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Aerial view of St Mary in the Castle, courtesy SMIC-F

Renaissance Woman

History graduate, Zoe Ashdown, is poised to write a new chapter in the history of St Mary in the Castle as its new manager. As she turns a new leaf, Zoe is aware of the fits and starts of the last 20 years, but in progressing the latest chapter,  we can expect that Zoe will guide it with sense and sensibility, writes HOT’s Chris Cormack.

It would be easy to imagine Zoe as one of her favourite Jane Austen heroines, promenading in the newly refurbished Pelham Arcade.  Or as a 40s Foyle’s War moll, lindyhopping the jitterbug. The truth is, she is a thoroughly modern twenty-first century thirty-something woman with a mission…  To throw open the doors of St Mary in the Castle to as many of the good Hastings townspeople as she can coax or cajole through – morning, noon and night – for a new experience and admiration of the finer points of her beloved neo-classical architecture (I mean the church silly!). Zoe’s love of history will fuel her zeal to protect St Mary’s future.

Zoe is not above wandering the park and approaching strangers to ask them whether they have visited the Hastings architectural jewel and if not (as is too often the case!), whether they would like to hold a “sling meet” there. The point would be to get them through the door for whatever reason, so they can be aware of all the other events that St Mary’s will have to offer. With the diary filling up for 2013, Zoe already has a range of cultural occasions in prospect at the venue. However, to take over the lease, it will be necessary to complete the formalities to set up a charitable trust. Some people have told me that this can take a whole year,  but Zoe’s drive could see this through in a matter of months, before the main season starts. This would also fit in nicely with the refurbishing work needed for the front entrance and cafe.

St Mary’s is not just about the wonderfully acoustic, large, circular auditorium – there are many other interesting nooks and crannies, which can be open for more intimate occasions, not forgetting the front cafe with a new history-acknowledging lantern ceiling refurbished with the help of Buckswood architect, Laurence Walker.  This should be a sight to see in itself when it is finished, before the main season of events commence, we hope. These are all assets yet to be fully exploited – and during the daytime when the daytripper is around to appreciate it.  A sensible attention to involving more young people in events at St Mary’s could help to see more taking place there during daylight hours too.  To this end, there are several eminent people on the board of trustees of St Mary in the Castle Charitable Trust with special remits for youth, including Lucy Monk, headteacher of Helenswood (with a long tradition in performing arts), Jilly Johnson, a Buckswood French teacher with a music and arts background, and Jeremy Lucas, who has organised music festivals at Buckswood.

Baptistry Bar, courtesy SMIC-F

The trustees will bring a range of expertise and connections to the table. Apart from the aforementioned architect, Laurence Walker, there will be Richard Beale, who is a health and safety advisor for some of London’s top West End theatres, who’s also played for the Hastleons and SETS in his youth. Marcus Weekes and Ron Sollars of the SMIC Friends will help to provide continuity and a wealth of knowledge on St Mary’s past 20 years to preserve the best of what has already been achieved. Keith Leech, famous locally for the Jack in the Green and the Bonfire Festivals, will help keep the place rocking!  And Ian Noble and Cllr Judy Rogers will keep St Mary’s connected with the business community and Hastings Council.

Especially welcome as trustee is Sarah Kowitz.   Sarah, through the family Foundation, is a great benefactor of Hastings town, and clearly has ideas to contribute, since she was also involved in the bidding process for a lease. The Kowitzes have organised several sparkling music events at their pile, Fairlight Hall.  It is wonderful that Hastings can have the best of both worlds by melding the ambitions of both the Kowitz family and Buckswood School, as prospective bidders for St Mary’s. Chris Cormack ventures to suggest that at some point St Mary’s could play a part in the prestigious Hastings Music Festival, so generously supported by the Kowitzes.

Zoe has an almost ten year background in theatre and especially costumes (Les Mis, the National Theatre and Chichester Festival etc).   She was also born in Hastings and spent her early years with views over the sea from the Ridge.  So costumes and partying must be in the blood like all the good Hastings youth! History and costumes?  Zoe has a lot to share with the retro and vintage shops of the Old Town.  I wonder how long it will take to get St Mary’s involved in Fat Tuesday, Pirate’s Day, Zombie Walks and all the other excuses to dress up we have here in our wonderful town?

