British seaside piers and the cost of preserving tradition
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Pleasure piers are part of the old British seaside culture, but are they really worth the money it costs to maintain them?
In the last few months, part of Bangor Pier has been shut for renovation, Swansea’s Mumbles Pier restoration was given the go-ahead by the local council, and Hastings Pier, restored last year, was sold to the wealthy entrepreneur who owns its Eastbourne counterpart.
Clacton Pier is getting a £4m makeover and Torquay harbour pier had been repaired ahead of the summer season. A £2m project to restore Swanage Pier is under way, as is a £6m project to upgrade Bournemouth Pier facilities. Colwyn Bay pier has been demolished, while the owner of the three Blackpool piers is looking for grants to refurbish the buildings so he can spend the repair fund on the steelwork underneath...
Piers, those iconic symbols of the British seaside, never seem to be out of the news in the UK. Unfortunately, the only time anyone outside of the pier’s home town ever hears about them is when they’re damaged.
The first British pier was built on the Isle of Wight way back in 1814 as a landing berth for ferries. William Alsop, technical director of maritime structures at consultancy company HR Wallingford, explains that coastal communities needed transport links around the west coast of Scotland, for instance, to get coal and other natural resources to coastal villages and towns.
By the mid-19th century, piers had become the focal point of British seaside culture. We had more than one hundred at the turn of the 20th century, but now only half remain and many of those have fallen into disrepair. Over the years, the elements, the sea and a lack of investment have taken their toll.
“Later these structures were adapted, in some cases for pleasure cruisers – people would get off at various coastal towns on the south coast,” Alsop says. “The use of piers for entertainment came much later.”
Alsop recognises that piers have heritage, architectural and historical value. “Someone still has to pay for them, though,” he adds.
Occasionally, no one does and that’s when the pier falls into disrepair. Brighton’s West Pier has suffered multiple storms and fires since its closure in 1975 and, despite various plans to renovate it, is now a burnt out skeleton. Weston-super-Mare’s Birnbeck Pier has been closed since 1994 when it was damaged by floating equipment during engineering work at nearby Sand Bay.
“To be economically viable, the owner has to offset the costs of renovation and repair against future income,” Alsop says. He thinks that piers are past their sell-by date.
Dr Anya Chapman, an expert in tourism management from Bournemouth University, disagrees. Chapman, who is also honorary secretary of the National Piers Society, believes that seaside piers are vital to coastal communities. “When piers go, there tends to be decline in tourism – think of Morecombe or Rhyl,” she says. “A thriving pier is a barometer of a healthy resort.”
Clevedon Pier was closed in 1970 after it partially collapsed. Some wanted it demolished but a local group raised the funds to restore it and it reopened in 1998. It is now the UK’s only Grade I listed seaside pier. Southport Pier, which narrowly escaped demolition in the 1990s, is now at the heart of the resort’s development strategy with a £2.9m refurbishment, which includes the addition of catering and retail facilities.
Bournemouth Pier, restored in the late 1970s, now features climbing walls, an aerial assault course and a vertical drop slide. In Folkestone, the Harbour Arm, which was redeveloped as a pleasure pier in 2016, has a range of bars and restaurants. Weston-super-Mare’s Grand Pier has an indoor suspended go-kart track, while Southwold Pier houses a novelty automaton arcade.
“For a modern pier to thrive it needs to have some sort of unique selling point,” says Chapman. “Hastings won awards for its engineering, but went into administration because it wasn’t making enough money.”
Britain’s most prolific pier-builder, Eugenius Birch, was born on 20 June 1818.
Birch started his engineering career aged 16 in Limehouse, London, although while still at school his design for a railway passenger carriage with the wheels on the side was used by the Greenwich Railway company. In his early years, Birch worked on railways and bridges in Britain, India and Sweden.
