When Hastings Pier went up in smoke, an elegant upgraded structure rose from the ashes
‘A broken pier on the wavy sea
She wonders why for all she wants to see’
Syd Barrett, ‘She Took a Long Cold Look’
‘How to have a staycation: 11 steps’ … ‘five reasons a “staycation” might be for you’ … ‘millions of families shun foreign holidays’. While for many the thought of Brexit fuelled the desire to leave and never return, to jump in the sea rather than be beside it, the nauseatingly named ‘staycation’ is rising from the ashen reputations of plenty of seaside towns. It is a frustrating portmanteau, buzzworded to death and implying a dreariness, a missed opportunity, an attempt to hop the Channel fallen brutally short – due to the depreciating pound, lack of inspiration, the scare tactics of terrorism – that the sunny seaside pictures alongside newspaper stories do nothing to dispel.
If you’re going to stay, you may as well revel in those traditional holiday staples of sun, sea and sand and head for the coast. Hastings may not have the cultural cachet of, say, the Kent coast, where TS Eliot wrote The Waste Land in a Margate shelter, Van Gogh taught as an assistant at a Ramsgate school, and Dickens swam in waters off Broadstairs. Nor does it have what Jonathan Meades termed the ‘rich and potent mythology of transgression’ of Brighton, an accolade it has recently discarded with the British Airways i360 ‘vertical pier’. But it is luring tourists and homebuyers alike, and bringing something of a cultural conundrum.
Hastings pier site plan
If Brighton has long since had its moment, Margate and Hastings are in the throes of transformation, both the subject of annoying tabloid pseudo-seaside ethnography, and both at some point in 2015 described as ‘Shoreditch-on-Sea’ (or ‘Poverty-on-Sea’ in 2013); hacks delighting in goggling crumbling seaside dystopias, flimsy shelters, gawky Georgian terraces and abandoned arcades full of tracksuited junkies. Let’s not forget why Shoreditch became popular in the first place – ultimately an erosion of affordable housing – and that Hastings not long ago reported some of the worst levels of poverty in the country. Tales of a creative renaissance aside, the town’s problems remain.
But let’s also not swing too far in the other direction. London cynicism can overlook the fact that there are of course ways to improve a place without abandoning those who have long cherished it. Groups such as the Heart of Hastings Community Land Trust have been established for this very purpose, to provide long-term community ownership, to let communities ‘do’ rather than being ‘done to’ by the not-so-affectionately labelled DFLs – ‘down from London’. While there are examples such as the splendidly modest 2012 Jerwood Gallery – itself far from immune to local opposition – there is a strong sense that Hastings’ change needs to happen from within, rather than via the externally led ‘Shoreditchification’ that estate agents seem so desperate for (and property prices are too low for anyway).
As dRMM’s Alex de Rijke states, ‘there are many creative people in Hastings – always have been – but there are now several initiatives for bottom-up regeneration projects happening, utilising the town’s stock of interesting neglected buildings’. And if it’s tales of neglect you’re after, look no further than the town’s pier in White Rock, one of the town’s poorest neighbourhoods.
‘Hastings’ change needs to happen from within, rather than via the externally led ‘Shoreditchification’ that estate agents seem so desperate for’
On its opening in 1872 it was the ‘Peerless Pier’, among the first iron piers constructed purely as pleasure destinations. The original 2,000-seat pavilion burnt down in 1917, was replaced in 1922 by ‘The Ballroom’ and lit up – metaphorically this time – by a golden age of performances: The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Clash, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd. These were the groups that made Hastings Pier peerless in the ’60s and ’70s, a gathering point for a whole generation, and enough to convince Syd Barrett it was the place to play his last ever show with Pink Floyd on 20 January 1968. In many ways it was, somewhat poetically, downhill from there: the pier’s place in legend was secured, but its place at sea began to look dubious.
‘The Battle for Hastings’ Pier’ is far more protracted and bureaucratic than its allusion to 1066 suggests, but not entirely without tapestry-worthy storms, fires and intrigue. The pier had been way past its prime by the millennium – by almost a century or decades depending on whom you ask – but its abrupt closure in 2006 due to safety risks began a series of unsuccessful dealings with Ravenclaw Investments, the pier’s Panama-based, ridiculously named and seemingly uninterested owners. Stylus Sports, providers of many of the pier’s amusements, footed the repair bill, allowing the central section of the pier to be reopened only to be closed again in 2007 after a storm sent chunks of the iron superstructure plunging to the beach below.
By now the pier was racking up debts, and Ravenclaw tried to sell it to ‘Hastings Pier Ltd’, promptly blocked by the courts. Meanwhile, the pier languished. Fast forward a few years, past a flirtation with Weston-super-Mare Grand Pier owners Kerry and Michelle Michael (whose engineer concluded that the pier was a ‘good storm away from collapse’), and the Hastings Pier and White Rock Trust – established to save the pier – had secured a compulsory purchase order against Ravenclaw. On 4 October 2010, a call for design proposals went out to architects to decide who would restore it. As Jess Steele, community activist and founding trustee commented, ‘A dead pier in a seaside town is like flying a flag saying “we’re closed”.’
