Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


There is something quite irresistible about the great British pleasure pier. Somehow, our piers manage to combine a wonderful jumble of national passions. They embody our fascination with the coast and the sea, with Victorian engineering and with the beautiful, eccentric folly that architecture can gift us every now and then. Add to that the idea of pleasure in itself - woven into the fabric of these majestic structures - which takes so many forms, from slot machines to concerts to carnival excess and not forgetting the simpler delights of a gentle walk out into the ocean or a stolen kiss at the end of the promenade. If our seaside towns have become bound up with centuries worth of fun seeking, then the pier is a pivotal part of the story.

The very idea of a pier can be enough to tempt and tease us. Often, as a family, we will go to Southwold on the Suffolk coast and walk along the beach until the mouth of the River Blyth stops us from going any further. On the walk back towards the town Southwold Pier is a constant presence, making that extraordinary leap from land to sea yet going nowhere. Like some strange, grounded ship, it seems to serve no obvious purpose than to draw us towards it. Always - whether we plan it or not - we end up standing at the end of the pier, looking out across the soupy mass of grey brown water.

Perhaps another reason that the pier endears itself towards us is that it is also a noble survivor, pulling through against the odds with classic British resolve. There used to be around a hundred piers around the coastline, but nearly half of these have been lost and others are under threat. Those that have made it through have survived storms, stray ships and fires and also the greatest threat of all – the package holiday boom, which shifted the focus away from our shores to the sunnier beaches of Alicante and Majorca.

Many of our piers actually began life as little more than landing docks for pleasure steamers bringing in expectant passengers to seaside resorts from the big industrial cities in the nineteenth century. As the great British public also began to let the train take the strain and the Victorian fascination with all things seaside got underway, piers began to adapt. For the Victorians especially, the seaside offered the great escape from fast growing cities of work and smog. They were a respite cure, with all that bracing sea air and an invigorating dip in the sea. The seaside town grew and grew to cater for this newly mobile army of incomers and the pleasure piers – a peculiarly British invention - grew with them.

There might be a bandstand, a café and perhaps a music hall or a theatre, possibly a tramway, a shooting gallery and other amusements. Some piers, like Clacton-on-Sea Pier, embraced the notion of pleasure seeking more than others. Clacton followed our ever changing fancies and has evolved again and again since it first opened in 1871. During its heyday in the 1920s and ‘30s the Pier added a dance hall, the Ocean Theatre, the Crystal Casino and a swimming pool. Its attractions today are perhaps not so sophisticated but it still aims to draw in the punters with every trick in the book. The end of the pier show became an institution in many resorts, such as Cromer in North Norfolk, where the 510-seater Pavilion Theatre still hosts concerts and ‘Seaside Specials’. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Hastings Pier hosted The Who, Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones.

Hastings also had the great benefit of having been designed by one of the most famous Victorian pier designers, Eugenius Birch. Birch was an engineer and a naval architect who moved into piers in a big way during the 1850s, designing over a dozen, including Bournemouth Pier and Brighton’s now defunct West Pier. He had spent time in India and brought imagination and exoticism to the design of the soaring pavilions that peopled his sea structures. Yet as an engineer he was also an innovator, coming up with the idea of screw piling to create a super strong support system thrust deep into the sands below.

Different approaches to design helped give particular character to each and every pier. Some, like Saltburn Pier in North Yorkshire or Clevedon Pier in Somerset, have a simple, uncluttered sense of lightness and grace. Clevedon, designed by Grover & Ward in the 1860s, needed to be tall and light to cope with the strong currents circulating below. Llandudno Pier in North Wales, designed by Charles Henry Driver and opened in 1878, has to be one of the most delightful and best preserved of Britain’s surviving cast iron piers, with its long promenade, T-shaped steamer landing stage and a sequence of small kiosks, like miniature pagodas.

But Llandudno – now a Grade II listed building – must certainly count itself as one of the lucky ones. Most of the survivors have life stories full of high drama and narrow escapes, usually involving fierce storms, boat strikes, fires, partial collapses and the practice of ‘sectioning’ in World War II, when many piers on the east and south coasts were partially dismantled and sectioned off to stop them being used as landing stages by the Germans. Blackpool North Pier was badly beaten in 1897 by HMS Foudroyant, Nelson’s old flagship, which was moored close to the pier and wrecked by a storm. In May 1924 the good ship Ovenbeg took a big chunk out of Saltburn Pier and back in 1993 Cromer Pier was temporarily severed below the neck by a runaway rig barge named Tayjack.

The stories go on. And as each of our piers is part of the very identity of the towns which they serve, any damage or loss is felt acutely. The long standing saga of the slow death of Birch’s West Pier in Brighton has been a local and national tragedy. Last year’s fire at Hastings Pier was another keenly felt disaster, especially for those who had been campaigning hard to restore the pier. The good news is that Hastings has just secured Heritage Lottery
funding for a rebuild.

Some piers still struggle, but those that remain have found many different ways to survive, drawing upon their strengths, histories and architecture. Some have talked of the death of the pier, others of their rebirth. The truth lies somewhere in between and the piers themselves continue to fight on while constantly drawing us in. Only the hardest hearts could resist their charms for long.