Hastings & St. Leonards on-line community newspaper

Bottle Alley view © Ben Fenton

Message in a Bottle Alley…

Landscape artist Ben Fenton shares his love for Bottle Alley and Sidney Little.

As a lad, I came to Hastings often. My friends and I would get the bus most weekends to go to the cinema and mooch around the shops. For a boy from Romney Marsh, this was my Metropolis.

But because I grew up in Dungeness, Greatstone and Winchelsea Beach, Hastings’ seaside was never a draw. As far as I was concerned, a shingle beach was a shingle beach, and I’d seen my fill. I certainly wasn’t going to catch a bus to go and see another one. Because of that, when I moved to the town six years ago, the coastline of Hastings and St Leonards, and all of the architectural heritage it owns, was still to be revealed to me. I knew Marine Court. I had been out in the bay aboard my dad’s trawler and seen her lit up enough times to be familiar with the landlocked liner. But the rest of the concrete flourishes, the work of one Concrete King, were a wonderful surprise.

© Ben Fenton

Sidney Little himself moved to Hastings in 1926 and became Borough and Water Engineer. Over the following twenty four years he more than left his mark on the town. A proponent of, and expert in the use of, reinforced concrete, he saw fit to use the material to utterly transform the town’s seafront from faded Victoria grandeur to post World War One futurism.

Understanding the inherent strength of reinforced concrete, he was able to build adequate sea defences without the need for backfilling. This left space, which he filled with the first underground car park in the country, beneath Carlisle Parade.

Something so seemingly mundane today was a true revolution in the 1930s. And the seemingly mundane crept above ground too, with the three art deco shelters, that now stand atrociously uncared for, doubling up as ventilation shafts for the car park below. Further shelters, with no ulterior function but no less beautiful for it, are scattered along the seafront toward St Leonards where at the west end of the town his Lido once stood.

This behemoth of an aquatic amphitheatre, with its million gallon pool and gorgeously geometric column of diving boards was, all too briefly, the place to be. It was, however, too ambitious and lost both money and kudos, leading to its closure and demolition in the 1980s.

© Ben Fenton

Over-ambition was a trait that Sidney Little was not unfamiliar with. His plans for a ‘double decker’ town centre and new marina at Rock-a-Nore were a little too ‘new’ and therefore never realised. But it’s his pièce de résistance that really caught this adopted Hastinger’s eye. His 1500ft long masterpiece linking the ancient town of Hastings to its nouveau neighbour of St Leonards, bejewelled in broken glass and a wavelength of coloured pillars. His Bottle Alley.

I remember laying eyes on it for the first time and being dumbfounded that something so wonderful had passed me by for forty years. As an artist with a penchant for painting concrete architecture and the coastline of Kent and Sussex, I was in my element. It was more than a marriage made in heaven – it was a rip-roaring, bodice-ripping, no-holds-barred affair of everything I could ask for in a subject matter. And on a much deeper level, as a lifelong sufferer of manic depression, it represented everything I attempt to embody. A weathered solidity butted up against the unpredictability of shifting shingle and cold, murky, endless depths. With the odd splash of colour and sparkle.

Evening in Bottle Alley © Ben Fenton

In the intervening years, from that first stroll along its hallowed pathway to now, I have painted it over sixty times. Every time I think, perhaps, I’ve finally captured its essence, but know in fact I’ve failed joyfully. And every time I think, perhaps, I’ve exhausted its life as a muse, I know that in no time at all I will be scratching and spraying and brushing its likeness back onto canvas to the best of my abilities.

This year marks ninety years since Bottle Alley’s completion. A true milestone for a piece of architecture that has had just as many detractors as celebrants in that time, and very nearly fell foul of the same wrecking ball that curtailed the life of the Lido. And what of Sidney Little, a man who was as divisive as his concrete creations? He is a man that undoubtedly left his idiosyncratic mark on such an idiosyncratic town. It may not have quite become as futuristic as he’d envisioned, but nearly a century after his future was conceived, Hastings still hails its Concrete King.

Ben Fenton is a locally based artist whose deceptively simple paintings portray the architecture and landscapes of East Sussex and Kent. You can read his article on the Great Storm of 1287 and its monumental impact on Winchelsea here on Hastings Online Times.

You can still hear Ben talk about his work, and how painting helps with his mental health, in a Radio Four feature recorded last summer.

You can follow Ben on Instagram and Facebook, or visit Taylor Jones & Son Gallery, to see more of his paintings for sale. Bottle Alley prints start at £125 and Bottle Alley oil paintings at £500.

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Posted 15:28 Tuesday, Feb 13, 2024 In: 1067 & All That

Also in: 1067 & All That

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