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Seaside piers – a British institution

May 2011 


piersVisits to the seaside and a stroll down the pier are part of the very fabric of a British summer. Piers have entertained generations since the very first promenade or pleasure pier was built in Ryde on the Isle of Wight in 1814.

Really the history of promenade piers starts with George IV, who moved to Brighthelmstone (now Brighton) in 1783 because he thought sea bathing could help his glandular neck swelling. The fashion for visiting the seaside took off but many would-be resorts were inaccessible by land and far easier to reach by sea. At that time most wharves and landing stages were only accessible at high tide, and longer piers which could be accessible at any tide were clearly required.

After a parliamentary act was passed in 1812, plans were drawn up for a long pier in Ryde. This was quickly followed by the Leith Trinity chain pier built in 1821 and Brighton chain pier built in 1823.

But it was really the development of the railways bringing mass tourism to resorts that really set the foundations for the British pier. As many visitors came to the resorts, large tidal ranges at many locations meant that the sea at low tide withdrew too far to give any real pleasure; some even thought that you couldn’t breathe in the health giving properties from the sea at such a distance.

The answer of course was that the main resorts around the UK started building pleasure piers, some exceptionally long to ensure visitors could promenade over and alongside the sea at all times. It wasn’t long before the resorts were trying to outdo each other to ensure they attracted the highest number of visitors and in 1928 planning started for Southend pier which to begin with was a modest 600 foot wooden structure. Just 18 years later it had been increased to an astonishing length of one and a quarter miles.

Improvements were being made all the time and sometime earlier, iron had begun to be used to replace wood in shipping piers. The Margate pier, constructed in 1855, was the first pleasure pier made of iron but sadly it was wrecked in storms in 1978 and not replaced. The oldest existing iron pleasure pier in the UK now is at Southport, in north west England, which was constructed in 1860.

Piers began to take on more fancy design aspects, and naval architect Eugenius Birch was responsible for the creation of a number of new look, ornate seaside piers, starting with a very stylish pier in Margate and then the West Pier in Brighton and the North Pier in Blackpool. He was very influencial in the design of many of the new piers being built in the exciting years between 1862 and 1872 when 18 new pleasure piers opened around the coast.

As competition continued between resorts desperate to attract the seaside crowds, other additions were added to piers including amusements, theatres and cafes and they really became a mainstay of British entertainment. At the beginning of the 20th century there were around 100 piers jutting out from our coastline and thousands enjoyed their annual seaside stroll along the vast structures, either on special works outings from their home town, or during the increasing number of seaside holidays that people were beginning to enjoy.

More recently of course, the cost of maintaining the piers has proved too much of a burden on coastal towns as they lost their draw for holidaymakers and many piers have sadly now disappeared. It is good to see that Ryde pier, after being closed for a spell, has reopened after repairs costing in excess of £5 million. The pier will celebrate its bicentenary in 2014.

The old Brighton West pier has not survived so well. It was severely damaged by storms and fire in 2003 and last year its concert hall was demolished. Pieces of the pier are now being sold off as souvenirs.

But while some piers are disappearing, generally there is a definite revival and many towns are involved in heavy fund raising to ensure the future of their beloved piers. There is even a national piers society that has been set up to help celebrate seaside piers:


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