Clevedon Pier, Somerset
Another History lesson, culled from some draft notes I wrote on seaside resorts. Yes, I need a life.
Pleasure piers are the most idiosyncratic feature of British seaside culture. Around 77 survive, although there were over 90 at their peak. Their development helped to feed the growing popularity of a resort, and was often actually the key factor in this.
Pleasure piers originated as what the name literally means; functional walkways allowing access to deeper water for loading and unloading vessels. The first was arguably that built in 1813 at Ryde on the Isle of Wight. Ryde is fronted by a kilometre of shallows, so boats from Portsmouth would unceremoniously dump visitors and their luggage on the sands, to be transported ashore by pack horses. The new pier built to shorten this trek was 527m long and 4m wide. It unexpectedly became a popular attraction in its own right, being extended to 681m and decorated in subsequent decades. From 1840, visitors were charged admission from landward via a tollhouse, and a ‘pavilion’ was added in 1842.
Sam Brown, an engineer who had built piers for coal loading, constructed Brighton Chain Pier in 1822, 106m long with a 24m wide platform at the end; steam ships for France would dock there, but the pier also boasted shops and amusements in booths along its length. This lead to a spate of pier building in the south-east, aimed at tourists from London. Thomas Telford played a part in designing 914m Herne Bay Pier in Kent, but this was soon dwarfed by Southend Pier which was 183m when opened in 1830, soon being extended to 457m and eventually a staggering 2100m. A railway was added to reach its end.
Pleasure piers really took off after the railways linked to (or created) resorts. Their popularity fuelled a pier-building craze from the 1860s, with 60 constructed up to 1900. 16 of the 22 built in the 1860s were originally plain and utilitarian, built to dock steamers. As the realisation dawned that people were willing to pay merely to ‘promenade’ upon them, these piers soon acquired decoration and entertainments. Piers became increasingly extravagant in design; Eugenius Birch’s Eastbourne Pier (1870) was fancifully adorned with Italianate kiosks, exotic towers and turrets. They were built wider and wider, ending in pavilions with concert halls, theatres and ballrooms suspended improbably above the waves. In Scotland, piers developed in close relation with the paddle steamer trade which transported Glaswegian workers down the Clyde to resorts like Helensburgh, where two piers were built to offload visitors. Piers in England and Wales still docked steamers but function had been almost completely replaced by frivolity. The craze for pier-building perhaps reached its illogical extreme on the Isle of Wight, back where it all started; a total of nine Wight resorts had piers (four survive today).
The building of the pleasure piers has been compared to the creation of the rock lighthouses in terms of engineering challenge (but obviously not necessity!). Of course, piers were usually constructed on soft sand or mud and completely exposed to weather, waves and tide. Pointed cast iron piles were originally driven or screwed into the seabed; this was the favoured approach of the celebrated Eugenius Birch who built 14 piers, starting with Margate (1853-7). In building 1335 metre Southport pier in 1860, railway engineer James Brunlees pioneered the use of pressurised water jets to force metal piles ending in disk plates down into the sand.
Clevedon Pier in Somerset (built 1867-69) is generally acknowledged as the masterpiece of pier-building, in terms of both engineering and design. Now protected as a Grade 1 listed building, the pier juts out into the Bristol Channel’s fast flowing tide streams and 15m tidal range, supported gracefully atop eight elliptical spans of 30m. The key construction material was ‘Barlow’ rails from Brunel’s broad gauge South Wales Railway, supplying strength and reduced resistance.
The pleasure piers which survive today have done so against considerable odds; almost all have suffered major damage at some point from storms, boat collision or fire. Many were breached during World War II, lest they be used for enemy landings. Demolitions removed more in the post-war years, but in recent decades there have been many restoration projects such as that which rescued Clevedon. Weston-super-Mare Pier was gutted by fire in 2008, but redeveloped and reopened in 2011; clearly there is still public appetite for pleasure piers.
