Open once again, the pier that rose from the ashes

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The Independent Online

One of South-west England's most familiar landmarks is back from the dead. Two years after it was destroyed by fire, the Grand Pier at Weston-super-Mare will reopen today after a £40m rebuild.

The result is an attraction throbbing with energy and hi-tech wizardry but which, the owners say, still retains the original sense of fun.

"I grew up in Weston; I have been here all my life. The pier is Weston and when we lost it, it was like the heart had been taken from the town," said Kerry Michael, one of the pier's joint owners. "It happened on my watch. It was my fault and I had to put it right."

The pier on the seafront at Weston-super-Mare, a resort that has long struggled to recapture the flair of its Victorian heyday, has always maintained an affectionate hold in the hearts of local people. The pier has traditionally played backdrop to summer outings and teenage dates as well as being a destination for afternoon tea and for those wanting a stroll amid the smell of doughnuts and candy floss.

But in the aftermath of the blaze that tore through in the early hours of 28 July 2008, the advance of the flames through the Grade II listed building made easier by the absence of a modern sprinkler system, Mr Michael said he and his sister, Michelle, received messages of support from around the world. Even before the flames had been fully extinguished – the fire, started by an electrical fault, burned for at least 12 hours – they had decided they had no alternative but to rebuild.

The new pier itself is in the shape of a wave and somehow manages to look both traditional and futuristic. At night, it can be lit up in a variety of colours. A tour inside the building revealed an overhaul that has seen millions of pounds spent on updated versions of some of the pier's most famous attractions. There is a laser maze, a swinging pendulum ride, a ride involving a giant robotic arm that might have come from a car assembly line and a double helter-skelter. There is also a go-cart track and dodgems, featuring Italian-made carts.

Elsewhere there is a 4-D cinema, a bar and function rooms for weddings and parties with views that sweep down the Bristol Channel towards Exmoor and south Wales. Given that the damp West Country weather is often so miserable that it can be difficult to see 100 yards ahead, the pier's owners have wisely ensured the walkway that leads out to the attraction is entirely covered. "Weston's landmark is back, bigger and better," enthused the town's MP, John Penrose.

Traditional piers have not had an easy time in Britain, often falling prey to neglect, boredom or even arson. Earlier this month, the pier at Hastings was destroyed in a suspected attack. But at Weston-super-Mare, the owners believe the new pier will attract up to 4 million visitors a year. More than 10,000 people have been following on Facebook and there has even been talk of people camping out overnight for the honour of being the first visitors. "In addition to bringing trade and attention to the town, the pier has been planned with business in mind. It includes venues for conferences and meetings," said Chris Knight, the president of the local chamber of commerce.

On a recent morning at Weston-super-Mare, David and Frances Crookes were making their way along the promenade, itself upgraded by £30m of new flood defences. Their journey took them past the entrance to the pier. "We have been coming here for 40 years. When the pier burned down it was a great shame," said Mr Crookes, a day-tripper from Bath. "We would like to take a look at it now."

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