Thursday, 8 October 2009

Rainbows Over Bexhill by Mr Greenacres

Bexhill-on-Sea is one of those rather unusual seaside towns that still has a railway station. In fact there’s a line from Ashford in Kent that runs to Hastings, along the coast to Eastbourne, Brighton, and on to Portsmouth, so you see the south coast is still relatively well served by trains with three per hour calling at Bexhill in both directions. The station itself, built in fairly typical Edwardian style in 1902, is nothing much to speak of but it is remarkable for the length of its platforms - some 150 yards long and it still stands as a testament to the popularity of the resort in times gone by. The line runs fairly close to the seafront. A 400 yard walk straight down Sea Road and you’re there but a much better way to go is back along Endwell Road, that runs alongside the platforms and turn in to Devonshire Road a grand Victorian-built road with elegant four storey buildings over shop fronts and the closest thing Bexhill now has to a High Street. (There is a High Street half a mile to the north but this is no longer a shopping centre.)

Here we see the old colliding with the new for as well as the obligatory WH Smiths and Bodyshop there are still many traditional shops such as ‘M and Co’ the local department store and ‘Priceless Tools’ a real old-fashioned hardware shop with an old and slightly worn bare wooden staircase that leads to a basement full of real old-fashioned screws and fixings. Also worth a visit by all budding artists is ‘In-Perspective’ a ‘Windsor and Newton Premier Art Centre’, a small shop that is positively stuffed to the gills with everything an artist could desire.

Anyway there’s enough time for shopping later, there’s only one place to head for now - the seafront. Ah! Bee-you-tee-full sea air - fill your lungs. There’s nothing quite like it for reviving flagging spirits and tired feet. Trouble is I do detect a touch of rain in the air, good job we packed those modern plastic macs with a zip up front and a hood. Oh dear, it’s started to shower and the white horses have raised their heads, we’ll just sit here a while, see what we can see and contemplate the sea.

Shimmering, shining, beautiful and boundless, the source of inspiration for countless poets and paintings, our oceans are vast - simply huge - you know the oceans cover 70% of the Earth’s surface: the Pacific Ocean alone covers more square kilometres than the entire landmass, and in places it is over 10,000 meters deep. It is the depth of the oceans, this third dimension if you like, that means oceans make up 99% of the living space on our planet. And did you know that half of our oxygen supply comes from the sea? No, thought not. But this billowing briny wilderness, that most of us rarely give a second thought to is vital for the wellbeing of the whole planet, and it could be in an age where we are now all facing up to climate change, busily installing low energy lightbulbs and saying no to plastic bags, that we might have just overlooked something crucially important that could have catastrophic consequences, for the scientists are now starting to discover and understand new information about this watery underworld, and they are telling us -

Now, a lot of you brainy bods out there are probably aware of marine pollution - things like oil spillages, plastics, dumping of sewage, waste and other chemicals. Many of us would invariably rather head for clean Blue Flag beaches than risk ingestion of raw sewage and a consequent bout of gastro-enteritis but important as these things undoubtedly are, there may be something even more important going on out there. In a word, PLANKTON, or to be more precise PHYTOPLANKTON, for it is these phytoplankton, these minute creatures at the very bottom of the marine food chain, that produce the oxygen. And recent research has shown their numbers may be in serious decline.

The term ‘plankton’ refers to the whole range of miniature, often microscopic, organisms that live in the ocean. There are two main types - phytoplankton (tiny plants) and zooplankton (tiny animals). Phytoplankton live on or just below the ocean surface and affect it appearance. The more plankton, the cloudier or murkier the water and it usually takes on a greenish tinge. Now stay with it, compadrès, these one-celled plants take energy from the sun and convert carbon dioxide and other nutrients into complex organic compounds to form new plant material - in other words in order to grow they absorb carbon and produce oxygen and this process is called PHOTOSYNTHESIS. In fact life on this planet only came about some 3.6 billion years ago at all because plankton began to produce oxygen. And as we said they now produce half the world’s oxygen. (The other half is produced on land by trees, shrubs, grasses and other plants) so really these miniscule sea beasties could be described as the lungs of the planet.

Phytoplankton are at the base of what scientists call ‘oceanic biological productivity’ or as we said bottom of the marine food chain. Just about everything that lives in or off the oceans owes its very existence to phytoplankton. Herbivorous marine creatures eat the phytoplankton. Carnivores in turn eat the herbivores and so it goes right up the food chain, fish, crabs, dolphins and so on to the top predators like killer whales and sharks. There are many fish as well as a few mammals, even some whales that survive by eating only plankton.

So tiny yet so hugely important, for as well as the oxygen cycle, plankton control the planet’s carbon and nitrogen cycles. Boris Worm, marine scientist at Dalhousie University in Halifax puts it like this: “If everything on land were to die tomorrow, life in the ocean would be fine. But if everything in the ocean were to die, everything on land would also perish.”

