diamond geezer

 Thursday, July 05, 2018

Hastings has no ordinary pier.

1872: Pier opens
1999: Pier goes into administration
2001: Pier reopens under new management
2006: Pier found to be unsafe, and closes
2007: Pier partly reopens
2008: Pier found to be unsafe, and closes
2009: Pier "one storm away from collapse"
2010: Pier mostly destroyed by arson
2011: Pier wins Lottery grant
2016: Pier reopens under community ownership
2017: Pier wins Stirling Prize
2017: Pier wins "Pier of the year 2017"
2017: Pier goes into administration
2018: Pier bought by private businessman
25 June 2018: Pier reopens

Hastings Pier once looked quite ordinary, as piers go. A pavilion down the end, with refreshment, amusements and entertainment on the way. But for the 21st century it's been reimagined as a free space, rather than a collection of buildings, and resembles a long wooden tongue stretching out into the English Channel. [website] [webcam] [history]

What immediately strikes you is how empty it is. This is deliberate. An enormous public platform over the sea has huge potential, "inspiring temporary installations and events across a variety of scales". The freedom to roam above the waves and gaze back towards the resort is exhilarating. But generating sufficient reason to visit has proved problematic, and the absence of income proved the downfall of the previous community-led administration.

Only one building has survived arson, storm damage, and reconstruction, and that's the restaurant. A gently-curving glass-fronted building, it's long and thin with a rack of seating outside for nice weather. It was well-frequented in the blaze of yesterday afternoon. But its signage is underwhelming, its closed doors aren't quite welcoming, and its menu is poised one rung above the chippie takeaways in the heart of the town.

The one new permanent structure is a wooden pavilion in the centre of the pier, made from timber rescued after the 2010 blaze. It's a highly attractive multi-purpose space, with steps on one flank where a entire group of French schoolkids might sit, leading to a cafe on the upper deck. This sells beer and snacks, which can be enjoyed sitting atop the pier and gawping seaward, which I can certainly recommend. But the draught beer was off, the serving girl didn't know where the bottle opener was or how to make a coffee, and the function room on the ground floor was wasted dead space because there wasn't an event on.

To either side of the pier are some large beach huts, painted in an optimal spectrum of seaside colours. There are five huts on one side and seven on the other. A couple sell drinks and ice cream, one sells tasteful crafty goods, one is a photo booth and one contains gender neutral toilets. The best hut contains the 21 saucy McGill seaside postcards which were deemed too obscene to sell, including one about a pickled gherkin, one about a bathtime whistle and a frankly astonishing design in which a giant stick of rock emerges from a man's groin. But the other huts were closed, nobody was around to whip up interest, and a commercial buzz was missing.

Walk all the way down to the end of the pier, across empty timbers, to find a few benches and a telescope. Display boards tell you what to look out for (mostly boats and birds), how long the pier is (277m) and what percentage of trusses had to be repaired as part of the restoration (70%). But there isn't much to see other than sea, and there are very few benches, indeed there aren't many benches across the entire pier, either to maximise the space available for temporary events or to funnel those who want to sit down into a refreshment setting. I would have liked a better reason to linger at the end of the pier, or indeed to linger anywhere.

It'd be dangerous to jump to conclusions about the state of a pier less than a week after it's reopened under new management. Most of what's present will have been there before he bought it, and some may not have survived the transition. But the local community are certainly angry about the buyout, given that they'd raised almost half a million pounds to keep the pier as a public asset, only for the administrators to sell it to a businessman for fifty thousand instead. He sounds a bit of a 'character' too, having recently painted his other pier in Eastbourne gold (without planning permission) and ever ready with an excitable quote (telling the community to thank him and stop moaning). This could all end very badly, or he might be the commercial shot in the arm the pier's long-term finances desperately need.

A big retro drum and bass festival is taking place on the pier this Saturday, if you fancy bouncing around to Evil B and Skepsis, plus DJ Hazard on the decks. Next month's long-planned Gilbert and Sullivan double bill has however been unceremoniously kicked out somewhere else, as a result of the administrative changeover, so all is not well on the events front.

Hastings Pier is a glorious space to perambulate, an open canvas for opportunity, and a refreshingly different take on seaside recreation. But the absence of physical stuff could easily result in an absence of purpose, and there is a risk its turbulent history might succumb to yet another magnificent failure.

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