In 1870, Birnbeck Pier in Somerset opened an extra landing stage. In the first three months, 120,000 people paid 1p merely to walk along it. Why were piers so extraordinarily popular? Obviously they offered entertainments, but there was nothing upon them which could not be found along a resort’s promenade. Yet, they became the central focus of resorts, and often the highlight of a holiday. Whilst second-guessing the mindset of a Victorian or Edwardian holiday-maker is fraught with pitfalls, it seems likely that people walked upon the piers to ‘experience’ the sea, possibly even for the thrill of venturing across a liminal threshold into a ‘dangerous’ or unfamiliar environment, albeit in a safe and formalised manner. An 1834 commentator described Brighton’s new Chain Pier as an ‘agreeable walk’ where one could ‘enjoy the pure breezes, without the danger or difficulty of going out in an open boat’. Promenading along one for yourself is perhaps as authentic a way as any to assess the contemporary significance of pleasure piers; upon reaching the end, look back towards land and form your own judgement.
The following article originally appeared in Canoe Kayak UK magazine…
East is East
Sea kayaking in the East Anglian flatlands
I’ve been lucky enough to paddle rivers and coastlines all over Britain, and indeed all over the world. Yet I’d never sat in a kayak in Britain, east of London. In fact I’d never even been there, if you don’t include taking the M20 to Dover, en route to Alps trips. Why not? Well…it’s obvious, isn’t it? The east of Britain is flat. Flat, flat, flat. Flat does of course mean; no whitewater, no interesting coastlines, and people who marry their cousins. Look at any map, or indeed your guidebook bookshelf…all of Britain’s ‘good bits’ for paddlers are blatantly located north, south and west. Thus, I had no plans to head east, any time soon. I smugly prided myself on never having visited the eastern flatlands.
The problem with firmly ingrained prejudices such as these, is that (just occasionally) they can of course be totally wrong, meaning that your ignorance is causing you to miss out on something special. Plus, it’s somewhat ludicrous to pompously regard yourself as a voyaging explorer type, on a mission to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before…and yet be unwilling to give East Anglia a try. Perhaps it was time for a rethink. I was fairly sure about the lack of whitewater; simple geography dictates this. I did however decide to keep an open mind about the coastlines (and indeed the cousins thing). The final push came when Franco from Pesda Press asked for volunteers to help with a proposed new sea kayaking guidebook to South East England and the Channel Islands. I put my hand up and agreed to challenge my preconceptions by going where no man has gone before…to investigate the shores of Norfolk and Suffolk. Okay, I realised that these places aren’t necessarily a barren alien wilderness, and that paddlers already lived and paddled there…but the point was, that if the sea kayaking was any good, then they were keeping it very quiet.
Several extended trips later, I’m delighted to admit that my prejudices about the quality of the sea kayaking in East Anglia were totally wrong, and I should also concede that I never met anyone who had married their cousin (and would admit to it). My friends and I were delighted to find that there are plenty of enjoyable sea kayaking adventures to had, and there are in fact some quite remarkable and beautiful coastal environments to explore, the like of which you will not see elsewhere in Britain.
Anyway, introduced hereafter are some of our findings.
The Wash is a 600 square kilometre estuary, which hadn’t previously scored high on our paddling wish lists. We soon happily reconsidered this. These shifting sand flats are home to about 3000 common seals, which are in turn vastly outnumbered by the wading birds, of which there are about a third of a million. At high tide (i.e. when you’d want to be paddling), these waders are squeezed together at the fringes of the Wash. Regardless of whether or not bird watching is your thing, seeing and hearing tens of thousands of feathery things pecking or flying at once makes for an unforgettable spectacle.
Of course, the Wash deserves respect. Legend has it that wild horses have been outrun by the incoming tide, and the converse scenario could rapidly strand you a long way from solid ground…
Norfolk’s Barrier Coast
The North Norfolk Heritage Coast is something very special. Visiting Norfolk’s quiet north shore allowed us to explore Europe’s finest example of a ‘barrier coast’, a landform more commonly encountered in places like Australia. Startlingly wide beaches, backed by high dunes, front an extensive inner band of salt marshes and creeks. A highlight is Scolt Head Island, an uninhabited six kilometre long barrier island. Natural England calls this landscape, ‘a last true wilderness in lowland Britain’. Everything is on a BIG scale, and the biggest feature of all is the Norfolk sky. We felt very small indeed.
