Travel: Walking on water

Clevedoners have pulled off a miracle, with the restoration of the `most beautiful pier in England', writes Jane Lovatt
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The Independent Online
We walked along until we came to plank 28, and there was our little romantic tribute. A small brass plaque bearing the inscription "Jane Loves Chris". Better than a park bench any day and worth every penny of the pounds 15 it cost to restore this tiny section of Clevedon Pier, in Somerset.

"The most beautiful pier in England. Its demolition would be a tragedy," wrote Sir John Betjeman of this delightful structure. Even those with no interest in seaside architecture would be bound to agree. Built on tall, spindly yet elegant legs, it reminds me of a gangly stalk, or a newborn Bambi just about to wobble into the sea.

The newly restored pier brings to life completely the sleepy yet pretty Victorian resort of Clevedon. Unsuspecting visitors are taken by surprise when they reach the promenade and see this outstretched walkway of grace and simple beauty reaching into the Bristol Channel. No wonder local residents were devastated when it collapsed during load-testing in 1970.

Happily, they can now look forward to a joyful day for their town when, on 23 May, the pier will be reopened, resplendent in its refurbished glory. Great celebrations are to take place, the like of which have not been seen in Clevedon since the pier was first opened on Easter Sunday 1869. This time the man cutting the ribbon will be Sir Charles Elton, whose great-great-grandfather built the pier.

Thousands turned out to witness the first opening and enjoy the general holiday granted in the pier's honour. A spectacular procession wound its way through the town and on to the promenade. Five hundred children sang a psalm, the First Somerset Artillery fired a cannon volley and a massed band played the National Anthem.

For 20 years the pier provided a new fast route to South Wales, until the railways took over. Later it became an important embarkation point for excursion ships, notably the Waverley paddle steamer, Britannia, which still has strong connections with the pier.

Clevedon flourished as a seaside resort, and the pier continued to be a great attraction as well as a source of local pride and pleasure. All was going swimmingly until 1970, when the two end spans collapsed. Clearly demolition was unthinkable - the pier was just too lovely. So in 1972 the Clevedon Pier Preservation Trust was set up. Clevedonians, passionate about their precious planks, got together and threw themselves into fundraising. English Heritage, the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the National Lottery have given major sums; other donations have come from pier fans such as myself and my boyfriend, who sponsored part of a plank.

Much of the pounds 3m required to rebuild this grade two listed building, however, has come from the proceeds of local events such as beach barbecues, sponsored walks and fishing marathons. No wonder Clevedonians are so proud that their beloved pier, which was partially reopened in 1989, is now just as it used to be.

"The original weather shelters and the pagoda are back in place," says Ivor Ashford, the present-day piermaster. "A lot of dedication and hard work have gone into this project, and we in Clevedon are very excited about 23 May. We are going to try to recreate the original opening ceremony as closely as possible, and we hope that visitors will wear Victorian dress if they can. A striped bathing suit and a straw hat would be perfect."

So if you're looking for a truly English seaside trip to enliven your bank holiday weekend, head for Clevedon, 20 minutes' drive from Bristol. Proceedings kick off at 10.30am with a procession along the beach led by the Plymouth Regiment Royal Marine band. Sir Charles Elton, accompanied by the world-famous bowler David Bryant OBE, who is a local resident, will declare the pier open, and there will be four sailings by the Britannia.

There will also be wing-walking, an air display, an air/sea rescue demonstration, street entertainment galore - and, to round it off, a magnificent firework display which you can enjoy from the deck of the Britannia or from the pier. A grand day out, especially if washed down with lots of Somerset cider. And don't forget to look out for our plaque while you're there.