by Harry Pope

You may have read or seen on media outlets about the Claremont Hotel in Eastbourne on the south coast. It suffered a major fire mid-November 2019, and this is about the future, but starts with a little about the past.

The Claremont was built between 1851 and 1855 right on the seafront as part of a row of houses. This was stand-alone, with about thirty separate houses completing the terrace. There were no other buildings for quite a distance. It was on land owned by the 7th Duke of Devonshire (we are now on number 12). Eastbourne was to be a new resort, built by gentlemen for gentlemen. The railway had been built in 1849, previously access had been by horse-drawn coach on rutted roads, taking many uncomfortable hours from London, or country estates. The train time between London and Eastbourne was between two and three hours in basic carriages with wooden bench seats.

The builders had been commissioned by the Duke, but despite the attractive new homes selling quite well, they went bust, so the project had to be taken over by him. Over the intervening years the whole building was converted into two major prestigious hotels. The pier was built opposite in 1870, there were insufficient guests of wealth so a different trade was created, one who arrived by coach. The now old building was adequate for the 21st Century, but facilities were at best three star. Each hotel, the Claremont and attached Burlington, are owned by coach companies, offering five night breaks at economic rates. Often a day trip to a market, vineyard, or adjacent resorts such as Hastings or Brighton are included, with bingo in the evening after dinner, followed by a singer accompanying themselves at a piano keyboard are staple entertainment.

The bedrooms are for sleeping in, were built for people in the 1850s so extras such as en suite are there as addendum in the large rooms. All this changed with the fire.

It is not known how the fire started, but it was very fortunate for guests and staff that it occurred at 8.50am. This meant that all were in the restaurant, so a mass evacuation was possible without any loss of life. It was all very orderly, people did what they were told, those infirm were assisted, all while the flames were coming from the basement kitchen. They quickly consumed and spread, the tinder-dry floors and walls hadn’t been exposed since they were erected so were eminently combustible, vulnerable to the fire that had quickly got hold. The local fire brigade were very quickly on the scene, the road was blocked off, but because of the major conflagration a lot of water was going to be required. After a couple of hours when fire commanders were attending it was decided to use longer hoses and utilise a natural resource – sea water.

Bearing in mind that only five years previously the pier had suffered a major fire, those in authority at the fire department were mildly criticised for not using the sea water under the pier more readily, so there was a precedent. Those using and directing the hoses did as they were told, but they were fighting a losing battle. The flames had taken a firm hold within a very short space of time, and I walked within 50 yards of the hotel just over an hour later, with huge clouds of smoke almost turning day into night, the flames exiting from all levels, including the roof, and the combustible wood sounding like a continuous firecracker going off. The ash depositing everywhere got stuck to shoes, clothing, and hair. It wasn’t until later it became known that asbestos was prevalent. Allegedly local residents were told to close doors and windows, but living in the next road available for this instruction no-one came knocking on my door.

To remove remaining asbestos on surfaces, four weeks later the local council finally pressure hosed the adjoining roads and pathways, too little, far too late. Now some roads are still closed, but despite sections of side walls falling from this unsafe structure, barriers allow pedestrian access to within a few yards. You can see where the debris and rubble has succumbed to the winter elements, every week more falls away. Heritage England has been involved ever since the fire, because the Claremont is a Grade 2 listed building. This means that it can’t be demolished as an unsafe structure without consulting them, with resultant permission. That is likely to be withheld, because in their opinion the façade should be preserved.

The only problem here is that no workers can go onsite to preserve what remains because there is a very high likelihood that walls will fall on them. The floors have completely disappeared, so only the outer walls make this once great Victorian building still stand. Eastbourne Borough Council, Daish’s Hotels who own the shell, and Heritage England have to consult and decide before any attempt at remedial action occurs. No meeting has been held, none planned until 2020, when the winter weather may very likely take the decision away.

In the meantime, the adjoining Burlington Hotel, owned by Shearings Coaches, has been allowed to partially reopen. The seafront outside the Claremont is closed to all, including the Carpet Gardens opposite, in the event that the building collapses. Two yellow jacketed personnel are on permanent duty, to keep the public safe and preventing photographers from getting too close. The surrounding roads are gridlocked a lot of the time, parking restrictions are in place, the Hospitality Association reckon that the town is short of well over 1,000 bed spaces, because the adjacent Afton Hotel suffered fire damage, and there is no access to the Pier Hotel, so that is also shut.

Eastbourne pier is open for business, only by pedestrians. So all is in limbo until either a committee of wise people or winter winds bring this sad Victorian building saga to its inevitable conclusion.