The towns and villages along this coast are located some kilometres inland, connected to the actual coast by winding creeks and inlets. The pretty harbour of Wells-Next-The-Sea is for instance nowhere near the sea! An exception is the resort of Hunstanton at the western end of this coast, instantly recognisable by its two-tone cliffs. However, the sea retreats a long way from ‘Sunny Hunny’ at low tide. Paddling trips require a bit of forethought and head-scratching about how and when is best to launch and land, given these factors. Good luck with that, but trust us…this coast is worth the hassle.
Blakeney Point is a spit containing 82.5 million cubic feet of shingle. It terminates in a succession of smaller finger-like spits, creating a natural sheltered harbour which is home to large colonies of common and grey seals. Launch around high tide from quays at Morston or Blakeney to paddle out and visit the seals, which you will find basking on the ends of the spit in huge numbers. Keep a respectful distance whilst watching and appreciating the seals; any close approach or sudden movement will probably disturb them into entering the water en masse. Also find time to land and visit the Old Lifeboat House, the unmistakeable blue corrugated building on the spit.
Whilst this is an idyllic spot, unfortunately we found that some things are very rotten in the state of Denmark. The seals are visited at extremely close quarters by numerous chugging diesel boats carrying thousands of tourists daily. The seals seem inured to this constant harassment, whilst the boat owners (lacking irony) claim that kayakers disturb the seals. We received some misinformed and unwelcome ‘advice’, expect the same. Consider paddling on a rare occasion when there are no tours underway. Above all, be careful not to disturb the peace of the Blakeney seals any more than is already happening.
The Switzerland of East Anglia
We enjoyed paddling the coast between the resorts of Sheringham and Mundesley. Seals are a constant companion hereabouts, and the shallow reef beneath means that surf is a regular feature. These shores were promoted by Victorians as, ‘The Switzerland of East Anglia’, a reference to the Cromer Ridge, East Anglia’s highest point (at a breath-sapping 92 metres). The Ridge meets the sea as over twenty kilometres of cliffs. You read that right; cliffs in the flatlands! Retreating several metres annually, these clay cliffs crumble and slip, forming mud slicks and tottering spires; the remains of walls and houses stick out from their tops. At least one WWII pillbox has travelled the full distance to the base of the cliffs, intact. At Happisburgh, the cliffs have yielded Britain’s earliest human traces, from 700,000 years ago.
The town of Cromer with its shapely pier is an attractive interlude. Cromer crab is allegedly the best in Britain; we sampled this in the seafront cafes, all in the name of guidebook research.
The Norfolk Broads consist of about 200 kilometres of waterways, linking shallow lakes known as ‘broads’. These are actually flooded pits from medieval peat digging. Looming overhead, windmills recall a time when the surrounding fens were drained by natural power. This didn’t strike us as obvious sea kayaking territory, until we realised that the vast majority of this network is tidal. Rivers like the reed-lined Waveney and the more wooded Bure provide swift trips seaward whilst the tide is falling, with the broads along their length offering idyllic interludes. Real care needs to be taken, as the water flows remarkably fast and getting out can be surprisingly awkward; landing facilities are clearly designed for much bigger craft. The Broads are of course a popular holiday destination; boat hire companies rent all manner of powered and unpowered craft to all manner of folk; all human life was there, but it wasn’t hard to find peace and solitude. We enjoyed paddling right down to the open sea at Great Yarmouth, where Britain’s oldest working rollercoaster scared the bejesus out of me…
If you kiss enough frogs, sooner or later you’ll find some which don’t turn into Princesses (or Princes, whatever floats your boat). Some frogs are just frogs, no matter how much rouge you put on them. Lowestoft Ness in Suffolk is Britain’s easternmost point, which sounded on paper like something enticing and even romantic. The reality was somewhat different. The Ness is an enduring embarrassment to the folk of Lowestoft. Britain’s tallest wind turbine overshadows this headland, which is crowded with a sewage works, a gasworks, a waste tip and a fish processing plant. Marking the actual point is the grandly named ‘Euroscope’, a nondescript plaque in the ground. Even if you were still determined to investigate all of this by kayak, the shattered coastal defences (looking not unlike medieval torture implements) make landing here impractical. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
Britain’s ‘Area 51’
Hidden in a remote corner of Suffolk is the sixteen kilometre shingle spit of Orford Ness, known locally as ‘The Island’. Paddlers can launch at Slaughden or Orford to paddle down the tidal River Ore which forms the western side of the spit, and then back north along the seaward side. Tide flows are strong and this is a long committing trip with few escape points. So, why make the effort? Orford Ness is an impressive geological and ecological feature; the spit has formed over the centuries into successive ridges of shingle, home to thousands of nesting gulls and terns (landing is best avoided). However, what struck us most about this obscure spot was the Cold War legacy; until recent times, Orford Ness was a hush-hush top-secret military site, Britain’s ‘Area 51’.
