End of the Pier: Holidaymakers on a stroll to nowhere: Martin Wroe joins the daily out-and-back walk at Clevedon

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The Independent Online
SEVERAL hundred holidaymakers wander along Clevedon Pier most days - even though there is no end of the pier show for them to look forward to.

The regal pavilion buildings which sat at the end of this elegant Victorian pier from its construction in 1869, became detached from its 824ft span in 1970 when the final stretch collapsed under load-testing. Ten years later the buildings were removed to a nearby car park where they continue to await recall to their rightful home.

It may not be long now. After raising pounds 2m in the Eighties, the Clevedon Pier Trust successfully reopened the pier in 1989 and the small sum of pounds 450,000 is all that holds up complete restoration, perhaps with a restaurant and coffee shop perched on the end.

At present, unless you are a fisherman with a taste for conger eels, a breezy stroll down Clevedon Pier leads to an abrupt halt and an about- turn. Except when there is a ship coming in. Clevedon is a ship pier: contrary to appearances, it does not stretch out into the water for nothing, or even merely to benefit the health of promenaders. In the summer season the Waverley, the last sea-going paddle steamer in the world, and the motor-powered Balmoral, disembark hundreds of visitors from Wales most afternoons, setting off again across the Bristol Channel half an hour later. 'It's a vital source of income,' Ivor Ashford, Pier Master, explained.

But restoring the pier to its original simple glory will take more than mere commerce. A sign at the pier entrance reads, 'Sponsor a plank for Clevedon Pier - pounds 15 for your personal engraving'. Mr Ashford has just got the pier's original 19th- century lamps out of storage - it will cost pounds 400 to put each in place. Perhaps a business will pay for each in return for a plaque, he muses.

With his wife Maggie, retired from a succesful business career, he works seven days a week, and up to 14 hours a day, claiming that the pier motto - 'Every day is an adventure and a joke' - is true to life.

They have given three years of their lives to work for the pier, running the shop, co-ordinating the fund-raising, acting as information officers, organising volunteers, docking the ships, and all for 80p an hour. That hardly compares with the handsome remuneration to one J S Goodman, the first Pier Master, who was installed in 1869 and paid '12 shillings a week and provided with uniforms annually'.

Mrs Ashford, who calls herself the Pier Master's Mistress, said: 'I've never once got fed up here. In the winter it's bleak and cold and you have to lean forward 45 degrees to stand up, but there's nothing like it. Having spent pounds 2m of public money, we're determined to finish this.'

This August afternoon the pier- shoulder - it is not really a head - is thronged with incoming sea travellers, who must climb three flights of iron steps, winding up through the thick, rusting structure. When they return, the tide will have risen, the stairs will be submerged and the climb unnecessary.

Many of the pier's 60,000 annual visitors are drawn by the prospect of a sea trip to Minehead or across to South Wales. The pier pockets 50p admission for each one, plus a cut of the ship-ticket and a pounds 100 docking fee.

Cunningly, the pier's gift shop is positioned so that every visitor has to walk through it. It is in the tollhouse, described by the Clevedon Mercury in 1869 as 'Scottish baronial', a 'sham castle or chalk ornament affused to a cake'.

That dismal opinion is in contrast with the general view of the pier itself as something made in heaven, the best of its kind.

'Graceful as a spider's web, elegant as a piece of lace, simple in design, endearingly secure for over a hundred years, Clevedon Pier has added human grandeur to our environment,' according to Sir Arthur Elton, writing in the publication Engineering.

'Long live Clevedon as a complete town, which it would not be if it lost its pier,' John Betjeman said.

Maggie Ashford agrees: 'Too many bits of history are forgotten and it's up to us slightly more mature people to hold on to them.'

(Photograph omitted)