For many UK residents, the seaside pier is perhaps the most visible symbol of the British seaside holiday, along with the deck chair and is the epitome of a trip to the coast.
Piers have always provided local and visitors alike with entertainment, from the grand pavilions and theatres of the Victorian era, to the amusement arcades of the 1980s. For two centuries, piers have been the place to see and be seen at the seaside.
These Victorian area pleasure piers, as they were known, are unique to the UK. But in 2019 they are under threat: in the early 20th century nearly 100 piers were dotted around the UK coastline, but almost half of of these have now gone and the rest are struggling to remain relevant.
My interest in the Piers were piqued on a trip to the UK after reading Graeme Greens novel “Brighton Rock” first published in 1938 and later made into a movie first in 1947 by the Boulting Brothers. This was later adapted by Rowan Joffe in 2011 into remake a starring Helen Mirren, John Hurt, Sam Riley and Andrea Riseborough. It’s a story of Brightons seedy underbelly of gangsters and crime.
Amusement Piers can still be found on the UK coast at place such as Brighton, Bognor Regis, Bournemouth, Yarmouth, Aberystwyth, Southsea, Blackpool and Deal to name a few.
By their very nature, seaside piers are risky structures. When piers were constructed, British seaside resorts were at the height of their popularity. The Victorians wanted to demonstrate engineering prowess and their ability to master the force of the sea. Some piers lasted longer than others, with Aldeburgh pier in Suffolk lasting just less than a decade before it was swept away by a drifting vessel. At the other end of the spectrum is the Isle of Wight’s Ryde pier, which at over 200 years is the oldest pleasure pier in the UK.
Yet the longevity of such piers presents them with new risks: fire, maintenance issues, rising costs, and those damaged by wild storms, the Piers face an uncertain future. The National Piers Society estimates that 20 percent of today’s piers are at risk of being lost. All of the Piers are struggling to remain relevant in the 21st Century and attract new investment in a world where this type of amusement and entertainment are seen by some as past their use by date.
Now there is growing recognition that seaside piers are vital to coastal communities in terms of resort identity, heritage, employment, community pride, and tourism. In fact, the government now offers funding to enable the revival of piers and other seaside heritage sites.
Thirty years ago Brighton was a decaying seaside town with a tatty beachfront and a joke palace with sex shops on every corner. Things have changed over the decades. Gays moved in, the town got hip and funky plus commuters all of a sudden realised London was only an hour away.
The renovated Royal Pavilion was repositioned as an outstanding example of the Asian-influenced, dreamy Romantic Movement. This is Brighton attempting to shrug of its shady past and reputation as destination for a ‘hens’ night or a’dirty weekend’ and transforming itself as a hipster town sometimes known as ‘London By The Sea’. Then the likes of Nick Cave, Paul McCartney and Cate Blanchett moved in giving the place some Street cred.
To me the Pier and waterfront are pivotal to Brighton’s future and retains that heritage as a testament to the past warts and all. Can the waterfront and Pier survive into the future? Thats the million pound question and sits fair and square with the locals and how they see the place now and into the future. The story will continue here and no doubt play out in a similar way at all the other Pier sites around the coast of the UK.
Mike Briggs, Brighton UK, June 2015