirate Day and we love it,” says Pat, shrugging. She's 90 and is standing in the shade with a zimmer frame. “It’s fun, it’s exciting. It brings out your inner child.” She usually lives in Aylesford, at a retirement home. But today she's travelled for over an hour to Hastings with a bunch of other pirate fanatics.
It's not just Pat and her mates who've shown up today. Thousands have descended on the historic fishing town, dressed as pirates, for Britain’s yearly Pirate Day. And not for the first time: The weekend-long event holds the Guinness World Record for the largest ever gathering of “pirates”, which they achieved back in 2012 with almost 15,000 in attendance.
Now, on an unnaturally hot summer’s day, cosplay buccaneers and bandits are everywhere once again. It's a whole thing: Traditional folk bands shred on the main stage, a parade lights up the tiny market streets and old-fashioned cannons explode over the beach. Plus, in true pirate fashion, booze flows by the boatload.
“We stumbled across it last year by accident and we were like, “Why is everyone dressed like Jack Sparrow?!” Emma from Bexley, South London tells me. She's wearing a corset and hat decorated with seashells.
“It was totally random,” her partner Luke goes on. “But we loved it so much that this year we decided to come dressed up.” He goes on to say that his unbuttoned shirt, Cavalier boots and eyeliner are a big change from what he wears in his day job working in financial data. “It’s a nice little break,” he laughs, sipping his beer.
The pirate “look” – ruffled shirts, waistcoats and tricornes (those weird triangular hats) – apparently harks back to the mid 1600s to early 1700s, which was a particularly busy time for actual pirates. That said, pirates have pretty much always been about. The first records of pirates date back to 5000BC China. Since then, piracy has existed throughout world history, from the Caribbean to Japan and Ancient Greece. But it's the “Golden Age” pirates you've probably heard most about.
As for the pirate accent – that rugged West Country drawl full of “Ahoy, me hearties!” and “Aarrrr”’s – that comes from the 1950 movie Treasure Island. More specifically, it was the accent that Robert Guy Newton employed for his character Blackbeard, and again in the 1952 movie Blackbeard. So you can blame him for every pirate voice used ever since.
“I think we all have an underlying love of rum,” laughs Zaid, a Hastings local, standing barefoot on the cobbled streets with a drink in hand. “Pirates were the original punks, weren’t they? They went against the grain. They wanted to take from the rich and give to the poor. We need more of that now.”
Zaid’s wearing a shaman-style robe and is out with his partner Mel and their kids, who are sitting in a souped-up pirate-themed pram. I ask Mel what it’s like to live here. “Hastings is like if all the bohemian people could still afford to live in Brighton,” she says.
Pirates still exist today. But, far from the drunken, eyelinered character portrayed by Johnny Depp, the actual pirates of today are organised criminals who target oil tankers and kidnap their workers, or trawl the ocean to get rich off the multi-billion pound fish black market. Despite this, and with help of a few Hollywood blockbusters and pop culture caricatures, the rum-swilling raconteur pirate image still persists. Nobody here is dressed up as an organised criminal from 2022 – but there are plenty of parrots on shoulders.
“That’s Prickler, he’s five,” Matt from Great Yarmouth tells me, proudly introducing his glamorous parrot companions. “And that’s River Phoenix. She’s nine.”
I ask what being a pirate means to him. “Drink, be merry, plunder… but we just like to walk around with our parrots, really,” he explains, staring at the bright Amazonian birds.
Aside from an excuse for a knees-up and daft fancy dress, I wonder if there’s any significance to Pirate Day being held here in Hastings. I ask Pat, the elder who’s been attending yearly for the past decade. “All along the coast there were smugglers and pirates,” she explains, now sitting on the foldable chair on her Zimmer frame.
“There’s a poem that goes, ‘Watch the wall my darling while the gentlemen go by.’ That means that the local people would turn a blind eye when the smugglers went by with the brandy and the silk and the tobacco.”
Pirate Day isn't the only celebration held in Hastings. It seems as if they're always celebrating something, from the Crazy Golf World Championships to English folk celebration Jack In The Green to the biggest Mardi Gras event in the UK.
“It’s a town that has its own culture,” Steve, 34, tells me in between gulps of beer from a flagon. “It has a real feeling that you don't really get anywhere else. It's often said that Hastings is a drinking town with a fishing problem! The town dances to its own tune more than any other place I've been to.”
Steve lives locally and has chosen to courageously don a bright red tailcoat, a leather tricorne and eye patch in the hot summer sun. “If I could get away with dressing up like a pirate every day then I would!” After losing him in the crowd, I unexpectedly spot him again hours later on the main stage. There’s a sea shanty band called Completely Scuppered playing and he's there, jigging around at the back, flagon in hand, belting out backing vocals and living his best life.
There’s something rare and innocent about Pirate Day in Hastings. As I look around I see tourists chatting with elderly locals, teenagers sitting on curbs drinking alcopops, taxi drivers, families, bar staff and shop workers all dressed up as pirates and loving every second. It’s all very wholesome.
As a hot and rumbustious day turns to a cool and calm dusk, the sound of sea shanties begins to fade and the pirates start staggering home. On my way back to the train station, a couple drunkenly stumble towards me. The man has a bloodied nose, an eye patch drawn on his face in marker pen and mayhem in his eyes. The woman simply has the word CUNT written across her chest in glitter. Classic pirates.