"Southend is the Pier and the Pier is Southend"
-H.P.Briggs, Leader of Southend-on-Sea Council
Now that Brighton's West Pier, despite it being the only such structure in Britain to achieve grade-I listed status, is set to be broken up and cleared following a recent series of collapses and fires, it is hard to dispute that Southend Pier is the most distinguished of its kind in the country. Indeed, at 2360 yards (1.34 miles or 2158 metres) it is the longest pleasure pier in the world and can boast over a hundred years of history. Not all those years have been kind to the pier, but in 2003 work on the pier head for SSHAPE, the Southend Seafront High Street and Pier Enhancement programme was completed and a new £2million glass entrance awaits visitors to what should remain a key tourist attraction in the area for many more years to come.
Southend Pier starts on the Western Esplanade (or, as everyone I've known calls it, simply the 'seafront') of Southend-on-Sea in Essex, South-East England. It stretches out into the Thames Estuary, a wide tidal section of the same river that runs through London. Roads in the south-east are extremely congested but the cunningly-named A13 London Road leads straight from the capital to the seaside town. Alternatively, two train lines serve Southend- Great Eastern run from Liverpool Street to Southend Victoria whilst the c2c line links Fenchurch Street to Southend Central. Both take under an hour and are easy walking distance from the seafront (about 5 minutes more for Victoria than Central), it's simply a case of heading down the (also recently improved) high street to Pier Hill, which offers access to the beaches, amusement parks and of course the pier.
Google Earth users can get a good look at the (pre-fire) pier and nearby amusements; search for Pier Hill SS1, England.
Well, it's the longest pier in the world, so it would be a shame not to walk it! At a bit over a mile each way and perfectly flat, it shouldn't be too taxing even for young children, but tradition suggests that you walk up, have a well-deserved ice cream and then catch the train back (yes, the Pier has its own train line, more on that later!). Whether getting some summer sun or walking off christmas excess on Boxing Day, the Pier itself is open all year round, although opening times for the railway, gift-shops, and restaurant may vary. Further, there is an RNLI station at the pierhead, and a museum at the shore end which is open from May to October. Other summer activities include heritage events and lunchtime jazz performances. Each year sees the carnival, the switch-on of the Illuminations, the Airshow and even an annual thames barge match!
Other than that you can adopt one of the planks! More usefully, if you're on the seafront already then there is a vast excess of amusement arcades, a theme park literally next to the pier, several beaches (whether you fancy a dip in the Thames estuary is another matter) and the also restored Kursaal.
The Pierhead is also able to accomodate ships of up to 1000 tons which means that various pleasure boats (which in the past has included paddle steamers) and fishing trips run during the Summer, and sometimes there are more exceptional visitors too- such as Radio Caroline's pirate radio ship MV Ross Revenge which berthed in 1999. It offered tours, live transmissions (although not from the ship; the audio was streamed by ISDN to the ship from Caroline Studios in Maidstone) and electricity! The latter being necessary after a power cable was accidentally severed, which were it not for the Revenge's generators would have forced the restaurants and shops to close in peak season.
This last example indicates just how fragile the pier really is. For a structure that stretches over a mile into a major shipping channel, it's perhaps unsuprising that it will occasionally be hit by things, and over the years that list has ranged from the minor (a barge struck it in 1891) to the catastrophic: In June 1986 the MV Kingsabbey went through the pier, leaving a 70ft rift between the old and new pier heads, removing the lifeboat slipway and causing two spans of main girders simply to collapse- a third being held together mostly by twisted steel.
What is more suprising to me is the number of times which it's managed to be devastated by fire, given that it sits in a large amount of water... the pier pavillion was destroyed in the 50s in this manner, so in 1962 a bowling alley was built in its place- which itself burnt down in 1995. Between these two incidents, most of the 1908 old pier head was lost to a fire in 1976, taking with it cafes, a theatre, amusements, the coastguard station and a radar facility. Then another fire in October of 2005 once again devastated the pier head, with the pub and railway station ending up in the sea.
