Observer column: 01 December 2017
Bathing In Glory
Last week, Rich and Marc Moore from The Source BMX park received the prestigious 'Heritage Angels' award, for the best rescue of a historic building. And it's well-deserved.
As the White Rock Baths, the underground structure was originally built in 1874 as a Turkish Bath, with treatment rooms and individual 'slipper baths' where visitors could enjoy being immersed in cold sea water. The building was lined almost entirely with glazed tiles in an 'art nouveau' style, although before that term was coined. Hastings Corporation acquired the building in 1925, whereupon borough engineer Sidney Little, who was responsible for all the seafront concrete structures, ripped out the Victorian tiles, creating a modernist swimming pool, with a separate training pool at the eastern end.
After the pool declined, it became a skating rink, until that too closed in 1997. When I first looked around the building fifteen years later, it had a 'Marie Celeste' quality, left as it was when the skating rink closed, with piles of abandoned skates in the booking hall. There was even a 'manager's flat', complete with private bar and chandelier.
Like many of the best ideas, the scheme to turn the baths into a BMX park was hatched in a pub, in a conversation between Rich and a council officer. Local brothers Rich and Marc already ran a skateboard and BMX equipment business, with Marc something of a BMX junior celebrity himself in the past, so it was perfect for them. They put the idea to me as Lead Member for Regeneration (as I was at the time), and it seemed a perfect use for the space. Several other ideas had been investigated over the years, including a museum and a nightclub. But they came to nothing partly because the building suffers from continual water penetration, and because of the cost of converting it. The difference with Rich and Marc's idea was that it didn't matter if the building was a bit 'rough and ready' - it suited their plan.
And so a project began to restore the space sufficiently for it to be used as a skatepark. The total cost was over a million pounds, funded by Hastings Council and East Sussex County Council, with The Source doing the fit-out. Many of the features of the 1930s modernist structure were retained, including 'sunburst' railings and mosaic-tiled columns. It opened in 2016, and has been a huge success, attracting people from all over the country, and indeed from across the world, to major tournaments and exhibition events. And of course, it's good for local young people too, particularly with The Source offering apprenticeships and training opportunities to work there.
But there is more to the old White Rock Baths. The entire structure is vast and cavernous, with a couple of levels still unused beneath the skate park. Deep in the bowels of the building are the rusted Victorian pumps that served the Turkish Baths, as well as modern pumps that constantly remove encroaching seawater. And in one hidden corner, there's even a small part of the original Victorian tiling that Sidney Little failed to rip out.
You don't have to be a skater to get in - there's a public viewing balcony with a café. So go along and enjoy what Rich and Marc have achieved, Hastings ingenuity and originality at its best.
Council Leader's column