Harry’s Ramblings; Claremont story
The smell of burning building lingers on the seafront air five days after the conflagration that came very close to destroying the early Victorian Claremont Hotel in sedate Eastbourne. This is just over four years after the pier opposite almost came to a tragic end with the same immolation in July 2015.
Grand Parade Eastbourne is in a Grand position on the seafront, opposite the 1870 pier. Two hotels, the Burlington and the Claremont. Until November 2019, when the one on the right burned down. Outwardly, the terrace appears to be one long building, but when it was constructed between 1851 and 1855 they were individual houses. But the whole edifice was built on the site of a Roman Palace. This palace was there for a couple of hundred years, comprising a walled garden to keep the poor out with the large nobleman’s home inside. It was demolished in the years after the Romans deserted England in the 5th century, still a fair amount of rubble remaining until 1850. That was used for foundations for Grand Parade.
When you stand on the opposite side of the road, looking at the long terrace, you appreciate the care and precision used by Victorian builders. The railway had come a year before, this was on prime land on the seafront, owned by the Duke of Devonshire, who contracted to a firm of builders who were given the incentive of such a superb location. However, construction costs being when they are, the builders went bust, the houses were not all sold, so the Duke had to step in. It was named the Burlington after the Duke of Devonshire, who was the 7th Duke, but the also the 2nd Duke of Burlington. He had two Dukedoms. Greedy. Most make do with none.
The houses were all sold, the pier was built in 1870, Eastbourne became a fashionable resort, built by gentlemen for gentlemen. The railway company was told not to sell day returns from London, as that kind of person was not to be encouraged to visit. Three years after Wimbledon tennis started, a tournament was inaugurated at Devonshire Park, about a mile from the Claremont, which was a recreational area with leisure and theatre complex that is still there today.
The whole terrace was converted to hotel accommodation before WWl, with two doorways knocked down to create the entrance to the Claremont, the same for the next door Burlington. These were really top class establishments, prime location, the seafront was landscaped, Carpet Gardens opposite with beautifully laid-out beds and two ornamental fountains. It was a destination for the wealthy, with prices to reflect. Not much happened until the end of WW2. The hotel had largely escaped unscathed from enemy bombing, coming very close to a direct hit but any damage quickly remedied. The wealthier guest was staying further along the seafront, at The Grand, or the Lansdowne, or the up and coming Hydro, so hotel owners had to downgrade their expectations. Middle to lower class guests in the years after WW2 still had spending power, it was a period of great boom, coach travel was popular, the Claremont was full most of the year. It was bought by Holdsworth Hotels, who had a handful of hotels, but then surplus to requirements. A local hotelier who already owned two others on the seafront made a derisory offer, initially rejected but in the absence of any other buyers in the offing, the ridiculously low bid was accepted.
Fifteen months later Daish’s who own many other coaching hotels came along, made a sensible offer, change hands again, this time money was spent making it a higher grade to accommodate discerning coach passengers throughout the year.
Now to the disastrous November Friday. The cause of the fire is unimportant, but the speed in which it spread is. The timbers used originally have been bone dry, the spark was sufficient to ignite very quickly, I walked quite close to the back of the hotel about an hour after it started, and there was a continuous sound of explosions, as if firecrackers were being set off. Ash filled the air and quickly settled just like a carpet of snow. The emergency workers directing traffic, pedestrians away, the gawpers for their own good, (don’t include me, I was away as fast as possible, despite living in the next road) all wore facemasks because the dense black smoke was turning daylight into dusk.
The authorities were unfortunate because it was a dry day with a wind off the sea. That meant that the flames spread throughout the building very quickly, from bottom to top, side windows blown out in the conflagration. Impossible to guess how hot it was, but three days later there was still a smell coming through my bedroom window at the back closer to the derelict hotel. No flames seated in the building, but for two nights it was impossible to source the gas supply, so there are eerie images of the burned out shell of the building with a ghostly glow coming from the ground floor. Gas men had to dig up a considerable section of the adjacent seafront before they finally turned it off.
The building is deemed too dangerous for a close inspection at this stage. One of the chimney stacks is at an unnatural angle to the top, in danger of collapsing inwards, bringing down the existing retaining wall. The floors are all but gone, so there is a shell. Daish’s owners want to re-build, the insurance is there to do this, but there has to be the ability to complete without endangering workers. That part of the seafront, close to where I live in the next road, is closed for the foreseeable future, because of the danger of collapse, especially in seafront wintry winds. The pier opposite is also shut, the owner is the man who sold it to Daish’s, and wants to open again as soon as possible, because he is building a new tea room on the site of the pier fire in 2015. All is on hold for the present, traffic disrupted, and one of the main candidates for the upcoming general election has been very vocal in sharing their knowledge of plans.
The staff were superb, evacuating within three minutes. Only one guest had to be taken to hospital with breathing problems, all was conducted in a disciplined way. Fortunately it happened when people were having breakfast, unfortunately all possessions were in bedrooms so nothing was recovered. They lost everything. So did the staff. The hotel’s insurance pays wages until at least Christmas, staff may be absorbed into the group’s other hotels.
All is in limbo, but I will bring you updates as they occur.