Some residents, worried about gentrification, are buying up housing and offices and turning them into community- owned spaces. Crucially, the rents are capped, so locals can afford them. Just opened is Rock House, a converted office block, with nine floors of “creative living and working space” in Hastings town centre. Tenants are selected “according to need, enthusiasm and contribution to the Rock House community”.
Turn back 150 years and the approach could not have been more different. For St Leonards was built specifically to woo the gentry. Soon aristocrats were flocking to the new seaside resort, and promenades were crawling with princesses and grand dukes.
James Burton started work on the new town in 1828. He had helped to build Bloomsbury and Regent’s Park and wanted to copy the grand neoclassical designs in a coastal setting. In a wooded valley called Old Woman’s Tap Shaw he built exquisite villas overlooking private gardens. His architect son Decimus took over the development when his father died just nine years later.
“The peculiar advantage of this place as a residence,” said a guidebook of 1831, “is that its visitors are not exposed to any of the disagreeable associations which occur in most places… where the most sudden transitions from grandeur to wretchedness and profligacy may be observed.”
Once James Burton had built his own villa on the sea front he started work on a grand hotel next door. The landmark building, now the Royal Victoria Hotel, had its main entrance at the back to protect guests against the fierce sea winds.
The great coup for Burton was an official royal visit. In 1834 The Duchess of Kent and her 15-year-old daughter, Princess Victoria, stayed at Burton’s villa, now known as 57 Marina, for three months.
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