Page last updated at 16:27 GMT, Friday, 8 October 2010 17:27 UK
Hastings Pier hopes go up in smoke

More than 90% of Hastings' Victorian pier was destroyed by the fire on Tuesday

By Stephen Smith

An oily pall hung in the air, and people were coming off the beach carrying blackened spars.

It was like a seascape by Turner, depicting the foundering of a famous steamship. But in fact the charred wreck in the breakwater was of Hastings Pier, another piece of maritime engineering from the same age.

Stephen Smith's Big Society

It caught fire in the early hours of last Tuesday morning. The fire is thought to have started in the Victorian theatre at the far end of the structure, which was an unlikely cradle for future rock greats including The Rolling Stones, The Who and Pink Floyd.

The prevailing wind was blowing inland: amateur footage of the inferno shows the flames ripping inshore along the length of the boardwalk, as if they were rushing to get out of their own way. More than 90% of the superstructure is feared lost.

I wanted to go to Hastings as soon as I heard. A couple of months ago, the pier was the subject of a film in Newsnight's Big Society series, in which we have been examining David Cameron's proposal that we should all take it upon ourselves to volunteer for the sake of our communities - a theme he reiterated in his speech to the Conservative Party conference a day after the fire.

If I heard the call to go down to the sea again, it was as nothing compared to the broken-hearted vigil kept by the doughty friends of the pier, as it was incinerated in front of their eyes. It took all night, and most of the next day.

Civic mindedness

Ironically, disaster struck only hours after architects were invited to submit plans for redevelopment to the Hastings Pier and White Rock Trust.

The Trust reckon that they were putting the big society into practice before the phrase ever crossed Mr Cameron's lips.

Firefighters from Hastings battle fire engulfing Hastings pier
Firefighters battled the blaze from a RNLI Hastings' lifeboat

They petitioned and marched their way to persuading the local council that the pier should be compulsorily purchased from its overseas-registered owners. And undeterred by the conflagration, Jess Steele of the Trust said she was determined that the magnificent 1872 creation of Eugenius Birch would somehow rise from the ashes.

She was hopeful that tests would show its barnacled frame, so brutally pared back to the bone, could still be viable. By the end of the week, the hardy Hastings' cormorants had resumed fishing off the groynes at the end of the pier, a vote of confidence of sorts.

Producer Robin Punt had pulled off a coup in securing an appearance by the eminence grise behind Mr Cameron's big society plans, Baron Wei of Shoreditch. He was coming to Hastings to give us his first TV interview on this much heralded, but not so well understood, aspect of the government's agenda.

What had happened to the pier seemed to make it even more important to find out from him how the big society might work in practice. Few voluntary groups will suffer reverses on the scale of the Trust, but at what point, if at all, is the government prepared to support volunteers when they encounter setbacks?

Cliff hanger

Robin had also been in touch with the crew of the Hastings lifeboat - it is difficult to think of volunteers who could trump lifeboat men and women for civic-minded selflessness. They agreed to take Lord Wei and Newsnight for a very special trip round the bay: a cormorant's eye view of the pier, and a unique perspective on the scale of the task facing the Trust, and the town.

Because of the way our despatches from the Sussex Riviera have been broadcast - released into the wild without warning, like startled ferrets sprung from fur farms by animal rights activists - it is just possible that some viewers have forgotten the tense loose end we left you with last time.

The leader of Hastings council was poised to reveal how much our big-hearted stewardship of a traffic island on the seafront had saved council taxpayers - or, er, cost them. Tonight we reveal the outcome of this palm-moistener: Simon Cowell would give the shirt off someone else's back for drama like this!

Watch the next film in Newsnight's Big Society series on Friday 8 October 2010 at 10.30pm on BBC Two, then afterwards on the BBC iPlayer and Newsnight website.

Who has time to change the world?
22 Jul 10 |  Magazine
Cameron launches 'big society'
20 Jul 10 |  UK Politics
Council could buy Hastings Pier
20 May 10 |  Sussex

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