Artist's Impression

In Victorian times, Britain was a manufacturing colossus, the workshop of the world. A new architecture was born, the architecture of the machine. Strength and space were the new priorities but the Victorians were, of course, never above a little ostentation. Often their industrial buildings were not merely practical places of profit but monuments to both Age and owner.

Many of the industries that drove this architectural revolution are now long gone or have very different architectural demands. The result is a legacy of buildings that are not only immensely strong, durable and spacious but, in many cases, also surprisingly beautiful. In short, buildings that were once ideal for machinery and that can now prove equally ideal for people.

And these buildings can turn up in the most unlikely places. One would hardly consider Hastings a powerhouse of the industrial revolution and yet here, literally just a stone's throw from the beach, is a building that exemplifies all that can be so exciting about a period industrial or commercial property when considering it as a potential contemporary home.

The building is part of the Brassey Institute, a lovely example of decorative Venetian Gothic designed by William Liberty Vernon and opened in 1879. The building was a joint venture by Lord Brassey, politician and wealthy son of Thomas Brassey, the great civil engineer responsible for many of world's great 19th century railways and a local printer and publisher, Frederick Parsons. Two thirds of the building Brassey gave to the town and it became home to a reference library, assembly room, a school of art and science and accommodation for the Hastings Rowing Club. It's now the Hastings Area Library.

The final third of the property became the new offices and printworks of the Hastings Observer. The company finally moved from the building in 1985 and it then went through a variety of incarnations before finally ending up, in 2009, much dilapidated, as a laser battle entertainment centre and a gym.

Enter Lorna Lloyd and Bryan Dyke. The couple, both film editors, left London for the country in 1996 and found and refurbished a rectory near Rye. Lorna took a degree in ceramics, trained in black and white photography and began a new professional life working from home. However, after 12 years they decided on a change, sold their rectory and rented in Brightling while they decided what they'd like to do next. By chance they heard that the old Observer building was for sale. They saw it - and the huge potential it offered - and made an immediate offer.

Their first task before signing on the dotted line, however, was to get change of use from commercial to domestic. This proved relatively and surprisingly simple. It was then that the fun began with the local listed planning and building control authorities vying to establish which could be the most obstructive.

The first hurdle was installing a lift - this is a sizeable building - and since this would entail considerable structural work, it would have to be one of the initial projects. Unfortunately, the planners dug in their heels and in the end the couple lost patience and decided they'd go ahead without it. But there was more trouble to come.

"The lower floors where partitioned by 1960's studwork and we had to produce detailed plans of every modern addition we wanted to take out," says Bryan. With the planning committee only meeting once every three months clearly this was going to be a long haul. The sheer size of the challenge they had taken on also soon became evident so they employed Shorn Thompson of Ivyscar Construction as project manager.

"Shorn proved to be an absolute logistical genius," says Lorna. Further professional advice would come from RDP Architects and invaluable financial assistance from the local Lloyds Bank manager, Andy Williams. With the interior on hold, they decided to start on the exterior of the building first. "The scaffolding alone was a work of art," remembers Bryan. From the beginning the couple were determined to try to use only traditional materials and local craftsmen.

This meant lime-based mortar for the acres of re-pointing, new moulds for the damaged Sussex bricks, new cast-iron guttering to replace the crumbling plastic system, tailor-made new windows and a new roof.

Lorna and Bryan had both long and short term plans for the building. The initial vision called for two 'guest' bedrooms in the eaves that would provide income in the shape of B&B visitors. The second floor down would be the family apartment while below that there would be artists' studio space, an event venue, office space and a retail outlet for their son's housewares and interiors business, Dyke & Dean. In the long term, the couple envisage a major arts club, serving Hastings' large arts community.

They made their first offer on the property in January 2009, work started in October and they moved in May, 2010. The B&B guestrooms, the apartment, the studio, the office and the retail outlet are all complete. "It has been a long haul but worth it," says Lorna, and indeed it has - the couple now not only have a unique new home but Hastings has a range of much needed new amenities.

Under the pitched roof, the two beamed B&B guest-rooms - the Gutenberg and the Caxton - are both beautifully light, bright and offer lovely views over the surrounding roofscapes and bonus views, by proxy, of an old barn photographed by Lorna.

Below, the apartment is spectacular. The living room, that also incorporates the kitchen and a dining area, is truly vast, soaring up past huge white-painted beams to the pitched roof. The ceiling is white wood panelwork that was so delicate that Lorna and Bryan decided not to try to insulate it from the inside but go in from above when they retiled the roof. The floor is an original Yonkers beech floor, a legacy of the dance studio that preceded the gym. On one side the walls are of bare brick and on the other of age-damaged render.

Beneath the work surface, made from former floorboards and slates from an old pool table, are large filing cabinet-sized drawers each with equally large numbers on them - all refugees from the dress departments of the old ATV television studios. An island that divides off the dining area is also kitted out with these unusual and very practical drawers. Gathered round a mahogany coffee table are three elegant sofas, one a French fin de siècle and its opposing number, a period American piece. Above the latter is a large abstract by Michael Denton.

Opposite the kitchen end of this space is a huge and superb mirror that has travelled somehow unscathed with Lorna and Bryan through all their previous homes and has come to rest where it seems it has always belonged. Other fun pieces in this vast living space include Bryan's grandmother's old pedal Singer sewing machine and one of the building's old water tanks, now home to a miniature forest of plants. The lighting is provided by chunky former factory lights from Hastings antique dealers Myerscough & Mairs.

Centrepiece - literally - of the bathroom is a white free-standing bath, set off beautifully by the black painted floorboards. A mahogany sideboard adds a period flavour and, as in the guest bathroom, Lorna's ceramics add the perfect finishing touch. The floor is also home to two further bedrooms - one Lorna and Bryan's - yet to be finished.

The library gathers around an original brick fireplace, either side of which are floor-to-ceiling books, CDs and DVDs. An arts and crafts mirror hangs over the fireplace and in the corner, by a window looking out over another wonderful roofscape, is a small and delicate piano no larger than a ship's piano.

Down a stunning sweeping, turning staircase, which only came to light when the boxing that obscured it was torn out, is the office space which has been rented by local architect, John McCart and the smaller of the two studios. The main studio, now called Studio 14, is a superb amenity for local artists - a huge space complete with ceramics kiln.

It's here, perhaps for the first time, one has a sense of the immense strength of this building; the floors are of stone and the ceiling supported by massive steels made by the Lanarkshire Steel Company that once exported high quality steel all over the world. Artists already using the space include ceramicists, a textile artist, an instrument maker and, of course, Lorna. A ceramicist from Hastings College will also shortly be using the space in which to run classes. The final space - another impressive former machine room - has even more impressive steels and is awaiting its planned transformation into an events venue.

'14 Claremont', as the building is now known, is a textbook example of how to take a beautiful Grade II listed commercial building and create an outstanding home while at the same time contributing significantly to the local community by providing unique and much-needed local amenities. For Lorna and Bryan, it has been a labour of love, a journey of desperation and delight which has stretched their imagination and commitment to the full.

"There were times when we seriously wondered why on earth we had taken on such a big project," says Lorna. "But it has all been worth it in the end."

Thomas Brassey, who himself did so much for the town, would, if he could see what they have achieved, more than share their pleasure in the new lease of life they have given this magnificent old building.

  • words John Graham-Hart
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming