West Pier Trust’s Chief Executive, Rachel lives in Lewes and has worked for a range of non-profit organisations since leaving London University in 1981. She has worked at Brighton’s West Pier Trust since 1993.
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
Film star – failed the screen test.
Who had the greatest influence on you during your childhood?
My grandmother. She was a busy, practicing psychoanalyst until she died aged 91. She was innately wise.
If you could live in any other time, when might that be?
Wessex in the time of Alfred the Great.
What one word would you use to describe yourself?
What’s the one thing about you few people know?
That I adore chips (the fat English kind).
What do you like most about your job?
So much! Being part of the story of the West Pier, the range and diversity of the work, the people – my colleagues and those I meet through the job.
What is your particular interest in Brighton’s West Pier?
I was brought up quite a way from the coast so can’t claim to have a lifelong fascination with piers. But the West Pier takes a hold of people and I’m no exception. We were so close to restoring it in 2003 when it was burnt down, now I want to honour it, its memory and its important site. I would love to see a new West Pier worthy of Birch’s masterpiece.
What’s a typical day for you at WPT?
This will be an annoying answer, but there really isn’t a typical day, which is partly why I love the job so much. Much of my time is taken up with the kiosk restoration project at the moment (more below). This includes working with professionals on how would be the best way to restore such a unique building and pursuing a range of fundraising avenues.
What has been the stand out moment of your career at WPT?
There have been three, two good and one terrible. November 1998 when we heard we’d been successful in our Heritage Lottery Fund bid and were awarded £14.2m – 50% of the necessary finance to restore the pier. An awful one – the Friday morning in March 2003 when the pier pavilion was destroyed in the first arson attack (closely followed by the Sunday in May that year when the arsonist struck again). And another great moment – the opening of BAi360 in August 2016, a brilliant new attraction in its own right, a perfect homage to the pier and a use of the site which doesn’t preclude a new West Pier in the future.
The West Pier Centre opened last year and is a wonderful celebration of the old pier. What plans are there for the Centre and WPT going forward?
The Centre re-establishes the Trust on the seafront after a nine year absence – it serves as an office, information point, exhibition space, education room and shop. It’s a multi-functional, flexible space. We have recently relaunched our education programme and sessions for students of all ages take place there, year-round. We hold regular talks for WPT members and plan to expand this to special events open to everyone. We host exhibitions. The popular Roger Bamber exhibition has just closed, from March we will be showing vintage Argus photographs of the pier. It also houses a little shop – we sell books and small pier related items.
Can you tell us more about the West Pier Golden Spiral and plans to restore the 1866 octagonal kiosk recovered from the pier in 1996?
The Golden Spiral was a created using the columns that supported the pier over the beach. Golden spirals are found in nature and used to achieve balance and harmony in architecture, art and design. A plaque puts Eugenius Birch, designer of the West Pier, at the centre of the spiral.
Having set up our new base in the Centre, we’re now focused on restoring an original octagonal pier kiosk, to be reinstated just east of the Golden Spiral and adjacent to the Centre. It was one of six which adorned the pier when it opened in 1866. The kiosk was recovered during 1996 and has since been kept in storage. We have recently begun the ambitious project to restore it to its former glory. The pier is lost, but this will be a fine example of a key part of it for the public to enjoy. It will be the oldest pier building in the world. It will be the West Pier Seaside Learning Centre where everyone can come to celebrate the pier and learn about all aspects of the seaside. We are making good progress but need to raise a lot of money to complete the project – look out for fundraising initiatives in the coming months!
WPT wants to build a new, contemporary pier. What can you tell us about this?
WPT has never given up on the pier. Although there is now no chance of a restoration, a public consultation in 2014/15 demonstrated that people would like to see a new pier on the site. No one wants a highly commercial, densely built upon pier, but the consensus is that a contemporary ‘light touch’ top quality design would be a worthy successor to the West Pier. When we have progressed further with the kiosk restoration we will start exploring the options to realise this ambition.
What would you say to someone to convince them they should become a WPT member?
Please support a project that is so much part of Brighton’s unique identity and that celebrates the finest pier ever built, meet others interested in the pier, seaside architecture and social history, enjoy members’ talks and other events.
If you were celebrating in a year’s time what a great year it’s been for you in your role, what would you have achieved in this time?
We’d have made big strides with the kiosk project and raised all the necessary funding to complete the project.
Who is your role model and why?
My grandmother (again!)
What’s the secret of your longevity in your current role?
When you’re not working, what’s your favourite weekend activity?
Running, reading, cooking, chips.