The only one of these incidents I witnessed was the destruction of the bowling alley, which left the pier with a burnt wreck instead of a proper entrance for quite some time. Fortunately, pier access was restored within three weeks and the railway escaped major damage, and although the bowling lane was never replaced on the pier itself, its absence could be argued to have paved the way for the regeneration of the Kursaal (which offers much better facilities) and the recent SSHAPE improvements.
The Pier Railway
As with the pier itself, the fortunes of its railway have waxed and waned over the past century. The River Thames Guide cheerfully describes the service as "bumpy but engaging", and it takes about 15 minutes to trundle from one end to the other. The first electric rolling stock consisted of a single car on three-quarters of a mile of track: which may not sound impressive, until you consider that this was in 1890! Electricity had to be generated on the Pier itself using a steam engine, as a generating station would not arrive in Southend until 1902. 1891 saw the completion of the track (1.25 miles) and another two cars; by the outbreak of World War I there were 8 cars.
However, the classic Southend Pier train is the model introduced in 1949- the heyday of the pier, when visitor numbers topped 7 million and 5 million used the trains. There were four of these 7-car (3 motor, 4 trailer) trains, reminiscent of those used on the london underground except for their more striking cream and green colour scheme. At peak all four trains would be in use- two running on a pair of tracks and one sitting at each station, whilst only two were used at off-peak times. Out of season only one train and track would be used, operating a shuttle service. They ran until 1978 when increasing costs and deterioration of the track forced the end of the operation of the electric line. Two of them survive in the Pier Museum.
The two-track arrangement has now given way to a single 3' gauge track with a passing loop, automatic signalling and two diesel trains consisting of a locomotive unit, 5 trailers and a driver unit. This service was opened in 1986 by the (now) Princess Royal; the locomotives are named after the late poet laureate Sir John Betjeman (a great fan of the pier) and Sir William Heygate, the former Mayor who had been crucial to securing the construction of the first Pier in 1830.
Today, the trains have a PA and music system, and operate from 8AM until dusk.
A brief architectural history of the pier
1830: The first pier is constructed by a private company for the loading and unloading of vessels- it was entirely wooden and had a horse-drawn tramway rather than a railway.
1875- The local board purchases the pier for £10,000 and plans to replace it with an iron construction due to concerns over the strength of the existing structure.
1889- The iron pier opens to the public, although it only extends to what is known now as the old pier head. The railway commences operation the following year.
1989- The first extension (known as the new pier head) officially opens.
1908- An extension known as the upper deck (with spaces for 500 deckchairs and 600 permanent seats) opens. The lower deck, meanwhile, provided room for 6-8000 in case of inclement weather or for access to visiting steamboats.
1927- Further extensions to the upper deck.
1929- The final lengthening extension is opened by HRH Prince George, Duke of Kent, and named in his honour.
1950- Post war, a restaurant is constructed from scrap and timber left behind by the Navy, who had occupied the Pier during the second World War and hence closed it to the public.
1974-79- Reconstruction of the walkway.
1983- Following fires, impacts, the discontinuation of the railway and threats to close the structure entirely by the council, a Historic Buildings Committee grant allowed repair work to commence, culminating in the opening of the 1986 railway service. Total cost was £1.3million. Then the Kingsabbey hit it.
1989- Damage from that collision is repaired.
1998- The area damaged by the 1995 Bowling alley fire is rebuilt.
2003- The new glass Pier Entrance opens.
2005- Fire devastates the main entertainment area of the pier, with several buildings destroyed.
Until last year, Southend was my home. I've spent many a day on the Pier in fair weather and foul... but the following were very useful in the construction of this node:
- Southend Pier- a new vision
Produced by Southend Council after the SSHAPE work was completed. I was working for the Council at that time, but it should be available from the council website Http://www.southend.gov.uk. Source for the quote at the top.
Official Site for upcoming events etc.
Further information on the pier railways.
The plight of Brighton West Pier.
Not really relevant, but it's Sir Teddy Taylor having a dig at 'rubbishy piers'. I swear Hansard is an unintentional comedy goldmine at times.
Details of the Radio Caroline visit in 1999.
Photos of the 2005 fire.
An entry for the Places to visit in Ireland and the UK