Enormous derelict concrete edifices rise from the shingle; these were the ‘Atomic Weapons Research Establishment’, which carried out such inadvisable activities as stress-testing atom bombs. The most iconic buildings are the ‘pagodas’ which have no side walls, in order to release explosive energy. The vast forest of masts is a similarly bizarre site; during the Cold War this was Cobra Mist, an experimental radar for detecting Soviet missiles. It cost about a gadzillion dollars, but never worked due to signal jamming from Russian trawlers in the North Sea. Cobra Mist has been associated with UFO sightings; conspiracy theorists claim that this is what it was really about…
There is perhaps no stranger landscape in the entire UK, and kayaks offer one of the best ways to view it.
If you haven’t already paddled at any of these locations, or if you share any of my former prejudices about East Anglia, then you are strongly recommended to consider a sea kayaking trip which begins by driving east. Go on…try it just once, on the off chance that you are missing something. As the old adage goes, “You should try everything once except incest and folk-dancing.”* Prejudices and preconceptions are a bad thing, and should always be challenged. I for one have really had my eyes opened. So much so in fact, that my next trip east might even be to…Essex. Well, maybe.
*It would be too cheap a shot, to use that quote as the basis for an East Anglia joke.
SE England & Channel Islands, 50 great sea kayak voyages – this guidebook is being researched and written by a number of active paddlers, and will be published by Pesda Press in 2013. As the title implies, it will cover considerably more than just Norfolk and Suffolk.
Norfolk & Suffolk from Time Out Guides – the best general guidebook to the area we found, although it avoids clarifying whether the locals marry their cousins.
Tidal Havens of the Wash and Humber by Henry Irving – this booklet is the key to understanding the tides and inlets of North Norfolk.
East Coast Pilot by Colin Jarman and East Coast Rivers Cruising Companion by Janet Harber – between them, these two books offer plenty of well presented info about the coast, creeks and harbours in Suffolk and further south.
Complete Guide to the Broads by Bridget Lely, and Collins Norfolk Broads Waterways Guide –these will tell you all you need to paddle on the Broads, the latter book including excellent maps.
www.southwestseakayaking.co.uk – the author’s blog which (despite the title) includes many more notes and photos about East Anglia.
www.facebook.com/groups/308991639124522/ - local sea kayakers, proving that they do have the internet in East Anglia.
…and west is west, and never the twain shall meet’. Kipling.
This month’s issue of Canoe Kayak UK magazine includes a feature I wrote on sea kayaking in East Anglia. In the article I basically I try to summarise what we learned about the paddling possibilities of Norfolk and Suffolk through our research for Pesda Press’s upcoming ‘South East Sea Kayaking’ guidebook, whilst keeping the cousin-marrying jokes to a respectable minimum.
Hope it is of interest.
Above and below are some random images from our splendid research trips (i.e. holidays) out east…
Paddling back to shore past Swanage Pier…
This photo should have been better composed…but I was simultaneously trying to hold my mobile phone straight, and keep the blighters away from my chips.
Swanage seafront, this evening.
On a grim wet and windy day, and on a rather nicer evening…
Cromer’s pleasure pier was built in 1901, with a lifeboat station added on the end. It was breached in 1940, lest the Nazis invaded via it. It was then apparently realised that the lifeboat station couldn’t be reached, so it was bridged again! The current huge RNLI shed was built in 1998.
Cromer was originally a mile inland from the Norfolk coast, until erosion provided it with a seafront during the eighteenth century and it became a resort.
Watching the surf crash into the sea wall at Scarborough Spa. ‘Clapotis‘ is a word to describe the confused seas which result when waves refract back upon themselves.
Scarborough has a claim to be the earliest seaside resort. A natural spring ‘discovered’ flowing from the cliffs at the pictured spot in 1626 was promoted over subsequent decades as able to cure illnesses. Rather disappointingly, the spring still survives, but is permanently closed due to vandalism.
