Pier of the year 2017

Pier of the year

I do like a pier. Hastings pier is sort of, kind of, maybe my literal favourite place on earth. I've written about it before (back in 2006! My goodness). I was born in that town, for some unlikely reason, my folks were passing through, ostensibly visiting relatives. Locals say if you're born there you can't ever leave. Indeed, perhaps I never completely did. I have lots of childhood memories of that pier, flying visits to stay with unfamiliar relatives, whereupon a visit to the pier would inevitably be bestowed upon we whinging children. It seemed a pretty magical place for a child, in the seventies, with it's fading halls of entertainments, and tat shops, and all the usual coin-operated novelties, and lights and mirrors, and cheap confectionery, and sea-angling platforms, and peeking through the floorboards straight down to the murky brown-blue depths.

Many years later, as a confused, transplanted teenager, half-foreign, I returned there to live, adding a little more weight to the local prophesy. I have tons of memories of the place from this era. I seemingly spent the entirety of my sullen late teens sitting underneath it, reading WATCHMEN, with The Sisters of Mercy glued to my ears on my panasonic RQ-KJ1. You could freely move beneath it in those days, before health and safety became too muddled with political correctness. There were a few safety signs, but everyone ignored them.

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One summer, I worked for a season on the construction team recasting the sea defence barriers and groynes in modern reinforced concrete. Often took a builder's lunch break in the cafe at the shore end, fried food and sweet tea. I celebrated my 19th birthday in the 'Pub on the Pier' with a handful of acquaintances; I had a self-conscious affection for the notion of a (fairly dreadful) pub that you had to pay a 20p toll before you could even enter. It was in the same pub a couple of years later, on a bright Saturday afternoon, I remember a specific moment of clarity; realising I really wasn't from this town any more, and perhaps the time had come to properly leave. The locals may of course think otherwise.

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A grab bag of other memories and images. Raves on the pier during the rave years. Storm waves breaking right over it. A nonsensical shop that only sold products made from garlic attempting a world record for the longest string of garlic. Oldest functional Galaxian machine in the town for many years.

While I was gone it slipped into dereliction, after first bouncing between a couple of murky sounding new ownership schemes. There were organised efforts to reclaim it via compulsory purchase, that seemed to be getting somewhere. Then came fire, well timed, suspicious. And that seemed to be the story end. Another English seaside town with a wrecked and burned dead pier. I was too sad to visit the corpse.

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I still saw the news stories that started filtering through about fundraising campaigns, and charity organisation to rebuild it. This all seemed well-intentioned, and positive, but I thought probably doomed to failure, like so many of the town regeneration schemes and stories over the years. To my astonishment they did it. The "people's pier", of all things. Lots of people love it as much as I do, maybe more. Lottery funding was secured, and it reopened, a couple of years ago, in an entirely more modern and re-imagined form. They haven't just reached backward for the easy goal of nostalgia and austerity-years retro kitsch. A tiny visitor center clad with original reclaimed timbers, some beach hut styled pop ups, a viewing platform, and a modest restaurant. The lines from the promenade look fantastic, with the horizon line bisecting the old frames and rigging, from the new planes above. Once you're on it, it's all about the space, and those views; Hastings Old town to your right, Burton's St. Leonards sweeping back away to your left. It's a dramatic and beautiful new public space, more versatile than a traditional pier, but still aware of its past forms and history.

And now this bolder approach has been rewarded with the prestigious RIBA Stirling prize for excellence in architecture. This is pretty astonishing news for Hastings. I feel weirdly proud. It's well worth a visit. The entire town has clearly had a bit of a lift. I've been enjoying the recent moves toward revitalisation of the English seaside town, and we've recently been quite seriously pricing up a move to the coast. I wonder how the Hastings house prices are doing. The locals know what's happening here.

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