When you’ve been entrusted with the responsibility for a grade II listed former church built in the neo-classical style in the early 19th century and occupying a high profile position on the seafront you could be excused for being a little apprehensive – the trustees of St Mary in the Castle, however, are far from apprehensive – they’ve just published a business plan and they’re facing the future full of optimism.
Before looking at what’s planned for the future of St Mary in the Castle lets take a quick look at its past.
In 1824 the Earl of Chichester, Thomas Pelham, saw an opportunity for development of his land at the bottom of the West Hill to house the ‘discriminating population’ of Hastings. He commissioned architect Joseph Kay and work began, which included the excavation of a large section of the cliff face.
The development would include a crescent with grand town houses overlooking the seafront and a neoclassical fronted church as its centrepiece; beneath the crescent a shopping arcade would complete the grand design. While the arcade was opened in 1824 the church took a further four years and was completed in 1828.
In 1951 St Mary in the Castle was made a grade II listed building but this was followed by a period of decline and the church was deemed surplus to requirements as a Church of England place of worship in 1970 and by 1986 was close to being put on the dangerous buildings register. But a campaign by a group of locals to save the building saw Hastings Borough Council (HBC) buy the freehold to St Mary in the Castle and to number 7 Pelham Crescent.
In 1988 the Pelham Arcade was also recognised as a grade II listed building and English Heritage, with the support of the Queen Mother, embarked on plans to restore St Mary in the Castle. After extensive restoration works the building reopened as an arts centre in 1998.
In 2012 HBC put the lease out to tender and a proposal from Buckswood School in Guestling won the day and was approved by the council in December that year. A charitable trust was established in 2013 and in June 2015 a ten year lease was signed by the trust to safeguard the future of the building as a centre for the arts.
That brings us up to date and to last Friday when the trustees held a meeting inside the auditorium to announce their plans for the future; plans to ‘conserve and enhance’ the building.
Chair of the trustees Marcus Weeks says the plans being set out by the trust are intended to give the building a secure future but he also says the business plan they have mapped out is not set in stone and should be regarded as a ‘living document’.
“We want to be able to present a diverse and affordable programme of events for the local community, bringing local, national and international acts to the venue enhancing the cultural life of not just the town but the region,” says Mr Weeks.
He also explained that new trustees had joined the board last year to strengthen it and to broaden the range of knowledge and experience. Jo Mayne, the manager of the Battle Abbey Estate and former Chief Executive of Hastings Pier is one of those new members and she was joined by finance expert Thomas Gardiner and solicitor Juliet Harris who has specific experience in property matters.
The meeting heard that because of its age and its listed status St Mary in the Castle is an expensive building to maintain and while the trustees can set out a programme of improvement works those plans can be easily derailed if unexpected and expensive repairs crop up, as happened this year when major work was required on the boilers that run the heating system.
For 2019 there are plans to improve the website, repair the pews in the balcony, repaint the portico and replace the pigeon netting and also to replace the blinds in the dome – none of these works will be cheap. So in tandem with putting in place a programme of maintenance, repairs and enhancements the trustees are also planning how to increase income by making greater use of the facilities on offer at St Mary in the Castle and making those facilities available to a wider range of individuals and groups within the community.
Mr Weeks gave one very good example of how more people were using the facility and that is through the redevelopment of the cafe area at the front which he said had turned something ‘rather cold’ in to a ‘vibrant and thriving’ cafe.
Trustee Judy Rogers said; “This building is part of Hastings and belongs to the people of Hastings and we want it to be available to them.” She reminded those present that St Mary in the Castle is not just about concerts and performances but is also a gallery and exhibition space and has meeting rooms too.
Four key areas for longer term development
- Installing and independent fire exit on the balcony
- Installing toilet facilities on the balcony
- Creating a refreshment are on the balcony
- Updating the technical and lighting equipment to meet the needs of artists and performers
- Making greater use of The Baptistry
- Refurbishment of auditorium refreshment area
Incorporating No 7
- Incorporated into the main building in the 1980s No 7 needs to be reconfigured to make best use of space.
There are also plans to encourage more youngsters to the venue, work has begun with a group called Little Mashers who specialise in running creative workshops for children and the trustees hope to develop and strengthen links with local schools.
Mr Weeks was blunt in his assertion that to earn the money that is required not just to maintain St Mary in the Castle but to invest in its future will mean: “…not just doing the things we want to do but doing some of the things that we have to do.”
Since becoming a trustee Thomas Gardiner has been taking a hard look at the finances and at what needs to be done. He believes money spent on the website will allow it to become a more effective revenue generating tool.
The portico he says is iconic and something ‘everyone sees all of the time’ and that means it needs to be regularly painted and maintained. He said there was also a need for the venue to upgrade its lighting and sound equipment which was now outdated and had attracted less than positive comments from some recent acts who had performed there.
Mr Gardiner also presented a three year cashflow programme that demonstrated how he hopes income can rise by ten per cent per year to allow the trustees not just to maintain but to improve the building.
He told the meeting: “The trust’s income is mostly driven, at this time, by event hire so the cashflow projection has been constructed from the current activity… The current operational management team has been excellent at keeping a tight control of costs and the trust anticipate that this will continue with the increase in revenues being achieved with only a five per cent increase in costs.”
Judy Rogers paid tribute to what she described as the ‘tiny team’ that runs St Mary in the Castle and to the ‘fantastic volunteers’. She also praised the recent revamp of the cafe area which she described as ‘the face’ of the venue and that face, she said, was now ‘warm, friendly and vibrant’.