Afterword: Cynics will ask what’s in it for Buckswood School?  (As they always do!).  Zoe has assured me (and I believe this) that Buckswood will have an armslength relationship with the Trust and has prepared a statement on their involvement as follows:

“Buckswood School has stepped in to facilitate a secure future for St Mary in the Castle. 20 years ago, Hastings nearly lost this beautiful building and through hard work and dedication, the Friends of St Mary in the Castle worked tirelessly to save the building from demolition and restore her to her former glory. Since then, the venue has been used for classical music, opera and jazz and we can’t go without thanking Barbara Rogers who previously managed St Mary in the Castle for her dedication to the venue.

Hastings Borough Council invited bids to run St Mary in the Castle and Buckswood School has been successful in winning the bid with the unanimous support of the Cabinet. So how will it work? Buckswood School will pay the Manager’s salary, who will work for the soon to be established St Mary in the Castle Charitable Trust. The Trust is made up of 12 well-respected and experienced members of the community and is autonomous and independent of Buckswood School. The Trust has it’s own aims and principles, safe-guarding the building and inspiring all through music and culture. Will Buckswood use the venue? Yes, it’s a beautiful space and competitively priced, but  Buckswood will pay the same rate as anyone else who would like to hire the incredible space.”

The best deal “by far” for St Mary in the Castle

Posted 10:41 Wednesday, Jan 30, 2013 In: Arts News

5 Comments

Please read our comment guidelines before posting on HOT

  1. Jess

    I have recently been to look round St MAry in the Castle with a view to using its facilities.

    It is a splendid building and its history is fascinating. I was extremely impressed by Zoe Ashdown’s knowledge of and passion for the place, and feel Hastings has pulled off a remarkable coup in appointing someone who combines metropolitan expertise and experience with local born-and-bred knowledge to this essential role.

    However I first tried to approach St Mary in the Castle last year and had no reply. The same happened this year, and I mentioned the matter to an officer at the local authority.

    It seems I had been fruitlessly and repeatedly emailing the wrong St Mary in the Castle email address, at St Mary.com rather than to the correct website.

    It is time for the website owner to take down the obsolete website as it is causing serious confusion and delays to people who would like to make use of this wonderful facility and incidentally bring projects to Hastings. It would also help if the owner of the .com website could appoint someone to manage the site’s inbox.

    I am sure whoever it is has St Mary’s best interests at heart and will take this information and advice in the spirit in which it is given.

    Many thanks.

    Comment by Jess — Sunday, Nov 3, 2013 @ 15:29

  2. Howard Martin

    I am proud to say that through my work with the cult film archive and Brighton University at Hastings I have been given the opportunity to work with Zoe on developing some exciting and innovative events for St Mary. St Mary is one of the finest sea front buildings on the south coast and Hastings should be proud that St Mary will now be given the security to grow into not only a focal point for all aspects of the local community but also into a centre for events of global reach. Thank you Buckswood School, Thank you HBC and thank you Zoe for taking on such a mammoth task

    Comment by Howard Martin — Monday, Feb 25, 2013 @ 20:41

  3. Barbara Rogers

    I don’t think it’s about being for or against Zoe, this is really a challenge for the proposed trustees. The Charity Commission was supposed to report on their application for registration this week but we haven’t heard anything.
    Incidentally the details are on Buckswood’s website and the hire rates have now appeared.
    As far as I know the Council has not assigned a lease yet, so remains responsible for the building. If I’m wrong someone will let me know!

    Comment by Barbara Rogers — Friday, Feb 1, 2013 @ 12:06

  4. Jane Freund

    Zoe is like a breath of fresh air for this venue. Her enthusiasm is contagious and she has the community and SMIC’s best interests at heart. She acknowledges the building is problematic and she alongside Buckswood and the trustees are taking this very seriously. I remember the De La Warr trust growing from infancy to being fully fledged operation. All venues take time to build. I am sure her hire rates will be well thought out and consideration given to use by local groups. The community and HBC (and Barbara) should get behind her and support her in her endeavours.

    Comment by Jane Freund — Thursday, Jan 31, 2013 @ 15:36

  5. Barbara Rogers

    What’s really crucial is what happens now. The venue has held its last public event on Sunday (Friends’ Jazz Breakfast). Work on the lantern roof etc is supposed to start in February (the Council’s architect, not Buckswood’s) but this remains to be seen, and it may not solve all the problems of rainwater leakage. The proposed charitable trust is only just starting and has a long way to go for registration. Only the trust (not Buckswood) can take on a lease from the Council as the Cabinet decision now stands. Many practicalities remain to be resolved before events can be scheduled, and of course we all need to know what hire rates are being specified.

    Comment by Barbara Rogers — Wednesday, Jan 30, 2013 @ 12:27

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