Tag Archives: English Piers

Staycation 2020 – Saltburn-by-the-Sea

On the third day the rain had stopped but had been replaced by very strong winds. I had considered visiting nearby Boulby cliffs, the highest in the north-east of England but with responsibility for an adventurous grandson who cannot stop climbing I thought this may not be especially wise so we visited nearby Saltburn-by-the Sea instead.

Saltburn is an interesting place, a Victorian new town developed to provide seaside facilities to the emergng iron town of Middlesborough, it was designed and built in the space of only a few years in the 1850s and 60s.

After parking the car we made directly for the promenade and to the pier. The pleasure pier is characteristically English, a genuine icon and one that I have never really understood.

No one in England lives more than seventy miles or so from the sea but when they get to the coast they have a curious compulsion to get even closer to the water and as far away from the shore as possible without taking to a boat. The Victorians especially liked piers and by time of the First-World-War there were nearly two hundred sticking out all around the coastline. If there had been satellite photography a hundred years ago then England would have looked like a giant pin-cushion.

Construction of Saltburn pier began in 1867 with a traditional design of a metal frame (piles) and a wooden deck, designed principally to get people to Saltburn by paddle steamers from the nearby industrial towns along the River Tees.

The one thousand, five hundred foot pier opened in May 1869 with a steamer landing stage at the head of the pier and two circular kiosks at the entrance. The first steamers left the pier on 14 May 1870, with a service to Middlesbrough. In the first six months of operation, there were fifty-thousand toll-paying visitors. Steamer excursions added to the company’s revenue with new seasonal trips to Hartlepool and Scarborough.

But stuck out at sea as they are English piers are rather precarious structures and constantly exposed to danger and one night in October 1875 a gale struck the pier removing three hundred feet of the structure at the seaward end, including the pier head, landing stage and part of the pier deck. In the middle of an iron trade slump, it was decided not to replace the missing section or reconstruct a landing stage, leaving a redeveloped pier two hundred and fifty foot shorter.

In the 1880s there was further development but after suffering slight storm damage in 1900, the pier was struck by a china clay ship in May 1924. The collision left a two hundred foot gap in the promenade leaving the bandstand inaccessible. The gap was replaced in March 1929, with a new theatre, completed in 1930 enabling the full length of the pier to open.

When my granddaughter was born in October 2008 it didn’t occur to me that twelve years later she would be taller than me…

It seems that Saltburn Pier was destined for perpetual misfortune. Purchased by the council in 1938, the pier was sectioned during World War II by having part of the deck removed to guard against Nazi invasion. Due to its poor post war condition, repairs were not granted planning permission until 1949 and due to a shortage of steel not completed until 1952.

That didn’t last long. In 1953 gales did more serious damage which took a further five years to complete but soon after in 1958 two piles were lost in a storm.  In 1961 another twenty piles were twisted in storms.  After severe gales in 1971 and 1972, piles were lost at the seaward end leaving the pier in a perilous condition. Further damage in 1974 culminated in October when the pier head was lost and the deck damaged, leaving a length of only one thousand feet.

In 1975 the council had had enough of the pier and proposed to have the structure demolished but a “Save the Pier” campaign led to a public enquiry which concluded that only the final thirteen piers could be removed and it should remain. This left a seven hundred foot length of refurbished pier, less than half the original length of 1869 which reopened in June 1978.

In 2009, the National Piers Society awarded it with the title of pier of the year.  Other finalists must have been seriously disappointed I imagine.

This is the pier that in a howling gale we walked today over a turbulent sea and into a misty gloom. It was cold at the pier head so we didn’t stay long and after successfully directing the children away from the amusement arcade we resumed our walk along the sea front.  William inevitably found things to climb on.

In the afternoon the wind dropped, the sun made a belated appearance and we managed an unexpected hour at the beach.

East Anglia, Southwold and the English Pier

Southwold Suffolk

On our first day at Kessingland caravan park we squandered the time away at the swimming pool, the beach and took a short walk into the village.  By day two we were ready to explore and so we set off for nearby Southwold.

Southwold is ridiculously picturesque and quintessentially English, a town of Tudor houses and thatched roofs, so English that it is high on the list of filming locations for English film and television.

The fictional Southwold Estate, seat of Earls of Southwold, is the country estate of the family of Lady Marjorie Bellamy in the drama Upstairs, Downstairs and the town and its vicinity has been used as the setting for numerous films and television programmes including Iris about the life of Iris Murdoch starring Dame Judy Dench,  Drowning by Numbers by Peter Greenaway, Kavanagh QC starring John Thaw, East of Ipswich by Michael Palin, Little Britain with Matt Lucas and David Walliam, a 1969 version of David Copperfield and the BBC children’s series Grandpa in My Pocket.

