Stretching out to sea for 1.3 miles, Southend Pier is the longest in the world. Walking to the end and back is almost the same distance as climbing the Matterhorn. On a hot day it can seem as challenging. Most visitors let the pier train take the strain, before cooling off with an ice cream, or perhaps sending a postcard from the pier’s own letterbox. When the train is running...
Completed in 1890, Southend Pier is an icon of the Victorian British seaside. Sir John Betjeman summarised its physical and cultural immensity: ‘The Pier is Southend, Southend is the Pier.’ Its famous length grew from a greater numbers game. ‘Seaside resorts were built on mass tourism. They make money by attracting as many visitors as possible,’ says Dr Anya Chapman, senior lecturer in tourism management at Bournemouth University.
At the start of the Victorian leisure boom, most visitors arrived at the coast by sea. ‘Piers were the transport hubs of their day,’ Chapman explains, ‘before the railways, piers brought the tourists.’ Southend had a disadvantage. At low tide, the sea retreats by a mile, while at high tide the water level rarely tops six metres. This tidal range meant large ships, including tourist steamers, couldn’t dock at Southend. Faced with losing valuable revenue, the solution was a record-breaking pier.
As rail travel increased, seaside piers evolved into leisure attractions. Ship stages became show stages. By the 1940s around four million visitors trod the boards each year at Southend. Numbers fell with the rise of European package holidays. Britain’s piers faced being washed away by the tide of changing tastes. In 1980 Southend Pier closed. Campaigners saved it from the threat of demolition and it has since been restored.
Today, the pier is owned by the local council. Last year they allocated £16 million to invest in the structure. Piers are expensive to maintain. Wood rots, metal rusts and insurance costs are huge. Besides the elements, piers are constantly exposed to storms, fires and boat strikes. And this summer, they face another threat.
Covid-19 saw piers closed despite glorious weather, including over Easter and the May bank holidays. ‘The peak summer season is usually 12 weeks,’ says Chapman. ‘Lockdown and restrictions since have effectively cut that to just two and a half because most piers are now operating at about 40 per cent capacity’. Southend Pier reopened to visitors on 6 July. A socially distanced train service resumed at the end of the month.
‘These are difficult times for all piers. A lot of them are going to struggle,’ Chapman says. Does the pandemic threaten the end of the British seaside pier? Some are already adapting. Chapman cites Hastings Pier: ‘Critics called it “the Plank” because there was nothing on it. But its open spaces have become an asset, especially for safe outdoor dining.’
Before Covid-19, piers were already diversifying to broaden their appeal. Attractions on offer now range from aquariums to zipwires. And these seaside structures still provide a timeless pleasure. ‘The lure of the sea has been with us for centuries and piers offer a simple thrill, of being able to walk on water.’ Of the hundred or so Victorian piers, 61 survive with 56 open to the public. Hopefully pleasure seekers will enjoy them for many more summers to come.