Residents set for new battle of Hastings: Caroline McGhie looks at a Regency church caught in a fight between tradition and tourism

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE residents of Hastings are preparing for a new battle - over the future image of the East Sussex seaside town.

As with many other ancient English towns, the conflict that is exercising the passion of many of the people who walk the historic seafront is between culture and tourism, tradition and 'progress', conservationists and the local council.

Pivotal to the issue is the future of St Mary-in-the-Castle, an extraordinary church designed by Joseph Kay between 1824-1828 as part of a showcase Regency development, set into the cliffs. In those days Hastings was a fashionable watering-hole. Visitors were encouraged to stay in the crescent that flanked St Mary's, to worship within it, and to shop next door. Now it lies derelict, though Hastings Borough Council and English Heritage recently spent pounds 1.4m on ensuring that it was wind, weather and rot-free. Due to its extraordinary presence on the seafront, and the horse-shoe auditorium within, it has become the focus of local image-makers.

On one side are the Friends of St Mary's, a volunteer force which was given six months and a pounds 10,000 grant by the former Liberal leader of the council to test the feasibility of turning it into an arts centre. On the other side is a council now Tory-controlled, which wants St Mary's to become a 1066 Heritage Centre, similar to the Jorvik Viking Centre in York.

Tonight the council's policy committee meeting will decide St Mary's fate. In support of the Friends, Sir Hugh Casson, the architect, visited the town last week to dash off a watercolour of the church, described as one of the 'finest buildings of the 1820s'. The Friends have feared the worst since they were undermined by a council report, leaked in August, which considered the consequences of their possible failure. One campaigner, Dora Dobson, said: 'It is an outrage that councillors are even thinking of using this building for private enterprise. It should stay with the people of Hastings. How tawdry do they want the town to become?'

The Friends estimate they would need to raise pounds 1.7m and have asked to be allowed to spend the next three years on the project. They have support from music and theatre groups in the area, including Gavin Henderson, director of the Brighton Festival. John Evans, the council leader, said: 'This is a group of well-meaning people who have now apparently decided to see me as the enemy. I don't believe they can get pounds 1.7m together. It is an impossible task . . . Hastings has slipped down the slope, and it has become a day-tripper town. It used to be enjoyed by artists and royals . . . It has artists and musicians and people of that nature. But this scheme would end up requiring a lot of money from the council in maintenance and other costs. The other would bring money into the town.'

He favours a proposal to convert the building into a tourist attraction by inserting an inner shell into the old outer skin.

Tony Fry, the borough planning officer, said: 'Our finances are in a parlous state and we would like to delay a decision until we have sorted out our capital programme, which depends on the success of several land sales.'

(Photograph omitted)