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Hastings Pier: Why the area has much to celebrate

PUBLISHED: 16:31 16 May 2016 | UPDATED: 16:31 16 May 2016

Simon Opie of the Hastings Pier Charity (Photo by Jim Holden)

Simon Opie of the Hastings Pier Charity (Photo by Jim Holden)

Jim Holden www.jimholden.co.uk 07590 683036

After years of neglect, Hastings Pier was almost destroyed by a devastating 2010 fire. Now it’s back as a major attraction, thanks to the tenacity of locals and the Hastings Pier Charity. The area has much to celebrate, says Jack Watkins

In the early hours of 5 October 2010, as a devastating fire broke out on Hastings Pier, anxious locals hurried down to the seafront to watch in dismay as flames engulfed the historic Grade II listed structure. Unable to address it from the derelict pier head, firemen took to the sea in boats in an attempt to extinguish the blaze, but by the morning the extent of the devastation was all too obvious.

Even before the fire, the pier had been an object of concern. The owners, the Panama-based company Ravenclaw, had neglected its maintenance for years and ignored a compulsory repairs order from the council. Closed as an unsafe structure in 2008, it appeared in the English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register, and was declared to be in “mortal danger” by the National Piers Society. Yet the fire had broken out just as things seemed to be moving forward, with the Hastings & White Rock Pier Trust about to make a bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund for funding to save the pier.

“In terms of the plan that was being evolved at that moment, people were devastated” says Simon Opie, chief executive of the Hastings Pier Charity, eventually formed to take over the restoration in 2013. Yet cruel as the timing of the fire appeared, he adds that it acted as the catalyst to “bring the project into a wider national focus. The pier had already been derelict for two years, but this really provided the momentum to do something about it. The resolve of the Hastings community was also very strong, and that was crucial in gaining Heritage Lottery Funding and, even before that, in persuading politicians to support us.”

Such was the strength of local sentiment that Hastings Council finally served a compulsory purchase order on Ravenclaw, paving the way for an award of £11.4m from the HLF, and the Hastings Pier Charity being able to begin the task of restoration in the spring of 2013.

What a difference two years makes. When I visit the pier just weeks before its official opening on 21 May, workmen are putting the final touches in place to the project which, at an overall cost of around £14m, amounts to the second most expensive restoration of a large scale pleasure pier carried out in this country. “What makes us unique is that we are a community benefit society, so that ownership is vested in the members of the charity as shareholders,” says Simon. 
“Each of those individual shareholders, of whom there are about 3,000, has a role in ensuring the pier is preserved.” Every penny earned from the pier will be reinvested in it, he explains. “This is in no sense a money-making exercise for anyone involved in it, which is another thing which is unique for a pier on this scale. We are completely focused on using all the resources the pier can generate to keep it properly maintained and stable.”

Simon joined the Trust in September 2011. After a period as a theatre production manager, working on musicals such as Les Miserables and Miss Saigon, he’d worked in the leisure industry for the Tussauds Group, and had spells at Disneyland Paris and Alton Towers. “I’d got to the stage where I wanted to make a shift away from more formal corporate life into the charitable or social enterprise sector, and the pier was one of the few jobs within it I had any qualifications for,” he smiles.

He certainly picked a plum, historically speaking, in terms of Hastings, which was in the vanguard of the great era of pier building. In fact, when it first opened on the August bank holiday of 1872, its seaward end was crowned by a splendid 2,000 seater pavilion, decorated in the oriental style favoured for seaside architecture by the Victorians. That made it the very first purpose-built pleasure pier, according to British Seaside Piers, the National Piers Society’s definitive companion to the subject.

Yet ornate as its pavilion and smaller buildings were, the true marvel of Hastings Pier is its understructure – the spidery, lattice-like network of cast iron columns, and trusses, beams and braces, which keep the whole thing standing. Hastings Pier’s creator was Eugenius Birch, long acknowledged as the master builder of Victorian piers, of which he designed 14, including the finest of all, the late lamented Brighton West Pier, as well as Eastbourne and Blackpool North.

Project manager David Spooner can’t disguise his admiration for Birch’s work on the substructure. “You really need to go underneath the pier to appreciate it, but you can see that the outer columns of the pier are tilted. They are all put in at a perfect angle and height, something that we’d struggle to do with all the technology we’ve got now. How he managed to do it with just a dozen blokes turning a screw is phenomenal.”

Birch’s screw pile technique was a major innovation in pier construction, but a hitch at Hastings enabled his pier at Eastbourne to open the year earlier, though at the time it lacked a pavilion. “It took them a year longer to finish Hastings because when they were screwing the piles into the seabed they hit a submerged prehistoric forest and couldn’t get through it. They had to stop and cut the wood out and that’s why Eastbourne got finished first,” says David.

But once in, the columns proved formidably secure. After the 2010 fire, an engineers’ survey concluded that Birch’s cast iron columns were undamaged. Of the 315 supporting the pier, they have only had to replace about ten, says David, a major factor in making restoration viable, given that “You’d be looking at £25,000 to replace a single column.” Even so, with 70 per cent of the steel work that sits on top of the columns having been replaced, the substructure has still swallowed up £9m of the overall budget, including what amounts to over 50 miles of wooden planks for new decking.

Back at building level, the oriental pavilion burned down as long ago as 1917. The bandstand shelter, built in 1920s, which survived the 2010 blaze thanks to the prevailing westerly wind, and the cast iron railings – an original feature of the pier – have been immaculately restored, but the seaward end will remain clear of structures.

Simon says the restoration project never purported to be about recreating old glories. “The history of this pier is that it has always developed and changed. The early pier didn’t realise a dividend for its owners for ten years. It was enlarged and additional features put on, so that by the 1950s it had a repertory theatre putting on a different show every week. But the world of entertainment is very different now. Year-round attractions are now much harder to maintain. Even the biggest amusement parks in Europe find it hard to operate all year.”

Instead, alongside the new multi-use building in the middle of the pier, containing an education centre and a digital archive of mementoes and stories about the pier and a bar at roof level, a changing series of short season entertainments is planned. May kicks off with Archie Lauchlan’s Re: A Pier, a feature-length documentary film about the revival of Hastings Pier. There will also be screenings of Jaws and the first open air screening of a Stars Wars film. “George Lucas has never given permission for an outdoor showing of one of his films before,” says Simon. In August the big top of Zippo’s Circus will occupy the centre of the pier.

Walking back along the promenade, you can sense how the pier really is an object of pleasure. People are delighted to see it getting prepared for action, rather than just sitting there looking sad and rusty.

Hastings Pier could so easily have been left to rot in the manner of the West Pier, but thanks to the charity and the locals, that hasn’t been allowed to happen. Now it’s back as a major attraction. In the 950th anniversary year of the Battle of Hastings, the area has something else to celebrate.

www.hpcharity.co.uk

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