End of the Pier: Promenaders outnumber the mackerel: Seaweed and grey skies await the visitor to Saltburn-by-the-Sea. Martin Wroe reports

A MAN'S face breaks into a childish expression of delight. His body tightens and he reels in a vigorously reluctant mackerel, flashing silver through the water below. Children surround him as he bashes the mackerel's head on the wooden pier floor. He pops it proudly in his Tesco's bag.

'Must be a loner,' rationalises a disgruntled colleague who has not caught a thing in hours off the end of Saltburn pier. 'I reckon they all commit suicide up at Redcar.'

Up the coast at Redcar, by all accounts, the fishermen pull in 30 or 40 mackerel in a session. According to a sign on the seafront of Saltburn-by-the-Sea, there may well be something strange about the water during the holiday months anyway: 'Mussels and cockles taken from this beach between 1 April and 31 August may be contaminated and should not be eaten.' Presumably the mussels and cockles clean up their act at the beginning of September every year. Despite the bleak prospects, optimists lean over the pier rail, lines cast out to be reeled back in, minutes later, weighed down with the false promise of a clump of dripping seaweed.

The pier's end at Saltburn is modest - two benches and a wide-screen sea view. To the east, the headland, Hunts Cliff, juts out fiercely. In olden times, the pier was twice as long and matched it foot for foot.

'When I was younger,' the woman in the gift shop said, 'boats used to dock at the end and, if you took a walk along the pier, you really went for a walk.'

To the west, the horizon offers the more depressing prospect of that place whence some of today's promenaders have escaped - the towers, cranes and grey industrial shapes of the British Steel works. The fishermen and promenaders have descended from ground-level and the pretty town of Saltburn, to sea-level and the mackerel, using the cliff tramway. There is a leaflet all about 'Saltburn's Inclined Tramway', constructed in July 1870 and carrying 70,000 passengers every year. There is no leaflet about the pier, built 14 months before, when Saltburn was 'a small 16-house hamlet situated upon the sea and under a mountain with quaint villagers engaged in fishing and seal catching but mainly smuggling.'

The pier has no claim to architectural or historical merit. David Bateman, the cashier in the amusement arcade built on the shore-end, acts as unofficial historian but has not managed to get his leaflet printed yet: 'It's the only pier we have on the north-east coast. There used to be two in Redcar but they were demolished donkey's years ago.'

Mr Bateman had to shut the arcade for 10 weeks in the spring after twice being ram- raided. But it is not just the young who run out of ideas on Saltburn Pier. So do the old.

'One old boy walked through here recently and then jumped off the end to his death,' said Mr Bateman. 'I've often seen people doing that down the years. I've seen a few cars go over Hunts Cliff too. I live at the top so I can see everything.'

Today, in the middle of August, the sun has not got his hat on and is obviously not coming out to play. The arcade is bustling but the pier-head is also busy. There is always someone out on the pier, Mr Bateman said, even during a stormy high tide when you can feel it moving.

'People still walk out to the end, they must be mad.'

(Photograph omitted)