Zoe’s passion for new culture hub

Zoe Ashdown, MD of St Mary-in-the-Castle
Zoe Ashdown, MD of St Mary-in-the-Castle

The woman tasked with turning seafront venue St Mary-in-the-Castle into a cultural destination is bursting with ideas. Reporter Hannah Collisson went to meet her in her first week in the job.

St Mary-in-the-Castle’s new managing director, 30-year-old Zoe Ashdown, has big plans, but rightly so, as after all this is a large building that has been massively underused.

Zoe, a Hastings-born former costume designer with a passion for the arts, landed the job and moved down from London after Buckswood School’s bid to take on the lease of the Grade II listed building was given the go-ahead by the council.

As far as she is concerned the sky is the limit in terms of potential uses for the venue, and as well as attracting performers and creatives from further afield, the key is for the local community to feel a sense of ownership.

She said: “We have been inundated with enthusiasm for the project. As soon as people find out what I’m doing, they will shout tons of ideas at me, which is really exciting.

“You don’t get the impression that you are flogging a dead horse.”

As far as her plans go for St Mary-in-the-Castle, first and foremost she wants all the spaces to be used, by and for the community, in any way possible, and is keen to dispel the myth that it is a venue for classical music only.

More than that, it is to be much more than just a music venue and cafe, although it is to be these things as well.

Comedy, film, cabaret, art competitions and exhibitions, educational programmes, big costume events such as a ‘Seaside Speakeasy’, seasonal happenings, children’s activities, meeting space for local organisations, and a wedding venue, are just some of the ideas that Zoe is currently mulling over.

What it boils down to is demand. She is determined to speak to as many people as possible to find out what it is that local people would like to see the space used for, taking the bottom up rather than top down approach.

“I do love classical music, and I want that to continue,” added Zoe, who is keen to work with current and previous users of St Mary-in-the-Castle, as well as to link up with other venues in the town - she is adamant that she is not out to step on any toes.

Zoe completed a history degree before training as a costume designer, and has worked in television, film, and theatre, most recently on famous West End production Les Miserables, which has nine shows a week.

Going from this to taking over the reins at St Mary-in-the-Castle is no mean feat, but Zoe is not one to turn down a challenge.

Throughout the hour or so that I am with her, Zoe constantly referred to and scribbled in an A4 notebook, already bursting at the seams with dates, ideas and lists of people to see and things to do. And that was only on day two.

She is clearly has a lot on her plate, but was almost overflowing with enthusiasm, and said: “I wanted something to get my teeth into, something that was a change from just theatre.

“I think I would be kidding myself if I wasn’t nervous, but then to balance that I’ve got so many ideas and am so excited.

“I wasn’t expecting it to be as beautiful as it is.”

Despite Hastings being her teenage stomping ground (her parents live in Burwash), like many people in the town, she had never been inside, until recently.

The structure dates back to the 1820s, and is packed full of original features, such as stained glass windows, crypt, pews, and the original clock.

Zoe added: “It is going to be so exciting. Because I have always been such a busy person, I would always be going to an exhibition or a gig, and so to be able to put them on myself is fantastic!”

Bookings continue to be taken during this changeover period of management, and the ultimate aim is to establish a calendar of events that draws in people not just from Hastings and St Leonards, but from surrounding areas.

“It’s going to take time for people to realise we are here,” said Zoe.

Because of sky high operating costs it is key that there be a packed programme of events.

“We have got the space, and we want to use it all day, every day, if we can,” she said.

Hastings Borough Council is carrying out a number of repairs after which the St Mary-in-the-Castle Charitable Trust, established by Buckswood to act as the tenant, will be responsible for ongoing maintenance over the 10-year lease.

The cafe will be back up and running as soon as possible, and instead of an opening event on a grand scale, the process is to be more organic.

Zoe is to work from an office on-site, assisted by a yet to be recruited PA, and supported by cafe/bar and catering staff, technicians, and stewards.

There is to be a front of house area created, with tickets also available from Hastings Information Centre.

A website will be coming soon, but in the meantime search for “St Mary in the Castle” on Facebook or follow @maryinthecastle on Twitter for updates.