Detailed scientific study of plankton is relatively new, there isn’t much reliable data prior to 1980 and what the situation was before 1950 is anybody’s guess, but scientists are now sure that there has been a steady decline in phytoplankton concentrations in northern oceans over the last twenty years, in fact the drop may be as high as 30%!

Phytoplankton are fundamental to the ability of a body of water to be able to support marine life and there is an interlinked and interdependent relationship between phytoplankton and zooplankton. Zooplankton feed on phytoplankton. Some of these zooplankton are actually newly hatched ‘larval forms’ of bigger fish that will grow up and move into deeper water. The decline in some fish species, such as cod, is a direct result of the decline in the plankton that the fish larvae eat. A drop in zooplankton levels of 70% has been recorded by scientists off the U.S. west coast in the last 50 years. Zooplankton not only feed on phytoplankton, their levels become the ‘fertilizer’ that phytoplankton require to grow thus if zooplankton levels are declining it follows that phytoplankton levels are dropping as well.

What’s going on here? Well the trouble is, we haven’t been doing the right amount of research for long enough - so no-one is quite sure. Scientists from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) say warmer ocean temperatures and low winds may be depriving the tiny ocean plants of vital nutrients. Phytoplankton need two things for photosynthesis and thus their survival: energy from the sun and nutrients from the water. Robert Frouin, a research meteorologist at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolia, California, said understanding the process by which phytoplankton obtain ocean nutrients is important to understanding the link between the ocean and global climate. So it seems that oceans are a much more important part of the planet’s problems than we may have realised, with plankton playing a vital part in maintaining the balance of the earth’s atmospheric oxygen. Don’t forget you can survive for about 40 days without food and 7 days without water but without oxygen you will be dead in minutes.

Okay, we’re all pretty well agreed on the basic source of the problem; excessive carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) released into the atmosphere - mainly by the burning of what we now call ‘fossil fuels’, coal, gas and oil - which collects in the upper atmosphere thus trapping heat from the sun in the earth’s atmosphere and warming the planet up with the consequent effect of climate change and rising sea-levels. Now, this ‘heating up’ of the oceans may very well be causing the drop in plankton but new research is showing other alarming changes in our oceans as well.

It seems that a third of the carbon we’ve released into the atmosphere has actually been absorbed into the oceans causing a chemical change to take place. Carbon dioxide gas reacts with water to form a mild carbonic acid. In short, we’ve begun to acidify the planet’s oceans. This phenomenon was unknown until 1999 when the first paper on ocean acidification was published in the journal Science. Before this scientists didn’t believe, short of some kind of cataclysmic action, that this sort of change could happen.

But it has happened. The Ph level (measurement of acidity or alkalinity) of the sea, which stood at 8.2 for millions of years, has now dropped to 8.05. And in the incredibly short period of 200 years! (Scientists tell us it hasn’t been this low for 55 million years.) What will all this mean? Scientists are now going full speed to try and find out, but at the moment nobody knows for sure.

Some plankton have shells made of limestone and as the sea becomes more acidic, the vital calcium levels needed to make these shells, drops. If acidity rises enough, the ocean will actually start to dissolve shells made of calcium which will affect every living sea creature with a shell as well as all our coral reefs.

And it doesn’t stop with the plankton or calcium problem. ALL sea creatures have evolved in the Ph level we had before these recent changes. Whilst early research shows that SOME creatures may adapt to new levels of acidity including some plankton others will not. If acidification of our oceans continues we may well be facing mass extinction on planet earth of the sort that has only occurred five times before in the planet’s history. In each instance this mass extinction was preceded by a warming of the oceans, a shortage of dissolved oxygen and increased acidity levels - the last time this happened was 65 million years ago when dinosaurs ruled the earth!

Oh dear, I get the feeling that perhaps dinosaurs do still rule the earth, and what with the rain coming down at a fair lick now, it hasn’t been that much fun sitting and contemplating the sea. It reminds me of a funny scene in the movie ‘84 Charing Cross Road’ where Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench take their two children to the seaside. They’re all huddled together under raincoats and one of the children says “Daddy, why does it always rain at the seaside?” Hopkins looks befuddled for a few seconds before they all fall about laughing. You see, that’s the one question that doesn’t have an answer. One just has to see the funny side, Oh dear! I don’t think Mrs Greenacres can see the funny side, she looks decidedly damp. Better head off and get her a posh tea, pronto, in the De La Warr Pavilion no less! There’s certainly no sea bathing on the cards today.

Now the De La Warr Pavilion is a wonderful building, a sight for sore eyes, for coming out of a town that was in its heyday in the Edwardian era and is predominantly filled with late Victorian higgedly piggedly buildings, we see, all on its own, standing on the sea-front the most amazing piece of award-winning Modernist Architecture from 1935. All glass, and concrete and metal, sweeping curves, flat roofs, looking like the superstructure of an ocean going liner, and in its isolation right by the sea it looks as if it were dropped out of the sky by a giant Art Deco spaceship. But this building as wonderful as it is, grew out of controversy and resentment and in some ways it remains controversial today.

Like a lot of English seasides, Bexhill is a bit of a yesterday place and a bit of a muddle. Historically it has been a place of divisions. Perhaps the most obvious one being between those who wished to cater for visitors and had ambitions for Bexhill to become a ‘Seaside Resort’ and those who were rather more insular and resentful of outsiders wishing Bexhill to remain a ‘Seaside Town’ mainly for residents. Traces of this division remain to this very day.

Most of the land around Bexhill had been part of the Earl De La Warr’s estate but in the mid 19th century a considerable portion of land to the west of the town was turned over to local builder John Webb in part payment for works carried out. This land has become known as Egerton Park Estate. The boundary running north-south between these two estates ran right through the middle of the town along Sea Road thus creating an east-west division. It was agreed that Egerton Park Estate would include the majority of shops and services whilst the De La Warr Estate consisted mainly of large houses and fine hotels. Yet another division was therefore created, this time more of a class division, for the tradesmen although accepted as a practical ‘necessity’ by the upper classes were never to be mixed with socially. For their part, many of the traders became resentful and suspicious of the De La Warr Estate’s influence in town politics. In the early days of the resort there were two entertainment venues - The Colonnade for the lower middle classes and below and The Kursaal for the upper middle classes and above which typifies this position. There were many period cartoons and when a new Colonnade and Bandstand was opened in 1911, The Bexhill Observer published a cartoon which depicted the two rival bands trying to drown each other out and scaring away all the visitors in the process.

An even more damaging division was that between the tradesmen and hoteliers versus the more insular residents. This split had nothing to do with either class or the two estates, in fact it united the Egerton shopkeepers and the posh hoteliers for it was a conflict between those dependent on tourism for their livelihood and those who opposed it. For some time Bexhill’s claims of clean air and longevity had attracted residents of ‘independent means’. It had acquired a reputation for being populated by ‘gouty colonels’ and ‘old colonials’. Now this was not good for the prosperity of the town. These residents of independent means regarded visitors as intrusive and resented the preferential treatment given to them by shopkeepers and traders, but more importantly this faction objected to the higher rates and taxes needed to properly develop the town into a tourist ‘resort’ and as we know the two precursors to imaginative development are the will and the money. Many arguments and heated debates took place in Council chambers and whilst sometimes discussion and compromise can work as a catalyst for change and progress, more often than not it just holds things up.

As early as 1907 proposals were made for a new entertainment pavilion or ‘Winter Garden’. By this time the Kursaal’s popularity was in decline and the 8th Earl reportedly lost £30,000 on it before selling it in 1908. The Kursaal was subject to extensive and unflattering refurbishment in 1925 which was unable to halt the inevitable - The Kursaal was demolished in 1935. The most ambitious proposal mooted was for a ‘Music Pavilion and Enlarged Band Enclosure’ which was part of the ‘1930 Bexhill Borough General Development Plan’ a radical plan advocating the demolition of most of the town, which would then be rebuilt in a 1930s style. This included proposals for a new town square and railway station. The long-standing disagreement between those for and against tourism prevented any of these plans reaching fruition.

At this point enter the 9th Earl De La Warr, Mayor of Bexhill from 1932 to 1935, vegetarian, pacifist, Bexhill’s first socialist mayor and the first hereditary Peer of the Labour party. He was a remarkable man, principled, visionary, with great drive and determination, he was also a diplomat and he succeeded where those before him had failed on two counts - he got a new pavilion built and in so doing perhaps for the only time in its history he united the town.

In April 1933 the ninth Earl, in his capacity as Mayor, put forward a £50,000 plan. He was determined that the project should be funded by the town, not by private development and should remain in public ownership. The design brief indicated that a modern building was required and that ‘heavy stonework is not desirable’. In order to create such a modern building of note Bexhill Borough Council asked the RIBA to stage a competition to design a new building. Thomas S. Tait, who was known to be sympathetic to Modernist Architecture was selected as judge, and the competition was announced in The Architect’s Journal on 7th September 1933. The closing date was 4th December 1933 and the results were announced on 8th February 1934. Eric Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff were adjudged clear winners and won the £150 first prize. The estimated cost of building was £56,260. Tait said their design ‘indicated a thorough grasp of the nature of the problem, is direct and simple in planning, and shows a masterly handling of the architectural treatment’. The Architect’s Journal commented ‘Mr Thomas S. Tait must have had little difficulty in choosing the winner’.

Originally the scheme included the redevelopment of the 1910 Colonnade and Bandstand area as well as a new sea-front swimming pool with small pier and diving boards that was linked to the main building by a raised, enclosed walkway. (The original architect’s model showing these features is still on display in Bexhill Museum.) Unfortunately neither of these schemes was ever built. A new resident’s association was formed specifically to oppose the new building. Their main objection was the spending of so much public money on a facility for the benefit of visitors. At a council meeting on 28th October 1935 the decision was taken to postpone the £18,600 swimming pool, and on the 19th November 1935 the £8,734 plans for the new Colonnade and Pergola were also put on hold. Period photos show that part of the Pergola had already been constructed but was subsequently taken down.

Construction of the pavilion began in January 1935 utilising as much local labour as possible, and the contract stated ‘work should be completed in 50 weeks’. At an early stage King George V and Queen Mary became interested when a model of the pavilion was shown to them. They were so fascinated that they made an unscheduled visit to the building site and a commemorative plaque was laid on 6th May 1935 - King George V’s Silver Jubilee day. The De La Warr Pavilion was opened on schedule by the Duke and Duchess of York on 12th December 1935. The correspondent for The New Statesman wrote at the time: ‘you could not find a stronger argument in favour of town planning than Bexhill, which is not so much a town as a chaotic litter of hideous houses sprawling higedly pigeldy along a lovely coast. Lord De La Warr, whose ancestors were responsible for this muddle, has now made an act of reparation. The most satisfactory example of modern architecture I have ever seen in this country. One has the impression of being on a great transatlantic liner. The functionalists can complain that the staircase on the north side is mere ornament and its great glass bay looks only on buildings better not looked at - but it is good ornament. The traditionalists on the other hand will complain that this is not so much a pleasure pavilion as a pleasure machine, ominously appropriate to the standard amusements of Mr Huxley’s Brave New World.’

Cor! Grand words indeed and perhaps a bit unkind to Victoriana but, you know, this building is very impressive and it is fine architecture - Grade I listed, and people travelling from all parts of Britain for a visit. I couldn‘t get an egg and tomato sandwich here though, they’ve got everything else mind you, including a bloomin’ grand piano in the café. I had to settle for cream cheese and smoked salmon no less - not bad though for a new-fangled taste sensation.

So one hell of a building with a hell of a history - it even got bombed in WWII. Although rebuilt post war the plan to build a grand dance hall on the east end of the Pavilion was a non starter. Unfortunately the building suffered many unsympathetic modifications in post war years and even a ridiculous attempt to hide the building under ivy in the 1970s! It fell into a state of disrepair and was eventually mothballed. Fortunately for us all, proper restoration was started in 2004 and a jolly fine job they made of restoring it to its former glory.
Amazingly this building although considered a national architectural treasure, remains locally somewhat unloved, undervalued and even resented. The old chestnut still rears its ugly head as we discovered to our horror there was even a local petition to try and have the annual grant axed/reduced! And in some quarters there is still resentment of visitors. What’s new?

Guess what - the rain’s stopped. Straight up to the roof top sun-bathing terraces to get a look at the ‘crummy town’ and the wonderful sea. Funny place this - bit of trivia for you, folks, did you know that the only school in Britain to incorporate a swastika in its school badge in the 1930s was the Augusta Victoria College in Bexhill. This was a school for German girls to improve their English and pupils included von Ribbentrop’s daughter and Himmler’s god-daughter. Needless to say the school closed in 1939. Trivia no. 2 - who wrote these words…“at 4.30, June 2nd 1940, on a summer’s day all mares’ tails and blue sky, we arrived at Bexhill-on-Sea, where I got off. It wasn’t easy. The train didn’t stop there.” Answer: Spike Milligan. He was stationed in Bexhill from June 1940 - February 1941 and recalls his time here in both the book and movie entitled Adolph Hitler: My Part In His Downfall. He also immortalised the town in the wonderful 1954 Goon Show sketch called ‘The Dreaded Batter Pudding Hurler of Bexhill-on-Sea.’ Tee-hee-hee!

Can this day get any better? Just when we think we’re washed out the sun comes out and now we see not one but two rainbows over the sea. Beautiful. Got to start thinking about making a move folks. Back to Victoria Station, back to reality, for Humphrey will need feeding and there’s piles of leaves to clear up. But what a wonderful thought to take home on the train - RAINBOWS OVER BEXHILL. Have fun in the Autumn leaves, spare a thought for the plankton and for Gawd’s sake stop burning carbon. Till next time, mes amis - Adieu.
For further info on Bexhill -- Bexhill Chamber of Commerce and Tourism 01424 842892

This article first appeared in The Greenacre Times Autumn 2009 edition:

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