PUBLISHED: 11:09 25 April 2008 | UPDATED: 15:07 20 February 2013
Opened three times, collapsed once, but still going strong, in the May issue of 'Somerset Life' we chart the history of Clevedon Pier.<br/><br/>Standing on the end of Clevedon Pier on a wet, windswept day, I found it hard to believe that had it not been f...
When the first excited travellers arrived in Clevedon on the newly opened branch line from Yatton in 1847, none of them would have known that the rapidly developing railway network would play such a major role in the construction of Clevedon's picturesque pier. The Industrial Revolution had brought about a new age of prosperity and although Brunel's railways were able to transport an eager population from London to South Wales, it wasn't until the opening of the Severn Tunnel in 1886 that a direct route from Somerset to Wales was established.
Entrepreneurial eyes soon fell on places like Clevedon, and plans quickly evolved to examine the possibility of transporting travellers across the Severn Estuary to South Wales by boat. With this idea in mind, the Clevedon Pier Company was founded at a meeting in November 1866. By the following year construction of this new local landmark was already under way. The main work was undertaken by Hamilton's Windsor Ironworks of Liverpool and it was now that the railway played another important part in the project, with redundant Barlow rails from Brunel's failed broad-gauge railway in South Wales being used to form a major part of the structure.
By February 1869 the work was complete, and at a lavish ceremony on Easter Monday that year Clevedon's impressive new pier was opened to much public acclaim. The project had cost some £10,000, a not inconsiderable sum in those days, and the little town looked forward to a new era of tourism-driven prosperity as people arrived not only to admire the new pier, but also to make the crossing to South Wales.
Clevedon's pier was fully reopened in 1998 with a glorious extravaganza of Victorian nostalgia, 20th-century aerobatics and a spectacular firework display
However, the opening of the Severn Tunnel in 1886 caused a severe decline in the number of passengers embarking from Clevedon for South Wales. By 1891, the pier was in need of considerable refurbishment and after ownership was transferred to Clevedon Council, a new pier-head and landing-stage were constructed and the structure was re-opened by Lady Elton in December 1893.
The next few years saw a steady increase in the number of passenger steamers plying their trade in the Severn Estuary, with many like the 'Waverley' www.waverleyexcursions.co.uk, 'Ravenswood' and 'Lorna Doone' paying regular visits to Clevedon. By 1913 the pier was again in need of remedial attention and so the timber landing-stage was replaced with the pre-cast concrete structure that can be seen today.
For the next 67 years Clevedon Pier led a relatively uneventful existence, unaffected by the two World Wars that had seen the nearby island of Steep Holm turned into a defensive gun platform. However, on 17 October 1970, disaster struck when during routine load testing the two end spans of the structure collapsed into the sea. This catastrophe could have signalled the end of this proud landmark had it not been for the efforts of local people to see it preserved. Indeed, while some were discussing the possibility of demolishing the remainder of the pier, a group of hardened preservationists managed to climb the isolated pier-head and display a large banner proclaiming 'Save Our Pier'.
In 1972, the Clevedon Pier Preservation Trust was founded and hard-working fundraisers set about the task of raising the 75,000 needed to rebuild the pier. But by 1979 inflation meant that this figure had risen to a staggering 379,500 and so the pier remained in a sad and unrepaired condition.
Undeterred, the Preservation Trust continued their work and after several pleas for the pier's reconstruction from such notable people as Sir John Betjeman, a Public Inquiry, which found in favour of the project, was held in March 1980. There then followed a period of frantic fundraising and some incredibly generous grants and donations were received. The Clevedon Pier Supporters, a body formed soon after the original disaster, also played a major part in the fundraising, and thanks to their members' efforts a further 100,000 was raised.
Work to reconstruct the pier finally started in 1984. Much of the work was carried out at nearby Portishead, with components of the pier being transported there for inspection and repair. Another glitch occurred in 1996 when the original contractors went into receivership, but after further financial awards from English Heritage and The National Heritage Memorial Fund work restarted and the pier was partially reopened on 27 May 1989.
Thanks to another grant from The Heritage Lottery Fund, the rebuilding of the pagoda and shelters at the pier-head was eventually completed, and on 23 May 1998 Clevedon's newly restored pier was fully reopened in a glorious extravaganza of Victorian nostalgia, 20th-century aerobatics and a spectacular firework display.
A group of hardened preservationists managed to climb the isolated pier-head and display a large banner proclaiming 'Save Our Pier'
It's hard to believe that after such a turbulent history, any further disasters could affect Clevedon's ill-fated pier, but talking to the pier manager, Linda Strong, I learned about an event in 2006 that could have been as catastrophic as the collapse of 1970.
"After a combination of a spring tide and a northerly wind, a local fisherman spotted something suspicious sticking out of the seabed on the left-hand side of the pier-head," she told me. "He said that he thought it might be an old Second World War bomb and after looking at a photograph he'd taken, I was inclined to agree."
Worried by what she had seen, Linda immediately contacted the Swansea Coastguard, who, after arriving with flashing blue lights, examined the picture and e-mailed it to the Bomb Squad in Plymouth. They agreed that the object certainly did look like a bomb and the following month, during the next spring tide, sent a team to deal with the mysterious and potentially lethal item.
The pier was closed and the Bomb Squad, watched by a crowd of fascinated onlookers and a team of reporters and cameramen from local television, eventually discovered a conical object sticking out of the mud. However, when it was carefully inspected, it turned out to be nothing more dangerous than something that had probably once been a piece of the original pier!
Strolling along this jewel-in-the-crown of Clevedon's heritage, it's easy to understand the Victorians' fascination with seaside piers, and to appreciate that there really is more to life than the stresses and strains of the 21st-century rat race. Sadly, despite its architectural and historic importance, Clevedon Pier receives limited financial support and The Clevedon Pier and Heritage Trust relies heavily on donations and fundraising for its upkeep. Indeed, with annual insurance costs alone in excess of 30,000, it's easy to imagine just how much it costs to run and maintain this Grade I Listed structure each year.
As someone a lot wiser than me once said: 'You never miss something until it's gone'. After the 1970 collapse Clevedon Pier could so easily have been lost forever, but, thanks to the efforts of all concerned, it was saved and restored for us all to enjoy today. Let's hope it stays like that for many generations to come. BY PETER STEPHENS. PHOTOS BY GUY EDWARDES
There are many ways to help support the Pier and Heritage Trust in their important work, including taking part in their regular 'Weather Lottery' or joining the thousands of others to 'Sponsor a Plank' on the pier. Anyone wanting to learn more should visit the Clevedon Pier and Heritage Trust website at www.clevedonpier.com or telephone the Pier Manager, Linda Strong, on 01275 878846.