Celebrating 200 years of walking on water

The bizarre ?Daddy-Long-Legs that Magnus Volk constructed in 1896
The bizarre ?Daddy-Long-Legs that Magnus Volk constructed in 1896

The British pleasure pier is exactly 200 years old.

The British pleasure pier is exactly 200 years old. Or so they say. Ryde’s pier, on the Isle of Wight, which opened in July 1814, is apparently the oldest of the 58 that have survived the ravages of time, tempest, war, fashion, and more especially fire. (Southend has burned at least three times; Weston-super-Mare, Hastings, and now poor Eastbourne, twice each.)

Well, Cromer has had a pier of sorts since Elizabethan times, while Littlehampton’s was built in 1735 (Lord Byron dived off it in 1806). But these efforts probably do not count.

At any rate, Brighton was in the forefront of the thalasso-ambulatory trend, once it got going. Our Chain Pier - or Brighthelmston Suspension Pier, to give it its original name - opened in 1823. Primarily intended as a landing-stage, as the town had no natural harbour, it soon became popular as a promenading deck. Refreshment kiosks and even a library opened in its supporting towers, bands played, and three monarchs visited it.

The West Pier, our next contribution, was arguably the finest of the species. Inaugurated in 1866 as a promenade, it was later elaborated with pavilion and concert hall. This magnificent specimen epitomised all that was most lavish in seaside style and entertainment.

The Palace Pier (now controversially renamed Brighton Pier), youngest of our three built piers, inaugurated in 1899, was also elegant in its heyday, with a fine oriental-style theatre at its end. Remnants of its original decorative arches, as well as salvaged toll-booths from the Chain Pier, still survive.

There was a fleeting moment in the 1890s, while the Palace Pier was under construction and before the Chain Pier’s collapse in a gale, when Brighton briefly boasted three piers. Then it had two. Now, with the lamentable demise of the West Pier, we are back to one.

Like ghostly structures haunting our collective psyche, our lost piers linger on. The West’s twisted birdcage pricks our conscience. At low tide, one can still see remains of the Chain Pier. Further along are traces of the bizarre “Daddy-Long-Legs”, or “moving pier”, that Magnus Volk constructed in 1896, which ran through the sea from Paston Place to Rottingdean, where it docked at yet another pier. Too gimmicky, too expensive, too slow, and too vulnerable to the elements, the Brighton and Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway, to give it its proper name, with its sumptuously-appointed car in which the Prince of Wales twice rode, survived only a short time, before it too became a ghostly memory. Rottingdean Pier, where Kipling went fishing, was demolished in 1911.

In addition to these lost piers, even more spectral, are those never built. Martin Easdown, in his invaluable book “Piers of Sussex” (2009), details those that were proposed but never realised. Brighton Central Pier, proposed in 1883, at the bottom of West Street, would have been 1,200 feet long, while the Brighton Casino and Marine Palace Pier, proposed in 1908, on the same site, sounds quite upmarket, with casino, winter garden, concert hall and baths.

And what about poor Hove, which has never had a pier? Mr Easdown lists no fewer than six proposed Hove piers, the earliest dating from 1868, soon after the completion of the West Pier. Indeed, the West Pier’s engineer, the ingenious Eugenius Birch, in 1877 himself designed a 1,200-foot pier for Hove, to be built near Fourth Avenue. Ambitious plans for one at Medina Parade, opposite Vallence Gardens, first mooted in 1911, continued for decades, with various companies involved, before the Second World War finally scuppered all hopes of its ever being built, or of our rivalling, let alone exceeding, Blackpool’s extant three.