'Sad morning' for Hastings Pier

Photo of Hastings Pier taken in 2006 - sent in by Jack Ambridge
Image caption This photograph by Jack Ambridge shows the pier in 2006

For those of us who have lived in Hastings, waking up to hear the pier has burnt down made this a sad morning.

I spent my teenage years living five miles along the coast in neighbouring Bexhill.

By then - the late 80s and early 90s - the pier was already past its best, beyond a heyday which had seen it as a central part of a vibrant seaside resort in the early decades of the 20th Century and the venue for gigs by the likes of the Rolling Stones, The Who and Jimi Hendrix in the 1960s.

But it was still a place to go for seaside staples such as amusements and ice creams and when I was doing my A levels the pier was the regular choice for the once-a-term college parties which would see hundreds of us crowd into the ballroom at the end of the pier for a good night out.

When I left university in 1998 my first job in journalism was at the Hastings Observer. I moved to the town and the following year the pier became the subject of one of our biggest stories. Within the space of a few weeks in October 1999, the owners went into liquidation, leading to the pier closing, and then the structure suffered serious storm damage.

For months the future of the pier looked bleak. The locked gates and the PIER CLOSED signs were in marked contrast to the relative splendour of the pier at more-affluent Eastbourne, a few miles along the coast.

Belying the myth that the streets of the entire South East are paved with gold, Hastings was one of the most deprived towns in England and there seemed to be no hope of anyone local coming forward with the money to restore the pier to anything approaching its former glory.

At the Hastings Observer we launched a "Save The Pier" campaign. Many people wrote in to express their support and the blue-and-white car stickers the paper produced became familiar sights on vehicles around the town.

Every time a celebrity came to town, we reporters were tasked with getting a few words from them in support of the campaign - I photographed comedian Mark Lamarr holding a copy of the paper with a pier story on the front page and managed to persuade a confused Margaret Beckett, who was then leader of the House of Commons, to speak of how important piers were to seaside resorts while on a completely unrelated visit.

Image caption The fire started in the early hours of Tuesday

But nothing the Observer could do would restore the pier and little changed until months later when, unexpectedly, an unheard-of Panama-based company called Ravenclaw appeared on the scene.

The firm bought the pier in August 2000 and quickly set about repairing the damaged steel structure. Over the coming months not a week went by without a story in the paper about the restoration work. I made regular trips to the locked-up pier with Ravenclaw owner Ian Stuart to check on the progress and was delighted to see it taking shape again.

Once the skeleton of the pier was fixed, the workmen set about the buildings on the top of the pier. Mr Stuart had announced it would be like "Covent Garden by the sea"- there would be no "tacky" amusements and he leased sites to be used as boutiques and upmarket cafes.

The pier reopened on a sunny day in May 2001 with huge crowds of people waiting outside the gates to swarm onto it for the first time in 19 months. I was among the first through when the gates opened and made sure I was the first person to sit on one of the deck chairs, for my own insignificant piece of Hastings Pier history.

But while it was busy on opening day, overall the people did not come. The pier was rarely crowded - it seemed people did not want "Covent Garden by the sea". Within months amusements were reintroduced - Mr Stuart told me he was just reacting to what people wanted.

Over the next five years the pier carried on like this, often pretty empty and nothing like it was in its halcyon days, but much better than when it was closed. But by 2006 - by which time I had changed jobs and moved away from the town - it closed again, with Ravenclaw no longer on the scene and fresh doubts about the safety of the structure.

Image caption Several years after moving away from Hastings I still revisit the town

But many locals were still disappointed and the Hastings Pier and White Rock Trust did a good job of keeping the pier's plight in the public eye.

But there was less clamour to get it reopened this time and no knight in shining armour with the millions needed for restoration work. Mr Stuart said he would not get involved without council support and predicted the saga would end with the pier falling into the sea.

For four years the pier remained closed, a disappointment for long-term fans and a mystery to visiting tourists to whom it looked - from the land - in decent nick.

Sitting chained closed on the busy A259 coast road, opposite its fellow landmark the White Rock Theatre, the pier looked a sorry sight. But during a recession, many people in the town thought there were more important things to spend money on.

Earlier this year the council made a compulsory purchase of the pier and handed it to the trust.

Plans were being put together to bring the pier back to life but after the fire which tore through it, it is hard to see what can be done.

The West Pier in Brighton, 30 miles along the coast, was closed for three decades in a state of disrepair before two fires left it as just a burnt-out shell. A similar fate looks likely now for Hastings Pier. But I very much hope I'm wrong.

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