The Seaside Pier
Seaside or ‘pleasure’ piers, those glorious, intrinsically British structures, were first built in the 19th Century, the earliest being Ryde Pier on the Isle of Wight, constructed in 1813. The famous Southend Pier is the longest pier in the world, extending 1.34 miles into the Thames Estuary.
The pleasure pier became fashionable with the Victorians, who enjoyed strolling or ‘promenading’ over the sea, while taking in the much-desired sea air. The introduction of the railway at that time enabled mass tourism and seaside resorts became hugely popular, particularly with the working classes.
There were once over a hundred piers along the UK coast, but now many of the fifty or so that still remain, face an uncertain future. They are costly to run and are at the mercy of the elements of wind, rain and the dreaded fire. Nowadays, piers tend to house the ubiquitous arcades, amusements, restaurants and shops selling essential seaside props, such as buckets, spades, fishing rods, traditional seaside rock and candy floss.
I recently visited a derelict, abandoned pier in Somerset. How sad it looked with its rotting wooden boards, rusting metal, standing silent, except for the wind whistling an ominous song of doom under its supports and pillars. I couldn’t help closing my eyes to try to imagine this wonderful pier in its heyday, when Victorian children ran along the boards squealing in delight, enjoying their day out by the sea.
There is something very wistful and nostalgic about a seaside pier, a tangible legacy of a bygone era in our country’s history. It would be good to think that old piers can be saved and restored, in order to preserve a special part of our unique, British heritage for future generations to enjoy.
I wrote the following poem, ‘Splendid Silent Pier’ whilst sitting close to Birnbeck Pier, now derelict and unused.
Splendid Silent Pier
History lies on these boards so worn,
Upon which so many feet have walked.
Silent now, but close your eyes
And you can hear the
Laughter, fun and joy of
Generations of yesteryear.
The legacy of anticipation,
Awe and wonder of
So many children still endures.
Parents harassed, yet happy,
Amble behind their errant young,
While beneath, lovers entwine under its towers,
Snatched moments of ecstasy captured in
A brief moment of time.
Sad, silent pier, alas,
You were so splendid once,
But now derelict and tired,
You stand neglected, abandoned,
Forgotten and sad.
Your memories, poignant and nostalgic,
Live on in the wistful minds of those
Who stare and quietly wish for restoration.
John Betjeman: ‘The Pier is Southend, Southend is the Pier’.