The flamboyant new owner of Eastbourne Pier has hung a banner over the arches of the beautiful Victorian structure that was so nearly destroyed by fire just over a year ago. “Thank you for visiting Sheikh’s Pier.”
This is a terrible pun, especially so far from Stratford-upon-Avon, it’s but also a personal message from the man who has just taken sole responsibility for one of the nation’s favourite piers, a 70-year-old hotelier called Sheikh Abid Gulzar.
He wears diamond-encrusted gold rings the size of knuckle-dusters and drives a spectacularly shiny, custom-painted gold Mercedes. The man they call the Sheikh loves to put lions with gold manes outside the hotels he owns and has got into trouble with planning officers in the past.
So he is an unlikely new owner for a Grade II*-listed building whose beauty is protected by law. English Heritage has just declared it to be “at risk” for the second year running.
When the sale was made public at the end of last month, the Sheikh immediately wound people up by saying: “We might paint it gold. Who knows?” But that was before his open consultation with more than 100 local people. Now he reveals that he is sticking with blue and white – although the faces of 40 lions that he is delighted to have found in the original ironwork will be picked out in gold. “I am here. I am local. I will put the money where the mouth is.”
He will need to. There are parts of the pier that look as if they need serious work. “This was a baby without parents,” he says, as we look at the flaky paint, rusted metal and rotting wood he inherited. “Now I am the father, the mother, and I am going to look after it.”
But it will cost a fortune to get this grand old structure looking as good as he wants. And his way of paying for it is going to horrify those who love to walk on the pier for free.
“We think we must charge something, a pound or two.”
Won’t people be outraged by that? “Why should they be outraged?” He says he will tell them that he has to pay the rates for the land and the bill for the electricity. “So shut your mouth and use some brains.”
That’s a rare flash of temper from a man who likes to joke about his own charm and good looks. He wears a dark blazer with a fiercely red tie and pocket silk. His bushy black eyebrows contrast with a silver quiff.
“I’m thinking aloud. If we ask them for two pounds to enter I may give them free tea or coffee. I want them to feel welcome.”
There is no doubt he is sincere, but who is the Sheikh and does he have the money to do this?
Meanwhile, there is the question of why the previous owners sold up so suddenly. They took the insurance money but left without finishing the restoration work as expected.
The blaze on this quintessentially English pier caused headlines around the world in August 2014, with dramatic pictures of thick black smoke rising in a vast spiral. Firefighters battled for days to keep the flames from engulfing the whole pier.
The cause of the fire has never been proven, although it is known to have started in the amusement arcade. This was in a domed pavilion called the Blue Room, which had once been lovely.
There was sorrow when one of the reconstruction workers, a 44-year-old man from Cumbria called Stephen Penrice, fell from the pier and died. A petition was raised to have the rebuilt Blue Room named Penny’s Arcade in his honour. But, as it turned out, there was no legal obligation to rebuild the Blue Room at all.
Cuerden Leisure wanted to put waltzers, dodgems and other temporary fairground rides on the place where it had once stood, but the local council said no. The company was shocked by that decision, said the pier manager in July, as it had already spent £4m on a “high-quality rebuild”. Then Cuerden Leisure sold up, having reopened the pier to the public but leaving a great expanse of open decking where the Blue Room used to be. Will Mr Gulzar rebuild it?
“It will cost £5m. If you like, you take some money out and we will build it together. We could pave all the British roads with solid gold but have we got enough gold? The answer is no. I will do anything and everything which is intelligent, practical, sensible and better for tomorrow.”
He was never a fan of the arcade. “I saw young boys, girls, screaming, shouting, kicking the machines, using four-letter words. Slowly, I realised this is not the place it should be. They were making money but I want to say, money is not everything.”
This is from a man who owns three hotels and a farm, plus investment property in London, although he is perhaps not as rich as you might expect a sheikh to be.
Mr Gulzar says he was offered the pier two years ago but turned it down because the price of £5.5m was too high. He will not say how much he paid last month, but a source suggests a knock-down price, perhaps even less than a million.
