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The world’s first seaside pleasure pier – at Ryde on the Isle of Wight – celebrated its 200th anniversary last weekend. It was the first of what became a particularly British phenomenon: by 1914 more than 100 piers stretched out from the UK coast, though today two-fifths of those have been destroyed by storms, fires, ship collisions or neglect (Eastbourne pier being the latest victim, ravaged by fire on Wednesday). Here Anthony Wills, a director of the National Piers Society and co-author of a book published by English Heritage to mark the bicentenary, picks five piers of particular significance.
Ryde, Isle of Wight (1814) Ryde is considered the first proper seaside pier, as opposed to a simple jetty or causeway. It opened on July 26, 1814, having been commissioned by local businessmen eager to allow ships to land at all stages of the tide, and without passengers having to disembark into the water. The 703-metre-long structure soon became popular with promenaders, bands began to give concerts and in 1842, a pavilion was added to accommodate them. Today Ryde remains a working pier, with ferries arriving from the mainland every half-hour. The steam train that once carried visitors along the pier and on to Ventnor has been replaced with old London Tube carriages.
Blackpool, Lancashire (1863, 1868 and 1893) No fewer than three piers grace the promenade of this lively seaside town. North Pier was the first, one of 14 designed by the noted Victorian engineer Eugenius Birch. It was aimed at the town’s gentry, had its own orchestra and charged a toll to keep the lower classes away. However, it became clear that more down-to-earth attractions were needed to meet the requirements of factory workers travelling on special trains from the Lancashire cotton mills, so the Central and South pleasure piers were added. Blackpool subsequently became the most popular seaside resort in the UK but, in common with many coastal towns, it was badly hit by the advent of cheap overseas package tours in the 1960s. North Pier still has a theatre and a sun lounge where an organist plays popular tunes.
Clevedon, Somerset (1869) Clevedon is the only Grade I-listed pier in the UK and was once described by Sir John Betjeman (founder of the National Piers Society) as “delicate as a Japanese print in the mist”. It was commissioned (like so many) after the railway reached the town, but its engineers faced a formidable task in coping with the 14-metre difference between high and low tide. The result was a wrought-iron structure offering as little resistance as possible to wind and water. Regular steamer trips operated across and along the Bristol Channel, but demolition was threatened in 1970 after two central spans collapsed into the sea. Local residents banded together to form a charitable trust and run the pier; lottery money was subsequently obtained to carry out major restoration.
Southend, Essex (1890) Extending 2.158km into the Thames estuary, this is the world’s longest pleasure pier. It had to be so long because the tide goes out so far here, and steamers needed to be able to tie up at any time. Southend’s proximity to London meant that it quickly became popular – 250,000 visitors came in 1895, 1.5m in 1925, by which time paddle steamers were operating services from Tower Bridge as well as other ports along the eastern coast. Passenger trains conveyed visitors up and down the pier and still do today.
Cromer, Norfolk (1901) This is the youngest pier in my selection, opening four months after Queen Victoria died. It juts proudly out from the shore below this attractive little resort, facing the magnificent Hotel de Paris, where Oscar Wilde stayed in 1892 and the comedian Stephen Fry once worked as a waiter. The “Cromer Pier Show”, at the pier head theatre, is now in its 38th year. Children love crabbing over the sides of the pier while their parents enjoy a traditional plate of fish and chips.
‘British Seaside Piers’ by Anthony Wills and Tim Phillips is published by English Heritage
Photographs: Tim Phillips; Richard T Riding collection