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Beside the seaside

By Ruth Slavid
The deceptively simple new promenade at Bexhill-on-Sea serves a wide range of functions – including drawing visitors away from a tourist honeypot towards the rest of the town.

Bexhill-On-Sea is a tricky town. Mention it to anybody with even a passing interest in architecture and they are bound to respond ‘De la Warr pavilion’. One of the few buildings in the UK to which the much over-used epithet ‘iconic’ can reasonably be applied, it is an outstanding piece of early Modernist architecture, a Grade I listed building by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff. 
 
Now in the hands of a charitable trust, and supported by the Arts Council and by the local Rother District Council, the pavilion is a draw and a success. The problem is that little of that success has spilled out into the rest of Bexhill. Set between the successful resorts of Eastbourne and Hastings, the town touts itself for (of course) the pavilion, and its role as the birthplace of British motor racing. In reality it hasn’t had much going for it, but the council is determined to change this and has been investing heavily, not just in the pavilion but also in the Bexhill Museum, a school and a business centre as well as in the town centre itself. 
 
One part of this investment was the seafront planting that HTA Landscape Design carried out, aimed at enticing visitors out from the pavilion, along the seafront and towards the town centre – and of course at providing a more attractive environment for others, whether residents or holidaymakers. Phase 1 of this project, called Next Wave, was highly commended in the 2012 Landscape Institute awards, and both phases are now complete. 
 
The first impression is of a scheme which is attractive but simple – of green lawns in front of the pavilion, and a long strip of colourful planting stretching away to one side of it. This simplicity is intentional, but has been achieved through a lot of sophisticated thought – not to mention consultation. 
 
Unfortunately footfall was not measured before the project was constructed, so any increase has to be anecdotal. But James Lord, head of landscape design at HTA, says that the front always looks busy now and that the council believes that there has been a tenfold increase. 
 
The first stage of the work involved creating the linear park, an 800m strip alongside the promenade which had previously only been a neglected grass area. With a budget of only £1.15 million (the cost for the entire project was £5 million), it was essential that the design was done in as economic a way as possible. There were two particular areas where money was saved – by paving over rather than replacing the existing promenade, and by avoiding the need for irrigation. 
 
The new planting is in the area that was previously occupied by the grass. It is not all planted, since HTA treated the area as a series of rooms, with playable elements scattered throughout. The idea was that this should not look like a playground, but that children would recognise it as such. Hard surfaces are mainly timber, providing what James Lord describes as a ‘barefoot trail’, an alternative to the formal beachside promenade which has been retained and enhanced. ‘The barefoot trail has been the most successful element,’ he said. ‘Children and parents love running through quite tall planting and into open areas. There are balance bars, wobble boards, talking tubes... it is an 800m- long playground that doesn’t look like one to the casual observer.’ In addition, near short-term parking spaces there are some entirely empty bays, where people can assemble their windsurfers before taking them to the beach. 
 
Between the planted area and the promenade there are benches, offering the traditional views out to sea. The council originally wanted bespoke benches, but these proved to be beyond the budget. Instead, the designer worked with furniture maker Wales & Wales, adapting an existing bench to suit its specific needs. Some have backs, and others do not, but all have plentiful wide arm rests – not as too often, to provide a deterrent to sleeping, but to act as informal tables from which visitors can eat fish and chips while looking out to sea. 
 
James explained, ‘We wanted to have long runs of benches so that groups of people could sit together, but we included some gaps.’ This was so that wheelchair users could slot into the spaces, joining in sociably with their friends. 
 
HTA worked on the planting with garden designer Noel Kingsbury. It wanted plants that would not need any irrigation either during planting or in use, partly for environmental reasons and partly because of the cost and difficulty of installing and operating irrigation on such a long thin strip. The area is planted with perennials and with some sub-shrubs, such as a lavender, but there are no trees or substantial shrubs. This was partly to preserve views across the planting to the sea and partly in keeping with the seaside aesthetic of displays of brightly coloured flowers. 
 
The plants need to be able to survive the salt spray that will frequently cover them. Most are southern Mediterranean plants, with a few from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. The main concern, beyond having plants that would survive, was to have a colourful display that lasted for as long a period as possible, changing with the seasons. This is of course a summer display, not all-year round, but given the seasonal nature of seaside use this was appropriate. ‘We started with early salvias and early-flowering lavender,’ James said. ‘There was a lot of colour through the middle of the summer, which is when the grasses also come into their own, and at the end of the season the red-hot pokers held out well, as did the echinacea and the asters.’ 
 
Of course HTA has a plant list, but it didn’t have a planting plan. This was not an omission but deliberate. ‘We had a strategy and about 14 different mixes,’ James explained. ‘We wanted repetition but never exactly the same effect.’ The team created mixes which had a combination of plant sizes and flowering times. Some were gold mixes, some blue and some warm colours. The heights were mixed up because this garden is designed to be seen from all sides (and from inside) – the opposite of a traditional long border with its planting stepping up towards a wall. 
 