Southwold Beach Huts 1

We parked the car and walked along the short seafront, a pebbled beach that is difficult to walk upon, a promenade and a row of gaily painted beach huts.  Next we came to the pier.  The pleasure pier is characteristically English, a genuine icon and one that I have never really understood.

No one in England lives more than seventy miles* or so from the sea but when they get to the coast they have a curious compulsion to get even closer to the water and as far away from the shore as possible without taking to a boat. The Victorians especially liked piers and by time of the First-World-War there were nearly two hundred sticking out all around the coastline.  If there had been satellite photography a hundred years ago then England would have looked like a giant pin-cushion.

It is a very nice pier with shops and amusements all the way down to the end.  In 2002 it was voted ‘Pier of the Year’ by the UK National Piers Society, it is quite short at only just over two hundred yards, when it was built in 1900 it was seventy yards longer but it has suffered various damage over the years.

Southwold Pier

English piers you see are rather fragile structures and over the years have had an alarming tendency to catch fire – Weston-Super-Mare, Brighton, Blackpool, Eastbourne, and Great Yarmouth have all suffered this fate but Southend-on-Sea is probably the most unfortunate of all because it has burned down four times which seems rather careless.

The problem with a pier of course is that they are generally constructed of wood and are highly combustible and a quarter of a mile or so out to sea they are also rather inaccessible to the fire service so once they go up in flames little can be done but to watch the blazing inferno from the safety of the promenade until the fire goes out by itself and all that is left is a tangle of twisted metal girders and beams.

Fire isn’t the only danger of course because the coast can be a rough old place to be in bad weather and severe storms and gales have accounted over the years for Aberystwyth, Cromer, Saltburn and Brighton.  Reaching far out to sea also makes them rather vulnerable to passing ships and the aforementioned unfortunate Southend-on-Sea was sliced in half in 1986 by a tanker that had lost its navigational bearings.  One unfortunate man was in the pier toilets at the time and apparently only just made it out in time before they tipped over the edge!

There isn’t much else to say about Southwold except that George Orwell once lived there and so after only a short stop and a drive around the busy streets we continued our drive planning to stop next at the Suffolk port town of Lowestoft.

I didn’t find Lowestoft that thrilling I have to confess, it looked much like Grimsby to me where I live, a run-down sort of a place urgently in need of some investment and a make-over but there was one especially interesting place to visit while we here – Ness Point, the most easterly place in the British Isles.

Ness Point Lowestoft Suffolk

For such a significant place I would have expected it to be something special, a bit like Four Corners in the USA but not a bit of it.

There is no visitor centre and no souvenir shop, just a windswept carpark and it is difficult to find located as it is on the edge of an industrial estate and close to a sewage treatment works and a massive wind turbine called Goliath (it was once the biggest in England).  There is only a circular direction marker known as Euroscope, marking locations in other countries and how far away they are.  I felt like an explorer about to set sail.

The ‘Visit Lowestoft’ web site proclaims that, “No trip to Lowestoft is complete without a visit to Ness Point, the most easterly spot in the United Kingdom”  As far as I could see this is about the only reason to visit Lowestoft so with nothing to detain us longer we headed directly back now to the seafront car park and enjoyed an especially good meal of fish and chips.

I was reminded that a couple of years ago I was at the most Westerly point in the British Isles** on the Dingle Peninsular in Southern Ireland where we were staring out at two thousand miles of water and next stop Canada and the USA.

The Blasket Islands (10°39’) at the end of the Dingle Peninsula are the most westerly point in the British Isles but these have been uninhabited since 1953, Iceland is the most westerly country in Europe and Reykjavik is the most westerly capital city (21°93’); Lisbon (9°14’) is the most westerly city on mainland Europe and furthest west than anywhere else are the Azores at 31°30.

When someone tells you that something is the biggest or the longest or the highest or the heaviest it is always worth checking up I find.  The most westerly point in Asia is Cape Baba in Turkey and in the United States it is Alaska which is also the most easterly as well because it stretches so far that it crosses right into the eastern hemisphere (a good pub quiz question that).

The day ended with an especially fine sunset…

Kessingland Seagulls and Sunset

* Based on a direct line drawn on an Ordnance Survey map from location to the first coast with tidal water.  The village that is further from the sea than any other human settlement in the UK is Coton in the Elms in Derbyshire at exactly seventy miles in all directions…

Coton-in-the-Arms Derbyshire

** The British Isles are an archipelago in the North Atlantic Ocean that consists of the islands of Great Britain, Ireland, the Isle of Man and over six thousand smaller isles.  The term ‘British Isles’ is controversial in Ireland where there are nationalist objections to its usage and the Government of Ireland does not officially recognise the term and discourages its use.

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