Last week we happened to be sitting in the van on Filey seafront eating bacon sarnies for brekkie, when the Filey all-weather lifeboat launched for an exercise. The sea retreats someway offshore at low tide on this part of the Yorkshire coast, so a tractor is used to tow the boat into deep water.
As always with the RNLI, it was a pleasure to watch them at work.
These images show two of Scarborough’s cliff railways, both beside the Grand Hotel; one is still in use, the other is not.
Cliff railways were developed both as a means of making the beach accessible at clifftop resorts, and as a tourist draw in themselves. Each consisted of two cars which counterweighted one another, sometimes utilising water-filled counterweights. This novel means of accessing the beach was first adopted at Scarborough in 1876, built specifically to serve the Prince of Wales Hotel. Scarborough eventually had four; a total of 25 were built across the country between 1876 and 1935.
Great Yarmouth Pleasure Pier, Norfolk. Before taking this photo I was forced to ride the rollercoaster, amongst other indignities unbefitting my age…
This past weekend was the vernal equinox, when spring supposedly begins. We took advantage of the big spring tidal range to paddle around the Isle of Wight, a journey of around 65 miles. I’ve paddled around Wight numerous times now, and it’s never a dull experience. Indeed, this weekend reminded me repeatedly that it is perfectly possible to have a full-blown challenging adventure practically within sight of your home, as the Island is, in my case. Added to the usual challenges of rounding Wight in a weekend, were the relatively short days, some bitterly cold temperatures, and the fact that we weren’t exactly in peak physical condition…
After the usual faff with gear, four of us launched after 9 pm on Friday evening to paddle from Keyhaven around the Needles to Freshwater. Heading out of the Solent through the narrow Needles Channel, we realised that a boat was closing on us from behind; in the dark we could see a green (starboard) light with a red (port) light to its right, meaning that the boat was heading right for us. As it grew nearer over the next half hour, we changed course several times to get clear of its path…but each time our pursuant appeared to then change course and follow us again. I concluded that it must be a small fishing boat, weaving slowly up the Channel; no real problem for us. Then we heard a series of loud ‘parps’ on his horn; he had spotted us and the message was clear; ‘get out of my way‘. This time, we paddled perpendicular to its course and finally managed to clear its path. This was a good job really, as our slowly moving fishing boat reared up out of the dark shortly after, and turned out to actually be an enormous freighter, going full pelt. How we laughed. Well, I did, anyway…
Anyway, we reached the Needles rocks at last, and rode the tide race between these tall stacks. Why do the most serious part of the whole trip at night? I’m not sure, but suffice to say, seeing the Needles lighthouse up close at night is an unforgettable experience. The full moon lit up the 500 foot chalk cliffs and illuminated our path as we glided along smooth water to Freshwater. The temperature plummeted towards midnight, with ice forming on our decks. The landing at Freshwater involved clawing your way ashore on steep pebbles and dumping surf; I got wet and consequently far too cold. Thankfully it wasn’t long before we were all in tents, coaxing life into our hands over stoves. The 19p Tescos noodles which I shared with Lizzie won’t win any culinary awards, but they did the job.
Saturday morning, we could have headed out early on the water, but our ice-caked tents dissuaded us. Instead, we walked to the Needles and did tourism, as the temperature climbed to something quite pleasant. However, our 2 pm launch was into a nasty cold headwind and choppy waves, meaning that we literally crawled along the south coast, wrapped in scarves, hats, buffs and woolly pogies. Things got better when we reached St Catherine’s Point towards sunset; the sea calmed and we bounced through the big tide races at the southern tip of Wight, riding the strong tides all the way up the east side of the island. The moon rose straight out of the sea, providing illumination once more for another long night paddle. We finally reached Bembridge at Noideawhen o’clock after covering about 27 miles and cheekily put our tents up in front of some rather nice beach huts, with the owner’s permission.
Sunday was unusual in that we got to paddle by daylight all day, although the bitterly cold headwind (yes, another one) whistling along the Solent meant that we didn’t limp back to our start at Keyhaven until the sun was on the horizon.
In one fleeting weekend, I shared countless memorable experiences with my friends. That, for me, is what it’s all about.