Walk a short distance Westwards along the seafront from the Victoria Hotel in St Leonards past the early Victorian buildings built by James Burton and his son Decimus Burton, the founders of St. Leonards as a seaside resort. Then look landward between two more recent blocks of flats and you are confronted by an imposing monolithic stone structure, built into the cliff face behind, that is totally unlike any other building in St. Leonards.
Most tourists and probably many residents alike walk past this church without a second glance, but I would suggest that they are doing it a disservice. This church was designed by the celebrated post war Architects, Giles and Adrian Gilbert Scott and is one of many famous iconic buildings designed by them in the style of what is now called “Modernistic Gothic Revivalism”. We will come to that later.
Firstly, a bit of history. Before this church made its appearance in 1961, a church had stood on this same ground for over 100 years designed and built by none other than the said James Burton, founder of St. Leonards in 1834. In order to build the church a large section of the cliff behind was dug out.
By 1944, this church had survived, despite numerous cliff falls, but its fate was sealed when it was struck and destroyed with a direct hit from a German doodlebug sent from over the English Channel.
A commission for a new church was given to the Gilbert Scott firm who were already well known for their churches. Giles Gilbert Scott is a bit of a forgotten figure these days in the age of superstars such as Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, but even those who do not know the name, are very familiar with many of his famous landmark buildings including Liverpool Cathedral, Battersea Power Station and most famously the iconic red telephone boxes.
The new church was commenced in 1953, but it was not until 1961 that the iconic south tower was added, the finished building that stands to this day. Interestingly, it is the only coastal church on the South Coast that has a direct and uninterrupted sea view from its entrance. In 1998 it was given Grade II listed status by English Heritage which defines it as a “nationally important” building of “special interest”.
However, all is not well. After many cliff falls over the years and deterioration internally, the insurers finally pulled the plug on its use and it was officially closed for worship in 2018 and since then it has stood empty. I have wondered many times why the Architects decided to build directly back into the cliff, knowing the long history of cliff instability even in the 19th century. God works in mysterious ways, but it might have made more sense if man had made an effort to stabilise the cliff before embarking on a major project like this.
It is a great regret of mine that I have lived nearly 8 years in St. Leonards and never once ventured inside and now it may be too late. However, if you go to the Hastings in Focus website you can see many pictures of the inside of the building, which gives you some idea of the internal grandeur of the architecture. Link to Hastings in Focus
But what of the future, which despite its Grade II listing looks decidedly bleak. However, there is one ray of hope; in August 2020 the Hastings Urban Design Group came forward with an ambitious plan called ‘Science-on-Sea’ which proposed to make the church, together with an abandoned project next door, a maritime themed cultural hub and visitor attraction, which could also be a seaside outpost of the Science Museum. It is vastly ambitious and would require the buy-in of many agencies, so there are massive obstacles to overcome. Link re science-on-sea
In these uncertain and challenging times, it is difficult to look to the future, but in my mind this is just the type of regeneration project that could give hope and purpose to the community, as well as bringing much needed income to our town in the future. In my opinion this towering monument has a quiet and serene understated beauty. This marvellous and unique structure deserves its continued place amongst the varied Architecture of Hastings and St. Leonards.