February is not the usual time to schedule a trip to the English seaside. There was a biting wind when my husband and I set off for Hastings, but the sun was shining and we were giddy to get out of the flat after days of rain.
Hastings is an old city that is folded into the hills along the coast of East Sussex. It’s historically known for the Battle of Hastings in 1066, (although the actual battle took place 8 miles north) and the launching point of the Norman conquest.
The ruins of William the Conqueror’s castle, the Shipwreck Museum and a labyrinth of narrow lanes and streets all make the city a tourist destination, but we didn’t make it to any of those sites. Our main focus was to explore a stretch of architecture that earned itself the 2017 Pier of the Year Award.
The entrance of Hastings Pier is a beautiful expanse of smooth and silvered wood, and is consciously void of flashing lights and carnival decor. It’s calm and feels…classy. Renewably-sourced West African ekki forms the sturdy, wooden planking of the pier, muffling the sound of the waves surging and retreating along the pebbles below.
The only plan for the day was to wander about and take in the uninterrupted horizon over a cup of coffee. This was made even easier with a cafe conveniently located on site, and an empty table with a view. Another perk of a mid-winter visit; quiet cafes with available seating.
Warmed by the sun, my hair staticky from my stocking hat, I meditated on the layers of turquoise and aquamarine smudged across the horizon. Families, dog-owners, solo travelers and excited photographers criss-crossed the decking. Their shadows stretched across the clean lines of the pier.
It felt like I’d stumbled upon a secret coffee shop. For someone who could spend hours staring out windows, this was my happy place.
This incarnation of Hastings Pier was seven years in the making, and I was moved by the community involvement and ownership required to create such a unique architectural experience. The original pleasure pier was opened in 1872, and was not the minimalist zen space it is today.
At one time there was an American-style bowling alley, a shooting gallery, tea rooms, bar, a zoo(!?), a bandstand and an arcade all vying for holiday-goers’ attention. The pier survived storms, WWII, a couple fires and many construction projects, but in the end it was finances that almost caused its permanent closure in 2008.
Refusing to lose such an important landmark, the Hastings community rallied together. With the help of the Hastings Pier Charity, a project grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the passion of 3,000 shareholders through the Community Share Scheme, the pier was reimagined by dRMM Architects and celebrated its reopening in April 2016.
There is a sense of pride and community ownership here. When I was drying my hands in the visitor center’s bathroom, a small sign requested a donation to help maintain this special piece of architecture.
Every time a toilet is flushed it costs an estimated 40p. It was a humbling reminder of what it takes to maintain a public space that is free for visitors to enjoy.
Warmed by my cup of coffee, and all fingers sufficiently thawed, we wrapped back up in our winter gear and took one last loop around the pier. Drawn to the metallic footprints halfway across the planks, I matched my cold feet inline with the artistic marker. Was this where the old ballroom used to stand in the pier’s previous life? Or maybe it was a way to highlight the potential use of this blank space at the edge of the pier.
It was an intentional choice to not include a bandstand or ballroom where one would usually stand. By allowing for an open area, the community can shape the space as its needed for a wide-range of uses. This thoughtful design is what creates such a relaxed feel. Without the visual distractions of arcades or even clocktowers, the eye is naturally drawn to the ever-changing clouds, the moody waters of the English Channel, the acrobatics of birds. I watched children sprinting from one end to the other just for the pure joy of this rare opportunity of spaciousness.
Spurred by hunger, we ventured off site and walked along the pebbled beach. Cyclists, couples on Sunday strolls and flocks of seagulls enjoyed the sunshine. You could imagine the bustle and energy of a summer evening here, but on this wintery day, we were able to comfortably stare off into the distance in silence. For slow travelers like myself, this truly was the pleasure pier experience.
Have you visited a place that inspired a sense of calm and quiet zen? Share your experience below.