On the morning of 5 October, however – in something of a gift for conspiracy theorists – 95 per cent of the pier was destroyed in a suspected arson attack. Whatever the motivation behind it, a previous study that had suggested £3 million would make the pier safe was revised to nearly £11 million. Needless to say, the brief had somewhat changed. On assessing the entries, which included FAT, Niall McLaughlin and Wilkinson Eyre, the trust praised winner dRMM’s simple proposal for its ‘flexibility, lateral thinking and value for money’. The majority of funding would come from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), with £2.5 million from other sources. But most excitingly, £600,000 was raised through residents purchasing shares in the pier, making some 3,000 investors – many of them Hastingers – part owners.
Source: Popperfoto / Getty
And so decades after Pink Floyd’s last gig, the pier – like Barrett, dropping in on his bandmates at Abbey Road with head and eyebrows shaved – is unrecognisable. Phase 1 of dRMM’s design, opened in April, has three main elements: a new Ekki hardwood deck, the restored Victorian Western Pavilion with two new ‘pods’, and a visitor centre, along with some new benches made from recovered decking. Compared with the spectacle of all those jostling, lightweight flights of Victorian and Art Deco fancy that once graced the pier, the new vista – of gleaming hardwood almost silver in the sun like the whiting that swim beneath – is in equal parts solemn and inspiring. Its starkness is what de Rijke wishes to be treated as a ‘blank canvas’, a catalyst for creativity, but it doubles – on an empty, rainy day – as a reminder of what once was, with some crumbling supports still visible at the pier’s end. Even the restored pavilion is only one half of two that used to hug the entrance to the pier. While this is something some residents have found hard to accept, their nostalgia conveniently forgets how those structures were left to decay.
‘Compared with those jostling, lightweight flights of Victorian and Art Deco fancy that once graced the pier, the new vista is in equal parts solemn and inspiring’
‘What we have made’, says de Rijke, ‘is a strong and beautiful pier deck that carries services – electricity, water, drainage and free wifi. You can plug in a market stall, erect a stage, or drive circus trucks onto it. The people who initially thought “plank” have revised their opinions, having already seen a number of events come and go.’ Small beach-hut-like structures line the edge of the pier, let out to local businesses, and at the time of visiting a few carousels had emerged and a bingo stall was being set up. The pier will doubtless play host to more experimental events as the community becomes more comfortable with the public space. Should future plans go ahead, a canopy traversing the length of the pier will provide cover, sheltering those who perhaps cannot afford a tent but still want to put on an event.
The central structure, a mini Casa Malaparte in the centre of the pier, was required by the HLF to disseminate some of the pier’s history, but what de Rijke didn’t want was ‘a generic visitor centre as a museum of the pier’. This simple rectangular structure, clad in recovered wood and called ‘The Deck’, is for de Rijke ‘like a piece of furniture’, providing two flexible function rooms (the Memories Room and the Birch Room), a café and a shop. ‘It is placed not at the end, as some kind of hero destination building’, says de Rijke, ‘but centrally to best service the pier’s events and activities.’
The interiors here are simple – a clearly low-budget timber structure but one speaking of flexibility rather than cheapness. Large windows can be opened via hinged panels, and the showpiece is a concertina window in the Birch Room that looks out to the end of the pier. Wheely touch screens and exhibits – on miniature pier-like steel frames – allow an exploration of the pier’s turbulent past as well as affording the opportunity for visitors to add to a ‘Digital Memory’, an impressive online oral and pictorial archive of the pier. At the pier’s edge, small panels on the balustrade continue this history-telling without being too overwhelming. Along with the HLF-funded Learning and Education department, all of this instils a deep sense of pride in the pier, and a determination to ensure it is never abandoned again.
The best way to spend time on The Deck is, as its name suggests, atop it, with a viewing platform accessed via wide steps that double as auditorium seating facing back towards the town, appearing almost as though on stilts above Sidney Little’s 1930s double-decker promenade. One of the most impressive moments can be had via a small staircase by the viewing platform’s kiosk – a dark, quiet route, alien to the pier, heavy with the smell of the recovered timber that encapsulates the pier’s rising from the ashes.
‘There is no sense of an imposition and enough nostalgia to satisfy those more resistant to change’
In a recent report for The Independent, Tom Blass concluded that middle-class second-homers from London, while contributing to community projects such as the pier, do nothing to erode ‘the plight of thousands of deprived families’. In the pier’s case, pointing the finger seems a little unfair. There is no sense of an imposition and enough nostalgia to satisfy those more resistant to change, and there is a welcoming blank canvas for those with a more anarchic streak. Candy floss and whelks may have been swapped for lattes and panini, but if the pier is to be the project that kickstarts change in Hastings, it would be difficult to set a better example. Not only has it succeeded against huge natural and man-made misfortune, it was saved by the community, not through private interests. Arson should not often be encouraged, but as many working on the pier will attest, it was - in that twisted, English sort of way - the best thing that could have happened.
Structural engineer: Ramboll
Photographs: Jim Stephenson