Historian Dr Kathryn Ferry, who is writing a book about Birch, says that he used railway technology on his first pier, the Margate Jetty, in the mid-1850s. “This was the UK’s first iron pier and the first time anyone had used screw pile technology on a pier,” Ferry says. “The pier was sturdy, chunky and didn’t look like a pleasure pier.” The screw blade added to iron piles made the base support deeper and more resilient. Margate pier lasted until 1978, when it was destroyed in a storm.
Ferry explains that Birch’s next piers – North Blackpool and Deal – were more elegant, refined, attractive and fit for purpose. Birch had integral seating built in to the girders, enough for 1,000 people. He ran gas for lighting through hollow tubes on the pier, put in little kiosks and included the first promenade shelter in 1866 at Brighton West.
Birch designed and constructed 14 piers, the last one in Plymouth opening in 1874, the year he died
“At the time this was experimental engineering,” Ferry says. “Birch was an artist as well as an engineer, in that he concerned himself with the aesthetic look of the piers as well as their structure.”
Built by renowned Victorian pier engineer Eugenius Birch, Hastings Pier opened in 1872. It was in its prime as a seaside attraction during the 1930s, but in the Second World War became a landing site for refugees from Belgium and France. Part of the decking was removed to make it harder for Nazi ships to moor there. In the 1960s and 1970s, the pier hosted major bands – The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, The Pink Floyd, The Who, The Sex Pistols – and became a listed building in 1976. By 2008, it was closed after storms left two support columns in danger of imminent collapse. In 2010, it was almost destroyed by fire.
Soon afterwards, a local trust, backed by the local council, decided to restore the pier, finally getting the go-ahead in 2013.
“The structure was unsafe and wouldn’t have taken any future loading,” says Jackie Heath, project director from Ramboll, the engineering and design consultancy, who worked on the restoration. “Bracing in the substructure needed looking at and the trusses and beams had suffered from bad corrosion,” she adds. “On the main pier, we restored as many trusses as we could, replaced the rest and retained the columns.”
Heath explains that the forces from the sea are far greater than the load put on the pier from actual usage. Alsop adds that it’s when waves hit the decking that there’s real pressure on the structure, not when waves hit the vertical columns, where the forces are comparatively smaller. He believes that pier decks should be ventilated to allow the wave to pass through: “It’s better to get wet than have the pier destroyed,” he says.
There’s another difficulty when it comes to renovating and restoring piers – access.
Heath says that during a storm, Ramboll engineers had to use a laser scanner from their office to analyse the structure of Hastings Pier. “You would probably use a drone these days,” she adds.
Earlier this year, engineers from Mackley and Co Ltd had to use a floating barge with a 70t crane to get close to Yarmouth Pier on the Isle of Wight. “The project was Heritage Lottery funded so we couldn’t afford a jack-up barge,” says Mick Craig, Mackley’s senior site director. “Our smaller barge was subject to tide and wash from the nearby ferry terminal.” Craig believes that the biggest challenge is to renovate a pier on a tight budget and in a way that makes future repairs as simple as possible.
Craig explains that the Yarmouth Pier’s timber pier jetty had eroded over the years and had been eaten by ribble worm, so much so that it had reduced the cross section of timber piles. Work began in February 2018 and finished at the end of June. Mackley engineers replaced the pier head and put in new composite piles – tubular steel on the bottom, timber on the top. “If there’s more damage from marine creatures in the future, you just have to insert a new timber section, not replace the whole thing,” Craig says.
Britain’s longest piers
Southend Pier (2,158m): Extends into the Thames estuary. Built in 1829, it was originally only 180m long, but has since been extended three times and is now the longest pleasure pier in the world.
Southport Pier (1,107.3m): Oldest iron pier in the country. Built 1860. Used to be 1,340m until storms and fires in the late 19th and early 20th century reduced its length. Local council wanted it demolished but lost the vote in 1990. It was restored between 2000 and 2002.
Walton Pier (792.5m): The third pier to be built on this site. The first lasted from 1830 to 1871, when it was damaged by a storm. The second opened the following decade, but didn’t last long. The current pier opened in 1895, at 500m long, and was subsequently extended.
