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Future of St Leonard’s church explored

James Burton’s original seafront church was destroyed by a doodlebug in July 1944. A replacement was designed by the well regarded Gilbert Scott brothers and finished in 1961. The later church is now in geological trouble and was closed by the Church of England a few years ago. It is an exceptional building (Grade II listed) that should not be lost. A recent meeting addressed ways of saving it. Bernard McGinley reports and took the photos.

A meeting of stakeholders took place recently to examine the condition of the church and possibilities of rescue. The church sits in a hillside bowl that is sliding towards it.

Briefings

The work of Giles Gilbert Scott and Adrian Gilbert Scott included many churches (Poplar and Manchester) and cathedrals (Cairo and Vancouver).  Members of the Gilbert Scott organisation were among those present. Following an introduction by Bryan Fisher, coordinator of the West St Leonards Forum, various speakers contributed their insights.

Scott Ralph, property director of the Anglican diocese of Chichester, outlined the legal framework for action and disposal, and achieving long-term sustainable use. A significant issue however was that the churchyard perimeter was undefined and some of the land unregistered. Later he indicated that in the right circumstances he would be minded to recommend disposal of the building.   

Phil Cooper, a structural engineer and director of Cambridge Architectural Research (CAR) Ltd, spoke of the excellent interior of the church. He suggested that its parabolic arches echoed the work of Gaudi in Barcelona (the Passion façade of the Sagrada Família). Despite the shoring timbers lately inserted in St Leonard’s, the church was in better condition than that suggested. There were cracks in the buttress at the north end, and in the tower, a problem of rust.

Andy Morris, a geotechnical engineer, endorsed that, and said that the problem was the exterior slope and not the church. He spoke on the structural integrity of St Leonard’s and the need for appraisals (including of the cliffs) on how to achieve stability.    

Later the probable remedial work required for restoration was summarised: 

cliff stabilisation                     c.£900k
external work & maintenance £290k
conversion                                     £1m
space alterations                         £80k
project management                 £68k

Total                                     c.£2.338m

This is a very reasonable figure to keep a fine, spacious Gilbert Scott ‘stripped Gothic’ building such as this one with its jaunty nautical details. The church’s attractions include stained-glass windows by Patrick Reyntiens (1925-2021), whose work is admired internationally. Central government help under the Coast Protection Act 1949 is a possibility in meeting the cliff costs.

Presentations

Then the proposals were explained in more detail: 

a)  Science-on-Sea’: it was discussed by Bryan Fisher. This was the Town Deal submission that the Town Deal board showed scant interest in. Given Hastings’ conexions with John Logie Baird, Alan Turing, and many others, a future for the church as an outstation of South Kensington’s Science Museum would be a fine complement to local artiness. 

The abandoned and ownerless half-built structure on Undercliff – a salutary lesson in building on unstable land.

b) A wedding/music venue: John Penfold and his partner Marie (as ‘MJ Projects’) advocated a landmark building, something comparable to the De La Warr Pavilion, with scope for solar panels. Detailed diagrams were also displayed. Interestingly their proposal took consideration of use and corrective treatment of land extending up to James Burton’s pyramidal tomb (also at risk). (The future of the abandoned structure in Undercliff remains to be clarified: at present it is valueless and held by the Treasury Solicitors as bona vacantia — ownerless. Possibly it could be released by them if it were going to be included in the remedial works and saved.) A well-run commercial venture was envisioned. 

c)  A climbing centre and other features: Laurie Flint spoke on his vision of a community-owned climbing centre, as there was none locally. He also discussed the affordable housing crisis, and cited the Hastings Rental Health Group and their research. He mentioned too the support of Jess Steele (of Observer Building renown, who was present) and the work of the Transom Trust and the Transition Town Team. The possibility of other uses a music venue or events space, or ‘meanwhile space’, a pocket park or a community-owned restaurant (on a successful Belgian model) was recommended for discussion, and fundraising popup activity.

d)  Community Land Trust: Graham Maunders spoke for Actionin Rural Sussex, and advocated exploration of the possibilities of a Community Land Trust: a project not just for development  doing TO, but enabling OF. Local involvement was crucial therefore, to achieve an asset owned by the community in perpetuity. Projects in Cumbria and the West Country offered promising examples to emulate, including in the important area of affordable housing. 

No Hastings Borough Council view was given as Cllr Paul Barnett (Deputy Leader) was not there as hoped. Bryan Fisher read the Council’s statement in reply to the invitation to them to attend: it mentioned their current capital programme, the Town Deal and pandemic problems (none of which had been raised in inviting them). Instead, Kevin Boorman, the Council’s marketing and major projects manager, was sent to attend as an observer. 

Christopher Maxwell-Stewart, a founder member of the Burtons’ St Leonards Society, spoke of being at the site of the old church shortly after the V-1 flying bomb had destroyed it. Then, speaking as a civil engineer, he mentioned that he had worked with Le Corbusier and Sir Basil Spence, and had his feet on the ground with regard to the feasibility of this rescue project: stabilisation of the site (including the pathway) was achievable. The technology was straightforward despite the diverse geological qualities of the site. Funding and support were the greater questions, and the formulation of attractive and workable proposals.

What next?

Comments and questions from the attenders followed, in an audience that included members of the Hastings Urban Design Group. White Rock Gardens’ uncertain future was mentioned (the consultants’ report from Cabinet, January 2020, is long overdue). Jess Steele advocated the merits of DIY: ‘Don’t rely on others’.

In conclusion Bryan Fisher was resolutely backed by those present to set up a St Leonard’s Church Stakeholder Committee to pursue stabilisation and co-ordinate progress on other matters. Father David Hill of St John the Evangelist (Maze Hill) has kindly agreed to be chair: fatherdavid68@icloud.com.

There are strangely few attractions between the Pier and Bexhill, and the Council’s recent Old Bathing Pool site deal does not noticeably improve matters. (Representatives of Save Our Bathing Site – SOBS – and the West Marina Group are to meet with the new construction company this week.)

St Leonard’s church, a major asset, has a compelling case for being saved.

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Posted 16:33 Wednesday, Nov 10, 2021 In: HOT Topics

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