Visiting the much-loved piers of Somerset
PUBLISHED: 11:21 14 December 2017 | UPDATED: 11:24 14 December 2017
Memories of childhood holidays flood back when Stephen Roberts takes a walk down the beautiful piers of Somerset loved by many
I walked on water that day. I had water ahead, to the left, right and underneath. That was the conception of the pier builders of Victorian and Edwardian Britain was to take the promenade over the sea (most piers were built between 1854 and 1904). I love a trip to the seaside and I adore a good pier. Somerset may only have a few, but they are a fascination.
Clevedon has long been fashionable, a playground for Bristolians, and retains a Victorian feel. Coleridge honeymooned here almost three quarters of a century before Clevedon got its pier in 1869, and with that, resort status.
The pier cost £10,000, engaged an average workforce of 60, used 370 tons of wrought ironwork and was built to receive paddle steamers from Devon and Wales. Boat trips down the Severn Estuary are still possible aboard the Balmoral and Waverley.
The toll house was designed by a Weston-super-Mare architect in a Scots baronial style, with entrance gates and railings made in a Clevedon foundry.
The pier certainly has a ‘wow’ factor when you first glimpse it; no wonder Betjeman dubbed it ‘the most beautiful pier in England’. The experience has been enhanced by the visitor centre, including the Discover @ the Pier attraction and shop as well as the Tiffin @ The Pier, the popular restaurant which won the Best Newcomer of the Year at the Somerset Life Food & Drink Awards 2017.
From a distance the pier looks frail, a tangled collection of legs, wires and struts that a decent gust of wind might finish off. Yet it has stood the test of time, almost 150 years of it, albeit suffering a collapse in 1970 (the pier fully reopening in 1998).
Regarded as a focal point in Clevedon, it can be hired for weddings and parties. Why, you can even have your ashes scattered. Now there’s a thought.
Weston’s Grand Pier came in towards the end of the pier era, 1904 in fact.
When I visited I paid my £1 and walked as near to the end as possible, looking out at Flat Holm, an island that is part of Wales. Small plaques, (the green series), dotted about, told me about the sights: the Bristol Channel’s varied fish, the two miles of beach (equivalent to 225 double-decker buses) and Knightstone Island, which used to have a theatre, swimming pool and Turkish baths.
Here was all the fun of the seaside, just as I remember it from 50 years ago; candy floss (invented in 1897) and donkey rides. Did you know that the placement of a donkey’s eyes ensures it sees all four of its feet at all times? I got talking to local girl Emma Poole, who had her own memories of a donkey named Sparkles.
It has not all been fun though. The pier was damaged by fire twice, in 1930 and 2008, when the pavilion was destroyed. A resort losing its pier means it has had its heart ripped out. It took more than two years and £39million, but the Grand Pier re-opened in October 2010 and looks grander than ever. I felt it was money well spent.
There are impressive function rooms, the Regency Suite and Tiffany Room, and it’s possible to get hitched here.
Coloured bunting cheered my exit as I headed back to the prom, whilst an advert for Murder on the Pier, a murder mystery evening, added a macabre twist.
Where is that second pier though? Heading beyond Knightstone Island I came to Birnbeck Pier, which is a sorry sight. This pier is older than Clevedon’s (1867) and is unique, the only British pier linking the mainland with an island. I chatted to a couple enjoying the afternoon sun in Prince Consort Gardens, learning that the lifeboatmen once frequented a pub around here called Fatso’s, but frequently had to rush off when there was a ‘shout’.
Other than the owners, only the RNLI is allowed on the island today. There was also a hotel here, as this end of Weston was a mini-resort in its own right.
So, what went wrong? Well, the building of the Grand Pier added unwelcome competition, the two piers vying for ‘top dog’, until World War Two saw a down-turn in Birnbeck’s fortunes, not helped by a Wellington accidentally dropping a dummy mine overhead, causing serious damage. Following storms the pier closed in 1994. The good news is that the Friends of the Old Pier Society was formed in 1996, determined to save this once grand (but never the Grand) pier. Good luck to them.
I completed my trawl of Somerset’s piers in Burnham-on-Sea with Britain’s shortest (the Pavilion). I did a double-take, as it didn’t appear long enough to be a ‘pier’, yet there was nothing else that qualified.
Built between 1911 and 1914, the pier stands centrally on The Esplanade, so is the focus of the uncluttered seafront. A glass roof at the front was affording a pleasant environment for lunching trippers. Floral embellishments completed the scene. Oh to be in England when summer is here.
The pier became derelict by 1986, but has been restored, such that Somerset still has three serviceable piers. Hopefully this will become four again at some point.
Between 1901 and World War Two there would have been five, for there was a 700-foot structure at Minehead, removed in 1940 to allow gun batteries a clear line of sight. Minehead may have gone, but the others remain, reminding us that the British seaside holiday is the best of all.
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