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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 April 2007, 11:45 GMT 12:45 UK
Pier-ing into the future
The skeleton of Brighton's gutted West Pier

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Many of them are falling or have fallen down, but a competition is on to find a new generation of piers to help save the British seaside.

To some, piers conjure images of comedians down on their luck, a tourism industry steam-rollered by cheap flights to Malaga, and chunks of rusty wrought iron plopping mournfully into the sea.

But piers have a future, if the British Urban Regeneration Association (Bura) is to be believed. It is running a competition for architects, planners and the general public to find designs for 21st Century piers.

Piers are all about perspective. Take a stroll out along the boards on a fine summer's day, with the sea breeze in your nostrils, and turn around. Even the most depressed seaside town looks a little better.

Southwold pier
Southwold - so sophisticated it warrants a black and white photo
"In a pier you are walking over the water. It is like going on a ship but you don't feel seasick," says Martin Easdown, archivist of the National Piers Association.

"For the Victorians, the air was meant to be better for you the further out to sea you went."

The first piers were stone, built as landing stages where a natural harbour could not be found, or where the water at the shore was too shallow. Come the industrial revolution they were made of iron and it wasn't long before Britons realised the pleasures of promenading up and down these platforms.

As the 19th Century wore on, so came the pier built purely for pleasure. Brighton's West Pier was the classic example. Built in 1866 by the master of pier design, Eugenius Birch, it initially cost sixpence to promenade, a sum comparable to 15-30 today. It was a pastime for the select few.

FIVE PRESERVED PIERS
Ryde
Brighton Palace
Clevedon
Blackpool North
Bangor

But in the first half of the 20th Century, the pier became a diversion for the masses, packed with amusements. Following the trend, by 1916, the West Pier had acquired a pavilion and concert hall.

But by the 1960s and 1970s, Mr Easdown rues, the tide of tourism had turned. Sunnier climes and the package holiday beckoned. Standing in the sea, whipped by merciless winds, piers fell into disrepair.

By 1975, the West Pier was closed and since then as locals fought to save it, fire and storm have decided otherwise, sending much of the structure sliding into the sea in recent years and leaving a rusting skeleton unconnected to the shore.

But Mr Easdown insists it has "done piers a disservice. People think they are all in trouble, or derelict. But many of them still pay their way quite well".

Clacton pier in its 1880 heyday

That is what the BURA wants. Piers that pay way their way and uplift troubled seaside economies. One of its role models is away to the east in Southwold, in Suffolk, an upmarket resort that has effectively built a new, "posh" pier on the stump of an old one. It has a brasserie.

In north Wales, in Colwyn Bay, there is an art gallery on the Victoria Pier, another pointer for potential pier developers.

Wherever there is a derelict or endangered pier there is almost always a group fighting for refurbishment or rebuilding.

There are major projects underway on piers in Gravesend, Deal, Greenwich, and Boscombe. In Southend, the country's longest pier has just been restored after a fire. In Brighton, the site of the West Pier is being used for a 20m observation tower, and the old pier's supporters still hope to rebuild.

It will be entirely privately-funded, says the West Pier Trust's general manager Rachel Clark.

"The West Pier was thought to be the finest ever built. It was unbelievably spectacular, it had an elegance and it meant an awful lot to people. It didn't change the way it looked after 1916. It was frozen in time."

FIVE LONGEST UK PIERS
Southend: 2,158m
Southport: 1,107m
Walton-on-the-Naze: 792m
Ryde: 703m
Llandudno: 700m
An exclusive hotel is one of the ideas being considered. But the issue of what to do with restored or new piers is a tricky one.

Demand for housing has seen many historic buildings find a new lease of life in recent years. But unless the British glass industry masters quintuple glazing, who is going to want to stay on a pier in the deep mid-winter while the storms bash the structure.

"Not many people go on piers in January," Ms Clark adds wistfully.

