End of the Pier: Long and windy walk to nowhere: The jewel in Southend's crown still draws crowds, but is now a little tarnished. Martin Wroe reports

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The Independent Online
'THERE'S no point going down there,' one woman said to another looking down the pier at Southend-on-Sea in Essex. 'There's nothing down there anymore.'

She had a point. It may be the longest pleasure pier in the world but these days the pleasures themselves do not last particularly long. There's a take-away fish and chip bar, a snack bar and cafe, Uncle Jack's seafood and soft drinks kiosk, a novelties kiosk and the Jolly Fisherman pub.

'It's been a struggle to get life back into the pier ever since the fire,' said Alan Wender, who drives one of its two trains. 'We used to have a million visitors a year but not these days. It's the jewel in Southend's crown but it's a bit tarnished now.' Still, if the pleasures are in doubt, the length is not. Its cast iron piles and timber decking stretch defiantly out into the North Sea for 2,360 yards, which, as the tourist literature proudly explains, is one mile, two furlongs and 160 yards - which is also 2,157.984 metres. It's also a very windy 20-minute walk and only the dedicated don't take the train.

'The train on the left is the right one, the train on the right is the wrong one,' announced a guard, entering into the spirit of pier frivolity, as another 200 trippers take the 12- minute ride to the end and the middle of nowhere.

The present pier was opened to the promenading public in August 1899, the upper deck finished 30 years later in 1929. Forty-seven years later came the event which haunts Southend Pier even now - a fire which ate away the 1908 pier head, destroying the cafes, theatre and amusement arcades. As if that wasn't enough, in 1976 the MV Kingsabbey foolishly tried to sail through the pier between the old and new pier heads, severing the Royal National Lifeboat Institution's boathouse slipway and leaving a 70ft gap in the pier.

But Southend Pier is nothing if not resilient. It recovered and life at the end of the pier goes on, if not quite as grandly as before. 'It's mainly the elderly and the wheelchairs we get down here,' said the man behind the bar in the Jolly Fisherman.

One dubious attraction for some visitors is the chance to be photographed against the burnt-out backdrop of embers and gnarled stanchions that partially survived the flames. Another is Madame Rene in the Lemon Hut offering character readings and 'advice on all matters private and confidential'.

But the busiest activity seems to be taking place underneath the ground floor, in the basement of the pier just above sea level where fishermen crouch bravely on rusting girders midst the pier's resilient foundations. In this strange netherworld, everything is covered with rust and weed and standing starkly out from it all are the charred wooden pillars. As fishermen step from slippery girder to girder, the green sea lashes around them. Above them, oblivious to their presence, are schoolchildren reeling in crabs off the sides of the huge grey wooden expanse of the pier head.

But it needs something more, this pier whose length promises so much and fails to deliver. 'It needs an attraction,' the man in the snack bar said. 'A lot of people come down here but they're a bit disappointed sometimes.'

(Photographs omitted)

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