The renaissance of the pier

As this British seaside icon celebrates its 200th birthday, Christopher Beanland treads the boards of these often neglected structures

The pier at Southend stretches out into the distance, almost as far as you can see. Like all piers, it looks perilous; perched just above the rampant, freezing waves and appearing to be made of the same stuff from which you would construct a treehouse.

If piers were about the Victorians demonstrating that they could conquer the elements, the end result never looked quite as thrusting and dominant as it was supposed to. The gaps between the boards, the skimpy ironwork, the knowledge that so many piers have burnt down (Southend did in 1959. And 1976. And 2005), all combine to give a sense of impermanence. Which makes it all the more remarkable that the British seaside pier celebrates its 200th birthday this summer, and that 58 of them remain standing in Britain.

The first pier opened at Ryde on the Isle of Wight in July 1814. Throughout the 1800s, dozens more followed. Southend's first pier shot up in 1830 – and the current much-extended incarnation is the longest in the world. Just before the start of the summer season, on a weekday, it's like 28 Days Later. There's not a soul about, apart from two fishermen braving the breeze. Adventure Island looks as creepy as all deserted theme parks do on blustery days.

Piers are part of the iconography of the British seaside holiday. Those holidays were always peculiar institutions. In L'Angleterre de Martin Amis, a documentary made for French broadcaster Arte and shown earlier this year on BBC4, Amis meditated on the way the English grimly endure holidays at home. He reckoned we practise Schadenfreude on ourselves, that we derive a weird joy from the rain and the cold; from the seaside suffering and the pier-based boredom. Piers are often called "pleasure piers", but the pleasures derived from them, especially out of season, can be dubious: arcades, funfairs, ribald postcards and candyfloss.

Southend pier Southend pier (Alamy) John Betjeman was a fan, though. He loved the heroic thrust of a pier – especially if it had a railway on it, as Ryde and Southend do. He believed a pier made a seaside town complete and said that "the Pier is Southend, Southend is the Pier".

So many early memories end up with us on piers. Cast your mind back. I remember spilling my orange juice on the way to Blackpool's Central Pier, and being amazed by the lifeboat station and its precipitous rollercoaster ramp at the end of Cromer Pier. The present is even stranger. At Eastbourne, on a chilly Sunday, the Chippy On The Pier offers misty-windowed solace for the disconsolate and a cracking bag of chips for £1.70. In Funtasia, you can play those 2p gaming machines, where shrill bells ring and lights flash. But the feeling here is of life ebbing away, perhaps because it's a retirement town. Even the sea seems lackadaisical; calm and just sort of hanging around – like the fishermen at the pier's tip.

We Brits have a strange relationship with that sea, perhaps because our sea is almost always too cold to swim in. We parade around on top of it, at a physical and emotional distance from it. But if piers were in terminal decline as the 20th century wore on, now at least they seem to be enjoying a late flowering. Penarth Pier re-opened in December following a £4.2m restoration; Southwold Pier has a new owner (and will flaunt a boutique hotel if its plans come to fruition). If piers seemed morose, last year's Alan Partridge movie changed that a bit, too, by setting its gun-toting denouement on the same Cromer Pier that baffled and awed me as a kid. It was the perfect, and perfectly odd, choice for that film's ending.

Clevedon pier Clevedon pier (Getty) The most encouraging pier restoration of all is just along the coast from Eastbourne at Hastings. The local community always loved its pier. The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix played gigs here, Syd Barrett did his last ever turn with Pink Floyd on the pier. Hastings also suffered from a fire in 2010, but today, rebuilding work is under way and architects dRMM have drawn up plans to create the coolest-looking pier in the world, with futuristic buildings that will again host shows and events. When it opens next year, Hastings Pier might become the main reason people go to visit the town. It won't be a pier trapped in a timewarp, it'll provide real, tangible, modern pleasures.

In a way, Brighton's Palace Pier provides those pleasures, too. Brighton bursts with vitality; it's the least depressing of Britain's south-coast seaside towns. The Palace Pier is a reminder of how exciting the concept of a pier must have seemed to our sheltered forbears who didn't go to summer festivals in Croatia or enjoy gap years in South-east Asia.

Of course, Brighton is also home to the saddest pier wreck. Lorded over by the uncompromising brutalist bulk of the Holiday Inn, the skeleton of the much older West Pier is intensely morbid, especially during a Brighton spring sunset. The whole scene here is set to get much, much stranger in summer 2016, because Brighton has plans to build a 600ft-high viewing tower at the exact point that the West Pier used to lurch out into the sea.

The tower, which will look like a hypodermic syringe and boast a revolving viewing platform, is the brainchild of architects Marks Barfield – who also built the London Eye. From the tip, visitors will be able to see 25 miles on a clear day – the distance to Bognor Regis Pier in the west and Eastbourne Pier in the east.

British piers by numbers

70

The speed, in mph, of winds that battered Brighton's ruined West Pier in early February, splitting it in two. Winter storms also played havoc with Cromer, Skegness, Blackpool North, Southsea South, Teignmouth, Torquay Princess and Weston-super-Mare Birnbeck piers, which all suffered damage.

7

The date, this month, that designer Zandra Rhodes launches her new fashion collection, called Zandra On The Pier, at the Seaweed & Salt boutique on Southwold Pier in Suffolk. The pier has been spruced up by the Gough family of hoteliers, which owns the Angel in Bury St Edmunds and the Salthouse Harbour Hotel.

58

The number of piers still standing in Britain. Hazel and Jay Preller visited every one – and got married last year on Brighton's Palace Pier. Hazel wrote a book called From Piers To Eternity. Two Birmingham writers – Jon Bounds and Danny Smith – also visited all of Britain's piers to research a book documenting them all.

1979

The year the National Piers Society was formed by Sir John Betjeman to campaign to protect Britain's historic piers. Grade I-listed Clevedon is the current NPS Pier of The Year winner.

19

The chart position reached by One Direction's "You and I" single. The band filmed the accompanying video on Clevedon Pier in Somerset.

piers.org.uk

bit.ly/BritishPiers

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