The Architectural Heritage Fund, which helps fund conservation of buildings, is ready to listen to proposals from any pier preservation society in the country. But chief executive Ian Lush says plans must have a profit motive.

"They have been part of the British seaside experience for more than a century and they can give a lot of character to a seaside resort. If there is a lot of a backlash against cheap flights and if people start to think about carbon neutrality, short breaks in British seaside towns will become fashionable again."

Storm
Fancy living through this? The residential option still needs some thought
Brighton's other pier, the Palace Pier, with anything up to four million visitors a year, as well as Blackpool's three piers, remain major attractions. Cromer and Eastbourne and their piers remain popular. Pier venues play host to the Cannons and Balls, and the Syd Littles.

One of the oldest surviving piers, Ryde in the Isle of Wight, even retains its original purpose, acting as dock for the ferry from Portsmouth and shuttling passengers down its length on a stretch of railway.

But elsewhere, small groups are fighting for the return to splendour of their own little slices of Victoriana.

Peter Revell will not stop until Herne Bay pier, in Kent, is restored.

"I live less than 100m from the sea. It is a bit of days gone by. There is just so much you can do on it. You can see the land from a totally different perspective."

Erica Smith is fighting to get Hastings pier, another of Birch's masterpieces, repaired and reopened. The Friends of Hastings Pier begin in earnest on Friday.

"It's an important part of Hastings. If the first thing people see is a rotting pier it sends out the wrong message."

And for the West Pier campaigners, they'll dream of a gleaming new pavilion tonight. With just one proviso. No arcade machines.


Below is a selection of your comments.

For too many years many seaside towns such as Hastings relied upon cheap entertainment such as amusement parks and hamburger stands,this has led to these towns becoming cheap jokes and therefore monuments like the piers has just been left to decay due to insufficient funds/income. Unless these towns bring themselves into the 21 century,there is no hope for them or their piers.
Michael Mciver, Hastings England

I think there is something to be said for leaving piers as they are - one of the most attractive things about Brighton beach is the frame of the West Pier, especially at sunset.
Kevin Tierney, Edinburgh

I agree that piers are an essential part of the British seaside. I had never really thought about it until reading your article. I spent time 'promenading' and uhm, jumping off a pier or two for fun! I love them when the weather's bad, the sea steely gray, and waves! It could be so easily made cool again, marketed and toursists would come to see britain as something more than home of the Beatles and Beautrix Potter. Galleries with local art, bars, restaurants. I'm already looking forward to going to the art gallery on Victoria Pier, Colwyn Pier on my next visit home.
Esther, Yamagata, Japan

Please dont forget to mention Saltburn by the Sea, it has one of the best piers in the country for survival! We lost all our piers in Redcar. I no longer live in the Uk but I have to give a cheer to my native pier and Saltburn. At the moment its covered in wonderful lighting and lights up the sea in a fantastic glittering effect in the evenings. Saltburn is a fine example of Victorian architecture and has been well looked after in recent years. It also supports the cliff lifts which are water balanced - as one tank empties the other fills and takes people to the top of the cliff.
Lin Treadgold, The Netherlands

I would suggest you take a look at Swanage pier in Dorset, they have a scheme whereby one can have a plaque embedded in the wood on the pier its self which can commemorate the life of a loved one or anniversary or just the fact one has enjoyed the walk along the pier.
Sara Awadhi, Poole Dorset

I have the fondest memories of the now totally demolished Shanklin Pier on the Isle of Wight. Scuba diving underneath it - over 35 years ago - my colleagues always knew where to find me if i was needed! Just a few yards off shore and I was in an underwater wild-life haven. The pier was part iron, part concrete (It was destroyed in the great 1980s storm and fully demolished later). It was privately owned I believe and a work of art. I soon gave up spear-fishing, it was cruel because the fish came to see and meet me and make friends. My greatest triumph was to rise to the surface - Excalibur like-- holding a brand new fishing rod and give it back to its distraught child owner after he''d dropped it into the water. My greatest ever triumph! Piers are such wondeful places- both above and underneath!
Dr. Rob Mannion (Medical & Scientific Writer/Journalist), Bournemouth Dorset