Ryde Pier (702.6m): Britain’s oldest pier, completed in 1814. The original was made entirely of timber but has since been rebuilt with concrete, although it still has a timber-planked promenade.
Llandudno Pier (699.5m): Built in 1877 to replace an older, shorter pier, built in 1858. Longest pier in Wales.
Since he bought Hastings Pier in June 2018, Sheikh Abid Gulzar has had the pier’s domes painted gold and put his trademark lion motifs on 50 lampposts. There’s also talk of banning dog walkers and cyclists and even of introducing a £2 entrance fee.
A local group, the Friends of Hastings Pier, tried to put together a rival bid, raising £750,000. Member Julian Norridge calls the pier a community asset and is concerned about whether a businessman will look after the substructure long-term and about what might happen if it doesn’t make a profit.
Bournemouth University’s Chapman adds that most pier owners aren’t as wealthy as Gulzar and often can’t afford the repairs. Neither can private owners access funding like a trust or a charity.
If that’s the case, why not use the pier for something that does make money – offices, dwellings or a shopping precinct? Good idea, in principle, but many piers are Grade I or II listed, which restricts development. Ramboll’s Heath says that local communities, attached to tradition, would probably be against this modernisation and, from an engineering perspective, the loads a pier can take are limited.
“Pier buildings are usually made from lightweight materials – wood, fibreglass, PVC or lightweight metals,” Chapman adds.
Heath explains that pier substructures are usually permanent, while buildings on top are lightweight and temporary. Ramboll reconstructed the new Hastings visitor centre from sustainable cross-laminated timber, using the remaining timber on the deck to clad the building.
Chapman says that a pier that links to an island, such as Birkbeck Pier in Weston-super-Mare, can take more load. Plans to turn that particular derelict pier into residential use, however, fell through when the recession hit in 2009.
Residential developments have been proposed at Mumbles, Southwold and Llandudno piers, but on the headland next to the pier so the development is built partially on land. The i360 Observation Tower next to Brighton’s derelict West Pier, which collapsed beyond repair in 2016, is also built next to - rather than on - the pier. Gulzar wants to lease land from Hastings Council, next to the pier, so he can build an ice rink.
Chapman thinks that new piers will be built as multi-purpose facilities, primarily to harness offshore renewable energy and with tourism and leisure as a bonus. Proposals for such a facility at Swansea Bay were recently rejected. A current proposal at Withernsea features a renewable energy centre.
Chapman would still like the government to take a look at making more funding available for the renovation of historical piers, though. “If they value our seaside heritage, that is,” she says.
HR Wallingford’s Alsop thinks this would be a waste of time and money. “Many of these piers are three times past their 30 years natural lifespan,” he says. “Substructures have deteriorated, timbers rotted, metal structures become abrasive.”
Things could get worse for Britain’s piers as global warming intensifies. More storms, stronger wave surges and rising sea levels mean a greater likelihood of damage for coastal structures like piers. The National Piers Society estimates that 20 per cent of today’s piers are at risk of being lost over the coming years, but Alsop says that there has been no actual analysis of the effect of climate change on wave force in the seas around the UK. He admits, however, that it’s generally wise to assume that wave forces are increasing, “based on the other effects of climate change that we do know about”.
While the debate continues, the UK’s seaside piers face an uncertain future.
Britain’s smallest pier
At only 37m long, Britain’s shortest pier is located in the coastal town of Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset. This stretch of the coast faces the Bristol Channel, which has the world’s second-highest tidal range, with the sea receding a mile and a half away from the shore at low tide.
Built between 1911 and 1914, the pier was the first concrete structure of its kind in Europe. When first built, engineers came to admire it from all over Britain.
It still retains its Edwardian elegance and is very popular both with tourists and local residents, attracted not just by its unusual engineering features but also by its pavilion on concrete piles which houses an amusement arcade and a bingo hall. The pier also has a café seating over 100 customers.
Despite its minuscule size, Britain’s smallest pier has plenty of uses and lots to offer – a real-life proof of the saying that good things often come in small packages.