And Mr Gulzar himself says of Cuerden: “When they got this huge settlement, I think that was like a lottery come true for them. So they just ran with the £9.5m and said, ‘Fine, whatever.’ I took over from there and I feel I can work and now I can do something.”
A spokesman for Cuerden said the company had received only “a fraction” of the reported figure from the insurance company, but would not say what the true sum was.
He also said the figure of £4m on restoration work since the fire was wrong, even though it came from the company’s own pier manager. The spokesman said Cuerden had “receipts for several million pounds” spent on the pier, going back to 2012. Couldn’t “several million” mean less than £4m? “Of course not! It could be seven, eight, nine, 10!”
The council could have used statutory powers to act against Cuerden if it had considered the pier to be unsafe in the past, he said, but it had never done so.
The National Piers Society has just declared it the third best in the country even in its post-fire state, he said. And as for leaving the town with an empty space? “It is our prerogative if we want to sell the asset in the market as we have done.”
Mr Gulzar is already spending tens of thousands of pounds on repairs and painting and has arranged for half a dozen new Union flags to fly from the towers.
He is fiercely proud of his adopted country, despite the inevitable opposition that a successful Asian man sometimes gets. “It’s a sleepy town and I want to wake it up!”
When he appeared on a television show about planning disputes, one local resident told him: “We fought the Romans, the Normans and the Saxons here, and we’ll fight you for ruining our country!”
Mr Gulzar’s charm didn’t work with Alex Polizzi either, when she came to the Mansion (Lions) Hotel and gave him a hard time in her Channel 5 show The Hotel Inspector.
But he does have his fans in the town. People like a character, and he regularly hosts events that raise a lot of money for charity. They used to be held at his 80-acre ranch on Pevensey Marshes, where there was a lake with boats and a selection of exotic animals including emus and llamas. Some even compared it with Michael Jackson’s Neverland.
But Natural England objected to what he had done with this Site of Special Scientific Interest and took him to court. He has had to return the land to the wild. He never tried to build a house there, preferring the bridal suite – “without a bride” – at the Albany (Lions) Hotel on the seafront, the first place he bought in Eastbourne 15 years ago. There have been disputes over PVC windows and painted lions, although he claims to have a much better relationship with the council now. It says it will work closely with the new pier owner.
There’s just one thing that’s bothering me as we walk towards the banner for the Sheikh’s Pier: is he what he claims to be? He replies: “They ask me, ‘Are you a sheikh?’ I say, ‘I do shake!’” And he makes his hands tremble, which he finds funny. But what is the real answer?
“It is a family name,” he says. “It is in my passport.”
So he’s not really a sheikh? “Well, not ‘sheikh’ as you think, as in a man with money from Saudi Arabia. It’s a family name, not a title in the way the West understands it.”
Mr Gulzar actually comes from a family of tanners in northern India and arrived in this country in 1965 at the age of 19 to study leather technology. He made money importing and exporting leather and cotton, before leaving the capital when his marriage broke down after 30 years.
“When she left I was very much heartbroken. I worked hard and decided I would come somewhere nice and peaceful where I could spend more time with my son.”
Sasha is now 30 and trades in stocks and shares and has a stake in his father’s hotels. Mr Gulzar claims to work seven days a week already, so why buy the pier? “My heart and mind is here. I feel a pier is like a nose on a face. That nose has to be polished and cleaned and maintained to match the rest of the face.”
This is either a labour of love or an act of great folly, but can he afford it? “I am going to ask my bank for some contribution. I will make sure there is a good turnover of business there.” The glass-blowing studio and the Atlantis nightclub can stay. The fishing club may have to go, as he wants to rebuild the jetty and run pleasure boats to Brighton.
“My aim is not to generate money from the pier. That will come from my farming, my hotels and my investments. That is more than enough,” he says. “I am owning the pier for personal pride, as something to be proud of. And when I die and go to the Land of No Return, people can say, ‘What a lovely man he was.’”
Perhaps they will. But that all depends on what he does to their lovely pier.
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