Nine piers of the realm
THINK seaside pier and you are instantly transported with images and remembered smells and tastes of glittering coloured lights, candy floss, fish and chips, 1950s jukeboxes and pinball machines, end-of-the-pier shows and fairground rides. A phenomenon of the 19th century and the demand for leisure activities and days out for the growing urban population, they were architectural delights with their slender legs and intricate wrought iron and carved wood decorations. A century of storms, vandalism, fires and changing social and cultural habits have inevitably wrought havoc with such inherently fragile structures. However, with support from local councils and cultural organisations, locally-born celebrities and even national heritage grants, some survive to cater to today’s holidaymakers, while still evoking memories of Victorian and Edwardian style, charabanc excursions and family holidays.
A very different pier gave its name to one of George Orwell’s best-known books. The Road to Wigan Pier reported on the bleak social reality of pre-Second World War poverty and suffering in the north of England. The once-thriving industrial centre of Wigan is, of course, miles from the sea – Wigan Pier was a wharf on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal,
Blackpool Central Pier is almost certainly the best known pier in this country and one of the most famous in the world. Built in 1867 and opening to the public in 1867, it has provided entertainment to tourists and locals alike for more than 150 years. With its 108-foot big wheel and fairground activities it is the archetype of family seaside entertainment.
Bournemouth Pier has great views of Bournemouth’s famously sandy beach, but it has suffered from the depredations of high winds and gales since its opening in 1856, and has changed considerably over the years. The current structure was completed in 1981. Dorset also has surviving piers at Boscombe (opened in 1889), Swanage (1895) and Weymouth (current building 1930s).
Brighton had two piers. The beautiful, wedding cake West Pier, famously used as a location for the film of Oh! What a Lovely War! (1969), is now a sad and forlorn relic after fires, vandalism and storms. But the Grade-II listed Brighton Palace Pier, which opened in 1899, remains a thriving tourist attraction, close to another extravagant survivor of Brighton’s past glories, the exotic and rococo Pavilion created by the Prince Regent..
Clevedon Pier, which opened in 1869, was described by Sir John Betjeman, as “the most beautiful pier in England” and was given Grade I listing in 2001. It was built during the 1860s to attract tourists and provide a ferry port for rail passengers to South Wales. For nearly 100 years it was also an embarkation point for paddle steamer excursions. A few miles along Somerset’s Bristol Channel coast is Burnham-on-Sea which has Britain’s shortest pier – basically a shoreward pavilion on concrete piles, that retains its Edwardian features and elegance. Built between 1911-1914, it was the first concrete structure of its kind in Europe.
Cromer pier, opened in 1901, is one of only five piers in the UK that have a theatre, and is home to the only surviving “End of the pier show” in the world.
Llandudno, the longest pier in Wales, was built in 1876 and needed alterations after an accident with a ship. It is open every day of the year.
Ryde on the Isle of Wight is renowned as the oldest in Britain, opening in July 1814. The pier still maintains regular ferries to and from Portsmouth Harbour.
Southend-on-Sea pier is the longest in Britain – 7,080 feet, 2,158 metres. In the early 19th century, Southend was a growing holiday resort, reflecting the current belief that sea air was good for health, and its proximity to London. But this part of the Essex coast consists of large mudflats, so the sea is never very deep even at full tide and recedes more than a mile from the beach at low tide. Many tourist boats sailed past Southend and on to Margate, or other resorts where docking facilities were better. Local dignitaries pushed for a pier to be built and the first 600ft wooden pier was opened in 1830. By 1833 it had been extended to three times its length and by 1848 was the longest pier in Europe at 7,000 feet (2,100 m). The wooden pier was replaced by an iron structure in 1887. Further extensions followed in 1897 and 1927.
Weston-super-Mare Grand Pier, overlooking the long sandy beach with its nostalgic memories of traditional seaside holidays, complete with donkey rides, funny hats and saucy postcards, opened in 1904, and has had a dramatic history. It was destroyed by fire in 1930, extensively re-built in the resulting years but damaged by fire again in 2008. It reopened in 2010.
FOOTNOTE: Birnbeck Pier Weston-super-Mare has a second pier, the Birnbeck, the only pier in the country which links the mainland to an island (Birnbeck Island), to the west of Worlebury Hill. Opened in 1867, the pier is Grade II* listedm has a Gothic toll house and pierced buildings designed by local architect Hans Price. It has been closed since 1994 and is on the Buildings at Risk Register and the Victorian Society’s list of 10 most endangered buildings. The pier is derelict but the Birnbeck Regeneration Trust is trying to raise money and get planning permission for a plan to save it. Actor Timothy West, who came to Weston-super-Mare for holidays as a boy, is among those who have voiced support for this Victorian gem to be saved.