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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » English Piers: Long Walks Into the Past, Present and Future

English Piers: Long Walks Into the Past, Present and Future

The Victorian/Edwardian walkways off Britain’s coasts hold enduring fascination, are historic legacies and business opportunities, mixing past and future.

There’s something beyond quaint curiosity about standing on a platform, off-shore, enjoying views and bracing air. ‘Pier’ describes a raised, supported walkway over water, freely flowing around its piles and beneath its planking. Piers can be simple and short or a major structure a mile long.

Warehouses and cargo functions define US and Australian piers, but the British cast-iron model became associated with the pursuit of pleasure and entertainment, although Lowestoft South doubles as harbour wall on its north side. Cromer Pier and Britannia Pier, Gt Yarmouth still sport working theatres.

Piers were beloved of Victorian/Edwardian architects, town planners and citizens as they became symbols of civic pride. They are cast-iron icons of 19th Century Britain. Brighton, for example had Chain, West and still has Palace Pier; others cherished a single edifice.

Pier Politics

According to National Piers Society, less than half Victorian-era piers remain; many ‘face an uncertain future’. The Society, founded in 1979, under the auspices of Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman, has become the leading pier authority, mounting fund-raising and awareness campaigns, saving many.

Neglect, decay, perceived anachronism and the ravages of weather contribute to the demise of piers. Advice to local/national government, heritage bodies, lottery boards and the media remind people (and taxpayers) of the enjoyment available from piers and the cultural significance of heritage.

Working with organisations like British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers and Attractions (pier owners/operators) and the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society (ship excursions from pier landings and heads), the Society works in economically difficult, politically challenging climates.

BALPPA hosts a lunch every spring for Members of Parliament with attractions, amusements or piers in their constituencies. Like all lobbying lunches, it’s an opportunity to combine business with pleasure and network over a range of tourist issues.

Southend Pier: Political Difficulties

First planned in 1828, it opened at 600 feet. By 1846 it was a mile and a quarter with a passenger train. Later electrified as wood was replaced with iron, it grew. By 1898 it was the world’s longest. After war use by the Navy, it enjoyed glory days till late 1960s, with annually 5 million rail passengers and a million walkers.

By the mid 1970s, fire destroyed the pier head; repairs were estimated at over a million pounds. Like many civic amenities, arguments crystallised around costs of redesign, repair, safety and changing fashions versus treasuring local history and exploiting new commercial/entertainment ideas, like amusements, museums, bingo/lotteries, fishing, marketed as ‘Traditional British Seaside Holidays’.

Political and economic debate continued into the 21st century. With increasing cost of health and safety compliance, the future of piers is far from rosy. Many are used for lifeboat stations and as unusual settings for functions like weddings.

At Southend, as elsewhere, grandiose plans for roller-coasters, casinos and restaurants do not win universal support. Of course, councillors are anxious to save by renewal, but are wary of schemes which may fail in harsh economic times, leaving unfinished works to the mercies of Britain’s seas.

Lost Piers

Piers that succumbed to sea-swell, storms, erosion, collapse, collision and fire, include: Leith Trinity Chain Pier (1821- 1898); Aberavon (1898) became a breakwater in the 1960s; St Leonard’s Palace in Hastings (1891) was bombed in the war, demolished in 1951, and the short, never-completed Aldeburgh Pier in the mid-19th Century.

Roller-skating, wrestling, animal shows: piers have tried everything to pull crowds, especially outside summer seasons. Minehead’s pier opened in 1901, and became the only one completely demolished in the war, to give gun batteries a clear view. Rebuilding plans in the 2000s collapsed. Lytham had one (1865-1960) but still has St Annes (1885). Folkestone Victoria (1888-1943); Fleetwood Victoria (1910-2008), Redcar (1873-1981) and Lee-on-Solent (1988-1958) have gone.

The first recognised picture postcard (1894) featured Scarborough Pier (1869-1905). Morecambe lost two: Central (1869) burned away in 1991 and West End (1896-1978) from storms. Dover had Promenade (1893-1925); Plymouth had their Promenade (1884-1953) and Walton-on-the-Naze’s 1830-1880 one give them briefly the distinction of being the smallest resort to boast two piers.

The Isle of Wight lost five: Shanklin (1890-1993); Cowes Victoria (1902-1961); Cowes Royal (1866-1882); Ventnor Royal Victoria (1873-1992) and Ryde (1864-1924); but retained Sandown Culver (1879), Yarmouth (1876) and another at Ryde. Kent’s Pegwell Bay was the shortest-living of any, just 5 years from 1879.

Living Piers

In Hunstanton, locals refer to ‘the pier’: an arcade and bowling complex occupying the entrance of what was once East Anglia’s finest. Opened in 1870, paddle steamers crossed The Wash to Skegness Pier (still surviving). Its pavilion was destroyed by fire in 1939, and after the war it housed a small zoo and miniature steam railway. Storms struck in 1978; it was engulfed in flames in 2002.

Other genuine piers survive, with degrees of former glory evident. Blackpool South, North and Central Piers are essential to their tourist industry. Aberystwyth Royal, Falmouth, Bangor Garth, Felixstowe, Southampton Royal, Anglesey’s Beaumaris, Southport, Southsea Clarence and Southsea South Parade, Harwich, Bognor Regis, Llandudno, Burnham-on-Sea, Clevedon, Weymouth Bandstand, Colwyn Bay Victoria, Southwold and Hastings survive.

So do Boscombe, Herne Bay, Swanage, Bournemouth, Hythe, Teignmouth Grand, Torquay Princess, Lowestoft Claremont, Totland Bay, Clacton, Mumbles, Weston-Super-Mare Birnbeck, Paignton, Penarth, Ramsey Queens, Dunoon, Saltburn, Sandown Culver, Cleethorpes, Colwyn Bay Victoria, Deal, Worthing and Weymouth Commercial/Pleasure Pier, while Gravesend Town is the oldest surviving cast-iron pier in the world (1834).

Piers in Movies

Barnacle Bill (1956) was set on Hunstanton Pier. The Dark Man (1951) featured Hastings Pier. Cromer Pier set the opening of DV8 Dance Company’s The Cost of Living. Piers are part of the landscape of seaside resorts, yet nostalgic reminders of simpler but ambitious times. Many are phoenix-like icons, rising from (literal) ashes to be reborn.

Brighton’s West Pier featured in Oh What A Lovely War (1968) and The Fruit Machine 1998. Brighton Rock (1947; 2010) from Graham Greene’s novel, demanded local Brighton scenes. The Daily Mail’s Simon Cable reported (February 2011) that for the 2010 remake, producers found Brighton Pier ‘too modern’, so used Eastbourne Pier instead!

West Pier awaits better economic times for a partial rebuild to create ‘Brighton i360’, a viewing platform, virtual pier in the sky. The plans follow years of extensions, rebuildings since 1866. Landing stages, bandstand, ballroom/concert hall and architectural features led determined bands of activists/campaigners to fight for its survival.

They raised money; every few years fire or heavy gales destroyed bits. Council demolition orders and business regeneration ideas came and went. Still standing, it’s a skeleton of former glory, but a landmark to a symbolic dream: to stand on a pier enjoying the heritage, imagining the future where people value their pasts.

First published on Suite 101, 25 March 2011.

Image: End of the Pier Shows at Cromer – Bodacea

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