Hastings pier fire: devastating blaze may not mean the end

Buildings destroyed but campaigners hope iron structure remains sound enough to allow new pier to rise from ashes

Campaigners have vowed to continue their fight to restore the Victorian pier in Hastings after a suspected arson attack yesterday left its buildings almost totally destroyed.

East Sussex police arrested two men aged 18 and 19 on suspicion of causing the blaze, which started at around 1am. At the height of the fire 50 firefighters and two RNLI lifeboat crews battled to save the Grade II-listed pier, which has been closed since 2006. Dozens of amateur videos showed the pier engulfed in flames several metres high.

Footage from one of the firefighters' ladders, which was filmed from 2.20am, showed the blaze spreading from the back of the pier. The fire was eventually brought under control at around 8am, by which time 95% of the pier's buildings were reduced to smouldering ruins. No one was injured. East Sussex fire and rescue service warned residents to keep doors and windows closed as thick plumes of smoke hovered over the town.

Conservationists hope that much of the building's ironwork has survived. Just hours before the fire, the Hastings Pier and White Rock Trust had invited architects to submit designs to redevelop the attraction. It was hoping to secure community ownership of the pier, after persuading Hastings council to use compulsory purchase powers to buy the attraction from its offshore owners.

Anthony Wills, from the National Piers Society, said: "All is not lost for Hastings. It will take more than two kids with a box of matches to destroy Hastings pier. It has lasted since 1872 and it has been through plenty of crises before."

Wills said the £50m rebuilding of the Grand pier at Weston-super-Mare, following a similar fire in 2008, provided hope to campaigners in Hastings.

Andy Brown, south-east regional director of English Heritage, agreed that a new pier could rise from the ashes: "There's a long history of piers catching fire and buildings being replaced. Sadly this is normal.

"The engineering importance of piers survives these fires. The saga of the West pier at Brighton was on the same lines. Despite all the damage it was only when a big storm knocked down the bulk of original structure that we finally threw in the towel."

Hastings pier was designed by Eugenius Birch, master builder of many Victorian piers. It has survived previous fires, partial demolition during the second world war, fighting between mods and rockers, and concerts by the Rolling Stones, Who, and Jimi Hendrix.

Even before the fire, the National Piers Society, which was founded by poet Sir John Betjeman, placed Hastings at the top of its list of endangered piers.

Wills said: "It's a very distinguished pier. It was the first seaside pleasure pier with a pavilion built on it. It's one of the finest because it's so wide. It will need a lot of money to put it right, but it's still there. I'm pretty sure that the ironwork and the piles and a lot of the bracing is still very sound. Sometimes putting fresh buildings on is actually cheaper than restoring old buildings."

Brown added: "The seaside is being reinvented and piers are being reinvented with it. The way these piers are being reborn to make them fit for modern use, is very much part of what's happening on the seaside."

He said English Heritage would do what it could to help rebuild Hastings pier, but it was for the council to decide on the future of the attraction. Jeremy Birch, leader of Hastings council said: "The council will now be looking at a new structural survey so that we can be absolutely clear on the degree of damage to the substructure. Then we can see what the future holds for this iconic building on our seafront."


Matthew Weaver

The GuardianTramp

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