Grand, anachronistic and eccentric, Britain's seaside piers have grown more charming as they have grown more decrepit. Now Lottery funds are being allocated for their repair. Could there, asks Jonathan Glancey, be a more telling symbol of our times?
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The Independent Culture
In December 1993, a young Welshman fell 30ft to his death through the rotten planking of Llandudno Pier. A few months earlier, at the height of summer, the IRA launched an incendiary bomb attack on Bournemouth, killing no one but damaging the town's pier. More recently, a barge ploughed into Cromer Pier just as it had been re-decked; the bowling alley at the end of Southend Pier was torched; and, a fortnight ago, an arson attack was made on Torquay Pier.

Poor old piers. Until the beginning of this summer, when Virginia Bottomley announced the Year of the Pier, with guarantees of Lottery funds for survivors at Clevedon, Swanage, Southend and Brighton West, these fragile iron fingers pointing out to sea had long been little more than the eccentric elderly relations of the amusement arcades, fun-fairs and theme parks that have been elbowing them aside since the 1950s.

Today, somewhere between 45 and 50 survive out of the 100 or so seaside piers that pricked Britain's choppy coastal waters at the turn of the century. They are difficult to count with more certainty than that, because the 400 amateur members of the National Piers Society (launched in 1979 under the presidency of Sir John Betjeman) disagree with the British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers and Attractions (BALPPA), the trade association that lobbies for leisure piers, about definitions. A pontoon is clearly not a pier; nor, strictly speaking, is a landing stage; yet some of the latter are elongated to the point at which the amateur enthusiast (usually male, middle-class, more-than-middle-aged) thinks he espies one.

Sophistry aside, there is no denying the power of piers as symbols of our collective seaside experience, perhaps even as an evocation of our seafaring past. They can be as different from one another as candy-floss is from kebab and chips. Ryde and Southend have railways running their length; Brighton West (O! What a Lovely War) and Weston-super-Mare (The Remains of the Day) have played starring roles on the big screen. Blackpool Central, big and brash, is where you head for a barrel of laughs, a few pints and a bit of a barney; Bangor, chaste and romantic, is for walking alone on battleship-grey days like some Welsh Lieutenant's Woman. But they all have something in common: a quiet, reproachful air of sea-swept dereliction, reminding us that there was once a time when the sight of the British coast inspired awe and excitement; and that those days are gone.

What they also tend to have in common, sadly, is dilapidation. A recent visit to Southend Pier, the world's longest, revealed a mile of seaside shabbiness, rewarded at the end of a long walk with greasy cafes, a big and brutally functional public lavatory and a sea of notices barking "No dogs", "No fishing", no this, no that (having fun, laughing after sunset). Some fishermen were catching tiny crabs for children to torment, while a few blue-rinsed senior citizens, swaying in the estuarine wind, looked out at the industrial stacks and chimneys that line the Thames as far as rheumy eyes can see.

It is a peculiarly British experience to tread these precarious boards. Piers were invented in Britain (Weymouth lays claim to the first pleasure pier proper, opened in 1812) and there are very few elsewhere in the world. There are a few in the Low Countries and the US, and the National Piers Society has one member in Dubai, but for the most part piers don't travel. This makes sense. Only an incorrigibly eccentric people could derive enjoyment from standing on platforms in the middle of the sea; only a congenitally nostalgic people would continue to derive enjoyment from those platforms long after they've faded and crumbled along with our national prestige. (The biggest pier-cull happened during Britain's "finest hour"; nearly half were destroyed as part of the Admiralty's stategy for repulsing Hitler.)

But could we be on the brink of a piers revival? Last week, the Heritage Lottery Fund announced an initial grant of pounds 950,000 for the renovation of the magnificent but long-closed Brighton West Pier (eventually it should receive nearly pounds 30m). Further grants for other selected historic piers are expected to be announced soon, as private enterprise combines with local authorities (who own half of Britain's surviving piers) to cash in on a restoration bonanza.

And so, perversely, our largely redundant piers seem likely to survive and prosper, drab but curiously charming symbols of Britain's backward- looking insularity. The Year of the Pier - arguably this Government's most characteristic initiative since the campaign for more motorway toilets - is also turning out to be the Year of the Eurosceptic; which is appropriate, for what are these piers if not truncated bridges, conspicuously failing to connect Britain to the Continent?