Only half of the 100 or so seaside piers built by Victorian engineers remain, many others damaged by storms, fires and even bombs. One that remains is Southend Pier (the longest pleasure pier in the world). First designed to enable Victorians to travel from shore to steamers to reach the sea (and show off posh frocks!), the remaining piers are listed at National Piers Society (founded in 1979 under poet Sir John Betjeman).
Years ago, children would visit the pier to watch Punch & Judy, based on an Italian comedy (?) A man fails to look after his baby, kills people and then is bitten by a crococile to avenge deaths. One scene involves Mr Punch tricking his own head into a noose to be hanged, then the Devil arrives to collect Mr Punch and threatens the audience. Not a good idea to take sensitive children to see this?
Years ago, piers were places to land boats and talk walks (and many of us loved watching the man make animals out of melting glass!) But today many are home to noisy arcades, tat souvenir shops, mini-golf (risking non-biodegradable balls dropping in the sea) and junk food (litter thrown in the sea). Speedboats deposit oil into the water, and fishing waste is left from anglers, who spend afternoons on the end of the pier.
In Bangor (Wales), councils have to remove litter from cubes that make up sea barriers, and rocks at the marina were found choked with plastic bottles and takeaway wrappers. In England’s South Shields, the two piers had to close after litter problems, which created a health hazard. Clacton Pier (Essex) has litter-picking volunteers who filled 100 bins at Weston Beach (lovely of them, but they should not need to do this).
let’s explore England’s piers!
Brighton Palace Pier (East Sussex) is one of two piers that sit either side of the coast, and is often called ‘the finest pier ever built (its predecessor was demolished in a storm in 1896). The West Pier became unsafe after the 1987 storm (another storm and two arson attacks means it is now closed to be left to ‘gradually return to the sea’. Down the road, Hastings Pier was nearly destroyed in an arson attack after a storm.
Southend Pier (Essex) extends over 1.3 miles into the Thames Estuary (Essex has 350 miles of coastline). Build to bypass the coastal mudflats that were not deep enough for boats to land, the pier got longer to lure visitors back from Margate. It has had many fires (one trapped 500 people who were rescued by boat). Today it has a cafe made of recycled scrap and timber, an 8-mile stretch of nature reserve (home to migrating birds, seals, dolphins and whales) and an electric train (named Sir David Amess in memory of the local murdered MP).
Bournemouth Pier (Dorset) began as a 100ft wooden jetty on the beach, back in the 1810s. This was replaced by a bigger pier designed by the son of bridge builder John Rennie. It also suffering a storm (and was attached by shipworm – who knew?) before being replaced by an iron pier with covered shelters and a bandstand.
Ryde Pier (Isle of Wight) is England’s second longest-pier, right where the hovercrafts land from Portsmouth city. There is presently a plan to restore the original trams to full working order.
Southwold Pier (Suffolk) reaches over 600 feet into the North Sea. Originally built from steamships landing from London Bridge, it was part-exploded during the Second World War, to stop becoming a landing strip for German soldiers.
Blackpool Pier (Lancashire) sits on the coast overlooking the Irish Sea. It has two other piers left and right. And is known for its Big Wheel.
Pier Review is a lighthearted book by two friends from the landlocked Midlands, who embark on a journey to see all surviving pleasure piers in England and Wales. With a clapped-out car and not enough cash, they recruit a man they barely know to be the driver (though he has to be back in a fortnight to sign on..) Join this funny nostalgic look at 55 piers including many of the ones above.
George Orwell’s book The Road to Wigan Pier is about an area around Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester. It’s not a pier at all!