A Big Three Bagged.
I am a life member of the Pier Society. I want to see as many as possible. A few days in Weston super Mare gives me the chance of three Birnbeck,the Grand and Clevedon.
From the long sands at Weston, from a distance, Birnbeck round the corner looks like a magic island with a graceful bridge linking it to the real world. Closer up the reality is grim. Desolate, the bridge/pier boarded up, the buildings on the rock now derelict, the extension pier going out to sea almost waving in the breeze. The 150 year old pier has been closed since 1994 and is considered Britain’s most at risk pier. And all these architectural dinosaurs live precarious lives. Sadly as Brighton’s now brooding shell of West Pier ,Birnbeck is one of Eugenius Birch’s (the Brunel of Piers) creations. This Indian railway engineer built 14 of Britain’s once 100 piers. 60 remain.
On the day I went, three old timers part of a local heritage group were painting the railings. The sadness of this dying pier, exaggerated that day, by mostly being entombed in mist. We got talking. “No one wants to pay,no one cares, we could do it if we got ownership. Its a national disgrace that its being left to die.” The owners have applied to pull down some of the more precarious bits . I told them I was a member of the Pier Society. They lit up, was I the Seventh Cavalry. Sadly not.
Once the pier boasted a railway, a helter skelter, a water chute and a bandstand. Wartime damage, the predicable fires and a variety of schemes that came to nothing all punched holes until it was closed for safety reasons in 1994. Developers still come and go but the pier just rots. Meanwhile volunteers paint the railings.
As Tolstoy might have said secure buildings are all the same,insecure ones are all different. The weather,fire,cost,changing habits mean that all piers are insecure. And locally their rise and often sad fall is the source of gossip, conspiracy theories and worse. The Grand Pier at Weston is typical. Secure and well run, profitable and well used. In 2008 just after its new owners took over it suffered a fire(its third). No one in the town believes it was a coincidence. The new owners got their money and rebuilt successfully.
A 300 metre stroll gets you to the penny arcades and the dodgems.Laurie Lee remembers using them nearly 100 years ago! Its mid morning and I share the 200 seater Tiffany Restaurant with its three sided sea view with two others. Bright frosty sunshine floods the room. To the left the endless beach which turns to a mile of treacherous sinking foreshore mud at low tide. To the front the Bristol Channel stretches to the Principality. Seaside resorts out of season can hit a glorious spot.
And so to the loveliest of them all. Clevedon. Built for the pleasure steamers coming from South Wales and elsewhere. Clevedon was once a favoured Victorian resort. Coleridge, Thackeray and Tennyson all feature on the town’s roll of honour. This a pier simple, Ken Dodd could not play its bare boards and simple one room pagoda. It was Betjeman’s favourite “as delicate as a Japanese print in the mist and like and insect in the sunlight.”
My first sight as I walked from the dull town centre was as magical as I had hoped. It looks like some graceful footbridge in an ornamental park, complete with a folly pagoda. But no, it stretches 300 metres into the Bristol Channel, supported by the graceful spindly left overs from Brunel’s railway. It too has had its disasters but as a favoured one, English Heritage lived up to its name and paid for the repairs.
It has none of the pleasure oompah of the Grand,or the depair of Birnbeck,this has the air of a Georgian folly, a graceful, cultured darling. I caught the bus back to Weston a better person.