Sadly Hastings pier, one of Eugenius Birch's finest, has been closed sinmce last summer because it was deemed in danger of collapsing by the council. The company that owns it is refusing to carry out remedial work or even a full structural survery. Unfortunately it looks like this once-fine pier will, like the West Pier along the coast, decay into the sea.
Robbo, Hastings, England

We have probably the largest concentration of piers left in England here on the island, from the small private one here in Totland, the larger one in Yarmouth(used by fishermen and also sometimes for the docking of paddle steamer Waverley), then Ryde already mentioned in your article and also Sandown, very much an amusement driven pier - all have their own individual qualitites, but all remain a major focus area for their respective towns. Much of this is driven by the contrast in their splendid, highly skilled Victorian architecture to the totally faceless, cheap, rabbit hutch developments crowding the skyline around them. For many they remind us of a time when British design and engineering were world leaders and when squeezing every last penny profit out of something was not the sole reason to build it - long may they survive as a bastion of what was once achieved before greed took total control and they were surrounded by an ever growing sea of bargain basement 'Luxury'! apartments, which 30 years ago would have been labelled tenement blocks
Bryan, Totland Bay, Isle of Wight

You missed reporting that Worthing Pier was awarded the International Pier of the Year 2006
Rob, worthing

Llandudno Pier, I believe, is a shining example of how piers should be kept, it is in tip top condition. Colwyn Bay also has a pier, and it is trying desperately to tart itself up a bit, but alas not much work has been done to renovate it beyond it's current state for about 10 years.
Rhys, Colwyn Bay

It's not all good news. shed a tear for Hastings pier. Shut down by the council because of alleged structural problems a year or so ago, little has happened for months and months, bar a promise to fund a structural survey a few weeks ago. Given the 400m of regenration that's supposed to be going on around the town, it's sad to think the local authority takes so long to commit itself to Hastings' highest-profile building. And one that draws in the crowds so crucial to stimulate regneration.
jez abbott, hastings

The pier in Gravesend, Kent (the oldest cast iron pier in the world) has recently been transformed from a crumbling derelict ruin into a bar/restaurant to great effect. Not only does this mean that the pier is finally being put to good use, but with such great views over the river it really is a fantastic place to go and while away some time. I think the Victorians were onto something!
Alison, Gravesend

Its a great shame that pier architecture in Britain does not have the status and protection that many other architecturally and economically important sites enjoy. Pier architecture is a national treasure and should be treated accordingly. The pier is an important part of our heritage and has brought and continues to bring pleasure to countless thousands of people from both home and abroad year in year out. Long may they remain and hopefully prosper.
Nigel Hussey, Eastbourne UK

We have a fantastic pier is Southport. My family and I regularly walk to the end and enjoy the views and fresh air. There is nothing like it for clearing a hangover. It's a shame that the council here could not have preserved the old fairground in the same way that the pier has been renovated.
john taylor, Southport Merseyside

I can see the West Pier out of my living room window and it is tragic to see the state it's in. Very pleased that the observation tower has been given the go ahead.
Amy, Hove, UK

Far from being restored, Southend's pier has been more patched together with string and sellotape. It remains a mere shadow of its former self with the local council seemingly unwilling to approve of any private enterprise initiative to improve what should be an major attraction in the town
Chris Beynon, Southend

I think it is a brilliant idea to restore the old piers, there is nothing nicer than wondering along the pier even on a freezing cold day. To take the little ones along it and let them look into the water to see if they can spot the fish and to retain that old look would be the cherry on the top. Candifloss, icecream, sunshine and sea, lovely stuff......
Amanda van der Bank, london




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