The planting had to be done in the winter, because of the need to avoid irrigation. The first attempt in late 2010 was unsuccessful and had to be halted as there was unseasonably bad weather – snow beside the south coast is virtually unknown, but it happened that year. Early 2011 proved more successful however. Noel Kingsbury spent three days at the site showing how he set out plants. The HTA team continued for another week, in conditions that were fine for the plants, but less so for the people – largely driving rain. 
 
In addition to Noel Kingsbury’s expertise, there was another influence on the plant colours. HTA worked with artist Alison Turnbull on the project. As he walked the site with her, James said, ‘We were constantly looking at the landward side, and she was gazing out to sea.’ She created a colour-scape of the water and the reflections in it, and HTA worked with that palette. It influenced the planting but also the choice of other materials, for instance the topping that was placed over the failing tarmac on the promenade. It also influenced the colour choice of the low concrete wall that runs in front of the planting. This wall was constructed to protect the planting against the large stones which the sea regularly throws up during storms. If they fall on the promenade they can be bulldozed away (an indication of just how many there are). The team has also built some low walls from western red cedar among the planting, to protect the most vulnerable plants. None of this of course will cope with the worst-case scenario – the very possible overtopping by the sea in severe weather. But there is nothing that can be done to protect against that. 

Planting List

Shrubs
Cistus x pulverulentus ‘Sunset’
Cistus x dansereaui ‘Decumbens’
Cistus x purpureus
Cotoneaster microphyllus
Cytisus
‘Burkwoodii’
Cytisus x kewenensis
Euonymus japonicus
‘Microphyllus Aureovarigatus’
Griselinia littoralis
Olearia traversii
Pittosporum tenuifolium
‘Tom Thumb’
Rosa rugosa ‘Alba’ & Rosa rugosa ‘Rubra’
Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Prostratus’
Spiraea japonica ‘Goldflame’

Herbaceous, Perrenial and sub shrubs
Achillea ‘Moonshine’
Agapanthus Headbourne hybrids
Artemisia absinthium
Artemisia ludoviciana
‘Silver Queen’
Aster x frikartii ‘Mönch’
Ballota pseudodictamnus
Brachyglottis monroi
‘Brookside’
Bupleurum fruticosum
Cistus x argenteus
‘Silver Pink’
Convolvulus cneorum
Crambe cordifolia
Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora
‘George Davidson’
Dierama pulcherrimum
Eryngium bourgatii
Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii
Euphorbia cyparissias
Euphorbia x martini
Geranium
‘Orion’
Geranium sanguineum
Geranium oxonianum
‘Wargrave Pink’
Hebe albicans
Hebe
‘Holywell’
Hebe ‘Marjorie’
Hebe pimeleoides
Hebe rakaiensis
Hebe
‘Red Edge’
Hebe ‘Blue Gem’
Hebe ‘Youngii’
Hesperantha coccinea
Iris sibirica
‘Sparkling Rose’
Kniphofia ‘Alcazar’
Lavandula angustifolia
Libertia grandiflora
Limonium platyphyllum
Nepeta
‘Six Hills Giant’
Origanum vulgare
Osteospermum jucundum var. compactum
Ozothamnus ledifolius
Perovskia ‘
Blue Spire’
Phlomis chrysophylla
Phlomis fruticosa
Phlomis lanata
Phlomis russeliana
Phygelius x rectus
‘Winchester Fanfare’
Phygelius x rectus ‘Devils Tears’
Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’
Salvia nemorosa ‘Ostfriesland’
Salvia officinalis
Santolina chamaecyparissus
Santolina rosmarinifolia subsp. rosmarinifolia
Sedum spectabile
‘Brilliant’
Sedum telephium ‘Purple Emperor’
Stachys byzantina ‘Silver Carpet’

Grasses
Anemanthele lessoniana
Calamagrostis acutiflora
‘Karl Foerster’
Carex comans bronze-leaved
Elymus magellanicus
Helictotrichon sempervirens
Panicum virgatum
Stipa gigantea


GROSS CAPEX £5.10m
PHASE ONE BUDGET £1.15m


Programme, Phasing and Contract
Phase one
JCT Intermediate with Contractor’s design 
Design team appointed June 2009
Design stage complete November 2009
Public consultation September 2009
Documentation January – March 2010
Commence on site May 2010
Complete on site April 2011

 
The other main element of phase 1 is a series of timber shelters designed by architect Duggan Morris. The architect was appointed through an RIBA-run competition but there was good coordination with the HTA team. 
 
The landscape architect worked with a different architect, Stanton Williams, on the second phase of the project. This was on the land in front of the De la Warr pavilion, where the architect refurbished the Grade II listed colonnade, creating a restaurant and also some small retail units (‘no bigger than a garage’ James said) to house start-up businesses. HTA’s work here was less intensive, using largely lawns and steps to reinforce and improve the connection between the pavilion and the seafront – and also linking it to the first phase of the work. 
 
The response from the public has been almost entirely positive, even from people who were mistrustful at consultation phase. Despite HTA having produced visuals that were almost indistinguishable from the design as realised, the naysayers, according to James Lord, complained that nobody told them it would be like this! 
 
Noel Kingsbury has published his first e-book, called Plant Selection: Learning From Nature – A reference for landscape architects and designers. It is produced for MyGardenSchool and available for download from Amazon for £9.95

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