Britain’s beloved piers are at risk — we need more than unpaid volunteers to help them





The humble Victorian pier is undergoing a radical transformation, thanks to passionate volunteers who are forming community hubs and rethinking how we use piers to relax and entertain.

We love them so much there is a National Piers Society, and they have awarded Garth Pier in Bangor, North Wales the title of ‘Pier of the Year’ in its 125th event.

Gone are the days where you just walk along a pier. Innovative methods have been developed to satisfy a new generation of pleasure seekers, whilst others are giving their kiosks and tearooms a modern update worthy of an upmarket city bistro. Piers are now classified as local heritage and are eligible to receive government funding. The government have realized that we hold a special place in our hearts for these iron structures and their potential to connect with communities. We do not want them to deteriorate and be lost like so many others have already.

Victorian pleasure piers are synonymous with leisure and holiday. They offer a form of escapism that gives us a sense of pride comparable with our appreciation of national parks, and English breakfast tea. Our piers are engineering marvels entrenched in British identity, symbolic of a bygone era that is still celebrated today. There is nothing quite like a seaside pier to evoke childhood memories; the smells, the sounds, the gaps between the planks of wood, the enigma of the grey, glassy waters below.

A lot of our piers are undergoing structural engineering work so that they can be preserved for future generations. Without community groups coming together and fundraising there is a real possibility they will become unsafe and unusable — and that would be a tragedy for small communities who enjoy and benefit from their existence.

In the age of Covid, they have become more important than ever, with the revival of the staycation. During lockdowns, Brits flocked to the seaside to lap up the fresh air and tuck into a bag of fresh fish and chips. Whole tourism industries are shaped around piers, and they are magnets for city-dwelling tourists and curious travellers. There are many types of piers that appeal to a wide variety of people, each distinct pier with its own quirks that make it unique.

Third in the list of the National Piers Society awards was Colwyn Bay Pier, just down the coast from Bangor’s Garth Pier, which has recently been resurrected into a truncated pier by a group of volunteers. Not every pier is lucky to survive to 125 years, and even Bangor’s Garth Pier has a tumultuous past.

Indeed, for every success story there is a steady trail of lost piers. Margate has experienced a resurgence of late, becoming the new home for hip creative Londoners. It was once the location of Margate Jetty, created by architect and engineer Eugenius Birch. It was said to be the first iron pier and was even the subject of a painting by JMW Turner. Sadly, it was destroyed by a storm in 1976.

Piers aren’t just important to tourists; they are important to the people and the communities around them that they serve. They provide employment and are great sources of community pride. Many piers exist today because of passion, and this includes work completed by unpaid volunteers who are rarely given the credit they deserve.

Their maintenance has created controversies within communities, especially with the shift from public to private ownership in recent years. The government is providing funds to recognize that piers are vital to coastal communities and coastal heritage. Piers have had to model themselves on self-sufficient businesses to survive.

Many people neglect to mention that social issues and deprivation can often lurk in coastal towns with insecure seasonal employment, and an explosive housing crisis as second home owners drive rents and house prices sky high. For some, the pier is a sanctuary away from the poverty they experience day-to-day. Then there is the fact that climate change is effectively destroying these structures. The World Monuments Fund has added three of Blackpool’s piers to its 2018 watch list after the North Pier was battered by a storm that caused £1m worth of repairs in 2013.

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I am always impressed by how people come together and champion their local piers. When they are seen to be rotting and disintegrating into the sea, there is a palpable sense of public mourning. Considering the revival Margate has had in recent years and the influx of new people, isn’t it a shame that there are no new plans to bring a new pier to the area? Many are innovating their pier’s unique selling point to reach a whole new audience, such as a pier-to-beach zip line on Bournemouth Pier and Weston Super Mare’s indoor, suspended go-kart track for families.

Piers bring a slice of hope and happiness to communities and visitors alike, from a range of backgrounds. That is why I think creative people are drawn to the sea. As a child, the North Pier of Blackpool was a favorite haunt of mine. I remember the 1950’s music playing out to an inky black night, the faint ching ching of slot machines, the metal screech of wheels along the mini-tramway and the sound of the majestic carousel organ music at the end of the pier, growing louder and louder. It was like a moment out of time.

Most piers in Britain bear golden plaques on benches, celebrating engagements, anniversaries and memorials. They are living proof that memories attached to piers are passed on from one generation to the next, and they only exist because of the volunteers who have a vision and make it a reality. Piers are more than time capsules of Britain’s past; they are beacons of escape in a worrying world, a place to revel and enjoy the moment.

After all, they are called pleasure piers.


www.independent.co.uk

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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