Piers of our realm

Gravesend Pier

Gravesend Pier - Credit: Archant

To celebrate the 200th anniversary year of the opening of the first public pier, take a look at Kent’s historic quartet of Margate, Gravesend, Herne Bay and Deal

This month, as we celebrate the 200th anniversary year of the opening of the first public pier at Ryde in the Isle of Wight on 26 July 1814, you might think these fanciful seaside emblems of the Victorians at play are now something of an anachronism.

Not a bit of it. The National Piers Society (NPS) lists 55 piers as still surviving in England and Wales, and the 21st century has brought something of a revival of interest, with proposals to build new piers in several locations.

And while none of the best-known and most architecturally distinguished examples exist in Kent, the county’s place in pier history is secure and it possesses some very old examples indeed.

The origins of piers actually predate the Victorian age, the first ones acting as landing stages for visitors to desirable coastal watering places.

Margate

Margate, the birthplace of the seaside holiday, attracted droves of wealthy tourists from London in the early 1800s.

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They favoured travel by boat, which was considered preferable to a bumpy old stagecoach, but disembarking could be hazardous, with the town’s harbour landing facilities inaccessible at low tide.

In 1825 the Margate Pier and Harbour Company built a 1100ft wooden jetty called the Jarvis Landing Place. But this was only partially effective as it would get completely submerged at high tide and was frequently badly damaged in storms.

So in 1853 work began on what was to be the first pier designed by Eugenius Birch, the greatest of the Victorian pier architect-engineers, whose most celebrated construction was the West Pier in Brighton.

Although the early piers, aside from their boat-berthing functions, were primarily used for promenading, Margate’s pier was lengthened between 1875-77 with an octagonal head-supporting a pavilion.

But soon after its opening in the winter of 1877, a wreck caught in a storm sliced through the pier, leaving upwards of 40 people stranded at the seaward end.

Since conditions precluded the chance of immediate rescue, they spent an unnerving night on the pier before finally being taken off the following morning.

Margate Pier retained a pavilion, an amusement arcade and a lifeboat station into the 1970s, but was closed in 1976 on safety grounds.

Most of the pier was destroyed in a storm in 1978, but part of the pier head survives to this day, meaning Margate can still claim to have one of the oldest piers in the world. Herne Bay

Herne Bay is another pier of ancient origins, but it has a chequered history.

Officially, the designer of the first one was the great bridge and canal builder Thomas Telford, though it is generally reckoned that it should be credited to his assistant William Rhodes. The pier opened in 1832 and was a remarkable 3,613 ft long, but being made of wood, showed almost immediate signs of deterioration.

In 1873 it was replaced by one of a much more modest 320ft in length. As Herne Bay’s population rose, a decision was made to incorporate this second pier within a longer extension. By its completion in 1899, the town could once again boast of having one of the longest piers in Britain at 3787 ft.

A splendid Grand Pier Pavilion, with seating for 1,000 people, opened in 1910, and was a proud feature of the shoreward end, but was destroyed in a fire in 1970.

By this time the pier had been closed to the public when a survey in 1968 declared the supports were unsafe.

Demolition of the entire structure was contemplated, but in the event a sport and leisure centre was built in place of the pavilion, leaving the rest of the pier neck to continue its pitiful decay, to the extent that it most of it collapsed into the sea in 1978.

For locals the restoration of Herne Bay Pier to something resembling its former glory has been a dream for years and in 2009 a trust was set up for the purpose.

The ugly sports centre was demolished in 2012, and the pier reopened to the public the same year.

Schemes to fully revive this historic structure are still hatching and even include bringing the metal shell of the old pier head café to shore, and restoring the full length of the pier.

Much remains to be decided, and money remains a huge issue, but could Herne Bay, for the third time in its history, one day boast yet again the status of having one of the longest piers in the country?

Deal

From the very old to the comparatively midern, Deal Pier is the only completely new post-war pier in the country.

The 1,026 ft Grade II-listed structure, designed by Sir W. Halcrow & Partners and officially opened by the Duke of Edinburgh in November 1957, is also unique in having been made of reinforced concrete.

The last remaining fully intact leisure pier in Kent and a popular sport-fishing venue, it replaced a much earlier pier designed by the great Eugenius Birch which was breached in the Second World War. Prime Minister Churchill then authorised the complete demolition of the pier to allow gunners guarding the coastline a clear line of sight of the enemy.

Deal won the National Piers Society’s Pier of the Year award in 2008, and a newly opened café also picked one from the Royal Institute of British Architects.

The panel of judges commended it for providing “perfectly the experience a pier building should, that of being part of, as well as framing, views of the sea.” n