Community Ledge #10: Will Stevens
Men have been elbowed off the Ledge recently so we’re coming back with a colourful character, well known to many in the community as William the Cone-Queror: a kind of Pied Piper of the seafront, enigmatically plying his trade in ‘boater and white coat’. Will has now moved on to Goat Ledge, taking the ice-creams with him. But who is he and where did he come from? So far, we know he enjoys a pie supper at the Albion, so that’s a good start.
Thanks as always to their Albion for their sponsorship and the provision of one of their famous pie meals to each Community Ledge.
I understand you have always had an interest in ‘the common good’. Is that true or just a myth?
Not sure about always. My great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather was Jeremy Bentham, so perhaps I’ve inherited his interest in “the greatest good for the greatest number”
What sort of things did you get up to before coming to Hastings?
I’ve done a range of things over the last twenty years. After leaving art school, I was a bike courier in Montreal and worked at a homeless shelter in Aberystwyth. I rode 6,000 miles round the coast of Britain on a double decker bicycle with my brother and more recently, had a painting studio in the crypt of a gothic church in Paddington. In 2015, I hitchhiked to Georgia, where I ended up living in a remote monastery. That was pretty lonely, so after six months, I came back to England, to settle somewhere I could swim in the sea every day and be close to London, where Chloe (my then-girlfriend) was still living. I came to stay with my friend Chris Petts, who lives in Warrior Square. One winter morning, he gave me a tour of St Leonards; it was walking up Decimus Burton Way that clinched my decision to move here. I love the topography of the “Old Woman’s Tapshaw” (St Leonards Gardens) and the combination of hills, coast and woodland around the town.
Your William the Cone-Queror persona acquired legendary status along the seafront. What was the idea behind this?
I think the ice cream performance was an unwitting way of getting as far from the remote Georgian monastery as possible! It was strange to be living in such austere conditions, rising at five, eating only bread and potatoes, surrounded by monks in black robes, and then suddenly, within a matter of weeks, find myself on a seaside promenade in straw boater and white coat, with a queue of children clamouring for “Seagull Poo” (ice cream). As Dave Santan says: “life’s so funny”.
When you swam 10 miles from the Sovereign Lighthouse to raise money for the Seaview Project and the Fellowship of St Nicolas, you said you wanted to support ‘those helping local families’. Why the big feat and why local families?
I’m very conscious of being a new arrival here, and one who can afford to buy a house, which plenty of local families cannot. I love the melee of different people who live in the town but am conscious that relatively affluent incomers like me affect the demographic. And things change very quickly. I hate the thought of people struggling to afford to live in the town where they grew up, and I wanted to support initiatives that bring cohesion, and help reduce disparity between “haves and have-nots”. I still find the Sovereign lighthouse an enigmatic sight on the horizon. It was a perfect starting point for the big swim in 2016. because I was coming home with every stroke. Unfortunately, I think they’re dismantling it later this year. R.I.P. Royal Sovereign!
That wasn’t your first engagement with the community as you were also involved in trying to save St Leonards Crown Post Office. What was that about?
My heart always sinks when I see people using the automated tills at Co-Op. In an increasingly robotic age, I think actual human contact and shared physical spaces are vitally important. Raising an army of walking pillar boxes (cardboard costumes) to march on the Royal Victoria was triumphant. Luckily the Post Office continues to be an important nodal point for the people of St Leonards, along with the other shops on London Road. I think the protest showed how strongly people felt about that.
You’ve since gone on to open Goat Ledge with Rob Stone. Do you see that as a business venture or a community venture?
I think of Goat Ledge as an expanded version of my ice cream trolley … somewhere people can congregate. In answer to your question, it’s foremost a community venture. Believe it or not, I made a much better living as William the Cone-Queror than I will ever do from Goat Ledge. The staff work extraordinarily hard and trying to keep on top of the weather forecast is one of many tough challenges. Hopefully the cafe manages to strike the right balance between fresh and affordable food.
You recently started a discussion about the local community under the banner of Changing Hastings. What sparked this off and what do you aim to achieve??
As I just said, I was very conscious when I moved here that I was implicated in the changes taking place; gentrification can very easily become social cleansing rather than ‘re-generation’. I can no longer afford to live in the area of London where I was brought up, so I wondered whether – in a spirited, characterful community like this – there was any desire and/or agency for people to try and shape the social future of the town themselves. Perhaps we’re all at the mercy of inevitable macro-economic forces, but it seemed worth bringing people together to ask questions about the direction we’re all heading, communally. I find it outrageous that housing – such a basic human requirement is now seen by some as a legitimate opportunity to make profit and play monopoly, while for others, it’s a source of immense anxiety. I hate that more than anything. Let’s hope Covid-19 will turn some inhumane systems on their head.
How has having a baby changed you view of the world (if at all)?
Having a child has made me even keener to re-instate the Goat Ledge sandpit. And the staff very sweetly gave us a baby wetsuit when our child, Perry, was born. I’m looking forward to using that this summer.
Are you optimistic about the future?
Have you listened to the news recently? No, not hugely. As far as I can tell, the more time spent offline, outside, on the beach, in the sea, with children (or animals) – the better!
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