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The Grand Ocean Hotel at Saltdean enters a new phase
By Jan Melrose
BBC Sussex

Postcard showing Ocean Hotel
In its heyday the Ocean Hotel attracted scores of holiday makers

With lofty views over roof tops and out to sea, the Grand Ocean is one of a string of iconic 1930s buildings dotted along the Sussex coast.

Once it was known as 'the honeymoon hotel', with gardens designed to echo the bows of the Queen Mary.

Then it fell into disrepair, but now it is the latest Thirties monolith to enjoy a revival of fortunes.

Neglected porthole windows have been reglazed and old linoleum floors ripped up and replaced.

In a reception area once manned by Redcoats, the sultry tones of a jazz quartet ring out once more.

But it only acquired the "Grand" part of its title in 1998.

Take a picture tour through the history of the Ocean Hotel CPS:LINK HREF="" ID="8498049" STYLE="LINK_Inline">here.

When it first flung open its gold double doors in 1938, it was known simply as the Ocean Hotel and was designed by architect Richard Jones, the man behind Saltdean Lido.


Then, after only three years playing host to film stars and well-off holiday makers, it was commandeered by the fire service in the early 40s and used as a training college where firefighters learnt how to deal with the waves of bombing that pounded Britain during World War II.

Archive picture of Ocean Hotel
The swimming pool has been ripped out and replaced by apartments

When the war ended Billy Butlin took an interest and in 1953, he bought the place for £250,000, a deal he later described as the "best investment" he'd ever made.

Now more than 70 years after it was built, the hotel has entered yet another chapter in its life. After some speculation over its future, including the possibility of being used a centre for asylum seekers, it was eventually bought by development company Explore Living in 2006.

Stretching out behind the hotel towards the sea are four new blocks of flats, which stand where a swimming pool once was. At the front the main entrance and garden, once used as a backdrop for an episode of detective drama Poirot, have been meticulously restored.


John Inglis, is the sales and marketing director of Explore Living. "It was in a sad state of repair, there'd been a bit of vandalism and it was just very neglected so we had to systematically gut the whole building," he says.

"We worked closely with the conservation office to represent it as it was back in 1938, it's been quite a task. When we unravelled the carpet there was an original linoleum floor that had a mermaid on it - and that's what you can see in the new lino that we've had made especially.

"The fountain wasn't working, it had been covered up and hidden so we unearthed all that and got it back working again. The first thing we did back at the beginning was to get the garden areas restored; it's based on the bow of the Queen Mary so we thought we should get that looking as it should as that's the first thing people see as they arrive, even if the front of covered in scaffolding."

Michael Kernan
This building was quite literally pivotal in providing the fire service with training
Michael Kernan, fire service historian

One of the most important, but perhaps less well-known roles the building played was as the training college for the fire service from 1941 until the end of World War II.


Fire service historian Michael Kernan was among guests gathered for a opening ceremony by the new owners. "This building was quite literally pivotal in providing the fire service with training which allowed the fire service to cope with the Blitz," he says.

"Major cities around the UK were incredibly heavily bombed and the fires that resulted were very severe and the fire service had to deal with those fires. One of the main reasons why those cities were saved from too much devastation was because of the training that was provided inside this building."

Compared to the sort of training that is carried out today, it was nothing sophisticated, says Michael. But one thing was rather unusual - there were thousands of female fire fighters.

He added: "The fire service organised itself in mobile columns which meant a large number of fire engines toured the country wherever they were needed. These were got through the streets and traffic by dispatch riders, the majority of these were ladies."

He said their duties ranged from "cooking mountains of beans and potatoes through to fighting fires."

Brighton Belle

Fifty years ago, the building was commonly known as the "honeymoon hotel". Still together after 55 years of marriage are Ron and Kathy Bonson from Eastbourne, who spent their first week as a newly-married couple at the hotel when it was owned by Billy Butlin, in 1955.

They holidayed at the resort for years afterwards and later brought their children along too. But two years ago when they visited Saltdean on their wedding anniversary, they noticed something was going on.

Kathy and Ron Bonson outside the hotel
Kathy and Ron Bonson saw Billy Butlin visit the hotel during their holidays

Kathy said: "I came into the reception and said 'What are you doing to my hotel?' and they said they were making flats, so we kept an eye on it because we didn't want them to spoil it.

"We had a dreary life in 1955, it was wonderful to come here with the bright lights and the dancing. It was lovely, there was a swimming pool and we used to play snooker, darts and cards.

She added: "We came here because it was cheap. No-one went overseas in those days; we got the Brighton Belle down from London and we were here in an hour.

"We sat out in the garden just there, holding hands, it was just a nice place to be."

In Pictures: hotel to holiday camp
10 Feb 10 |  History


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