Not the end of the pier show

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From fires to neglect, British pleasure piers have had a tough few years. But will a boom in UK tourism help restore their past glory? Jack Watkins finds out

If you wish to check the pulse of a British seaside resort, look at the state of its pier.

The golden age of pleasure piers – those gaudy, lacily iron-worked, splendidly pavilioned walkways over the water – ran from the 1890s to the Second World War. It reflected a time when millions of Britons looked no further than the seaside, from Blackpool to Brighton and Clacton to Colwyn Bay, for their holidays. The rise of holidaying abroad from the 1960s sent many such towns into a spiral of decay, dragging piers with them. Into the early 1990s, piers were being lost at the rate of one every other year. Of the hundred or so that existed at the turn of the 20th century, only 55 still survive, and not all are in pristine condition.

Now, though, as cash-strapped families rediscover the joys of holidaying at home, several piers are enjoying a renaissance. Weston-super-Mare's Grand Pier is rejoicing in a £39m transformation, including a new pavilion, built in heroically quick time after the old one burnt down in 2008. Southend Council is about to invest £3m in new structures on the longest pier in the world and Penarth has received £1.75m to transform its long-neglected art deco concert pavilion into a community complex. Meanwhile, Merlin Entertainments, owner of Blackpool Tower and the London Eye, has submitted plans for a 53m (174ft) tower at Weymouth Pier, to give spectators of sailing events at the 2012 Olympics a bird's-eye view.

Such schemes are testimony to the commercial pulling power of piers, but there is also growing appreciation of the heritage value of Victorian "architecture of amusement". Some 26 piers are listed, including six at Grade II*, although Clevedon is the only pier listed at Grade I – unless you count the rusting skeleton of Brighton's once-magical West Pier.

It wasn't always the case, says Anthony Wills of the National Piers Society, which lobbies for their preservation and enjoyment. "In the 1960s, there was this feeling of 'Let's get rid of all this Victorian rubbish.' A lot of piers had their decoration hidden behind plastic cladding. It was in the 1980s that people began uncovering them and realising the treasures which lay beneath."

Most of us have an image of what a classic pleasure pier should look like – Llandudno perhaps, with its unmatched bay setting, or Eastbourne, still basking in the glory of featuring as a location in the remake of Brighton Rock. It's one of seven surviving piers designed by the master of pier engineers, Eugenius Birch, and its quirky mix of domed and spired pavilions, and kiosks that look like glorified fisherman's huts, somehow embodies the nation's trademark seaside eccentricity.

Still, the vulnerability of piers to damage from fire, storms or shipping means that few remain as originally built. Most are an eclectic jumble of features from different decades. This leaves architects working on additions today with room for expression, Wills believes. "You can't be purist about this. In the 21st century, you shouldn't always expect to replace like with like. You have to remember that even with the Birch piers, the only one where all his buildings survived was the West Pier. We are currently fighting a campaign to save the theatre – one of six operating pier theatres left – on Birch's Bournemouth Pier, but the building itself only dates from 1960." The surest sign of a sustained pier revival will surely be when more of them begin to bear the stamp of 21st-century design.

For more information on Britain's surviving piers, visit piers.org.uk

Weston-Super-Mare Grand

The much-loved Weston Grand Pier, though not completed until 1904, was one of the very last in the great Victorian tradition. Smack in the centre of the resort, with a full set of family attractions – Anthony Wills calls it a "candyfloss pier" – the fire thatdestroyed the pavilion in 2008 stirred a massive outpouring of local grief, and the new owner immediately vowed to build a new one. It reopened, together with £39m of refurbishments, at the end of last year – the sleekly curved, sloping-roofed modern design enough to win it the National Piers Society's "Pier of the Year" award for 2011. Crowds of more than 100,000 this Easter broke previous visitor records.

Blackpool South

Blackpool was so popular with tourists in the 1890s that a third pier was added to the already existing two. Originally called the Victoria Pier, its name was later changed to the South Pier (the others being the North and Central piers). All three survive and thrive with the full panoply of fairground-style attractions, but plans have been submitted for the South Pier to undergo an extensive £8m refit, with its architect promising to use "crisp, modern materials in a form which will bring it into the 21st century".

Hastings

The banner "You Can Save Me!" draped over the side of this burnt-out pier cries out as plaintively as the seagulls at passing promenaders. Another Birch pier, it was closed as unsafe in 2007, seemingly set to become another West Pier, left to rot. An energetic Hastings Pier & White Rock Trust launched a campaign to restore it, though a raging fire, destroying most of the super-structure last autumn, was a huge setback. But the Trust has just received development funding of £350,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, pending a grant of £8.7m. In truth, the ensemble of buildings was never much to look at, leaving wide scope for creative design, and the exciting hope that this could be a real pleasure pier for the 21st century.

Clevedon

The only Grade I listed pier (with excuses to the West Pier, see main body), Clevedon is one for the purists. The earliest piers were actually little more than wooden promenades, the gaps in the decking providing strollers with the dizzying sensation of walking over the sea. Clevedon has never been cluttered with features, its charms lying in the delicate grace of its arched spans and trestles. However, the exposed nature of the pier has meant a lack of under-cover visitor facilities, and plans are afoot for a £1m futuristic, glass-fronted visitor and educational centre with views onto the Bristol Channel to be built on the ramp leading onto the pier.

Weston-Super-Mare Birnbeck

Birnbeck is Weston-super-Mare's "other pier". It closed in 1994, and functions now only as a lifeboat station. "It's the pier nobody talks about, but it predates the Grand by 40 years," Anthony Wills says. "It's unique in that it connects the mainland to an island, and it's beautiful." Hopes were raised when Urban Splash, the company that revived Morecambe's art deco Midland hotel, bought the pier, but the recession has hit hopes of restoration and the situation "looks bleak". Birnbeck is another Eugenius Birch pier, listed Grade II*, and after the West Pier fiasco, should we really be allowing another of his gems to sink into oblivion?

Eugenius Birch: The man who made the piers

Eugenius Birch (1818-1884) was to piers what Isambard Kingdom Brunel was to bridges and railways. He pioneered the use of modern engineering techniques in pier construction, and his cast-iron-columned, screw-piled understructures proved remarkably durable. Birch had worked for the East Indian Railway Company and used this to introduce the oriental design features which became signatures of "frivolous" Victorian seaside architecture. Birch designed 14 piers in all, but few of his above-deck features survive, making the wreck of Brighton's West Pier – where Birch's Indian cupolas, balustrades and handrails decorated with ornamental Chinese dragons had remained – all the sadder.

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