West Pier

West Pier
22 May 2007

Brighton’s first pier, the Chain Pier, was built in the 1820s as a landing stage for boats crossing the Channel. But it quickly became a popular spot for visiting Londoners to promenade and take in the sea air. The pier was the subject of one of Constable’s “six-foot landscapes”,1 despite the painter’s dislike for the way the coast had been given over to holidaymaking; he once described Brighton as “only Piccadilly or worse by the sea-side”.2

The railways made sea crossings from Brighton unnecessary, but “walking on water” had become such a popular pastime that a second pier was built for this purpose alone. The West Pier Company had at first planned to replace the Chain Pier, but as permission was refused they chose instead to construct a rival attraction.

Designed and engineered by Eugenius Birch, the West Pier was built between 1863 and 1866. A functional structure of cast-iron columns screwed into the seabed, it was decorated with ornamental houses in an oriental style that echoed the Prince Regent’s nearby pavilion. The pier went on to flourish throughout the Edwardian age, during which it was widened and given its famous concert hall. By the end of the 1910s, the pier was drawing two million visitors a year.

But the seaside attraction was not without competition. When the Chain Pier succumbed to a storm at the turn of the century, its owners had already replaced it with what became the West Pier’s long-standing rival: the Palace Pier.

During the second world war, both Brighton piers were closed, cut in two and mined to prevent German invasions. After the war, the West Pier reopened with the addition of a helter-skelter, a ghost train and a tea room in the concert hall. It failed to relive its glory days, however, as Brits increasingly took holidays abroad. For those that still went to Brighton, the Palace Pier was now the place to be.

In the late 1960s, the West Pier was a setting for Richard Attenborough’s Oh! What a Lovely War.3 It was, though, increasingly dilapidated and only narrowly escaped calls for its demolition. In 1975, the pier was closed, the West Pier Company put into liquidation and “dangerous structure” signs served.

A campaign to restore it began the day after and, in 1983, the West Pier Trust bought the structure with this intention for £100. Although the pier was Grade I-listed, the trust struggled to find funding for its restoration and managed only to open its root end. Damage was worsened by the 1987 “great storm” and the pier continued to fall apart; it was now only visited by the colony of starlings that roosted there at night.

In the late 1990s, £14.2m was secured from the National Lottery to help towards its restoration. Numerous schemes were proposed — including one by Chris Eubank, who wanted to make the pier “every bit as classy as when it was built”.4 — but without anyone offering the rest of the money needed, none got off the ground.

The West Pier Trust had planned to make up the shortfall by building large shoreline pavilions of shops, cafes and restaurants. But nearby residents and conservation groups, such as the Regency Square Area Society, were concerned about the obstruction of sea views. After widespread criticism and protests, the development was cancelled.

With plans for its future still unresolved, a large section of the West Pier collapsed into the sea in December 2002. Soon after, the then president of Riba, George Ferguson, told Radio 4’s Today programme that the spiralling cost of its rebuilding would be better spent constructing something new in its place. He said that piers are “very tacky experiences”.5

In March 2003, an arson attack left the pier burnt out but still salvageable. Another in May reduced the concert hall to a charred skeleton, making restoration impossible. The following year, the Heritage Lottery Fund withdrew its grant. After a storm that summer, more of the structure collapsed and English Heritage declared the pier beyond repair.

Meanwhile, the Palace Pier has changed its sign to read “Brighton Pier”, and the more modest Clevedon Pier in Somerset — which did manage to be restored following a collapse — is promoted as “the only fully intact, Grade I-isted pier in the country”.6

The West Pier Trust have recently rechannelled their efforts into plans for a 183-metre observation mast on the root end of the pier, designed by the London Eye architects, David Marks and Julia Barfield. As Britain’s tallest observation tower, the i360 will offer visitors a 20-minute ride in a doughnut-shaped glass “pod” that will provide views of up to 25 miles on a clear day.

Unlike Frank Gehry’s planned towers in Hove, the i360 won the backing of English Heritage and Brighton and Hove city council gave it the go-ahead in October 2006. The tower will be built alongside a heritage centre and the pier’s wreckage will be removed.

The trust has not, however, given up hope of rebuilding the West Pier. It told the Argus in April 2007, that it was in talks with an unnamed British company about constructing a new pier, totally funded by the private sector.7 Plans will not be revealed until the building of the i360 begins, but the West Pier Trust hopes to incorporate salvaged sections of the old structure and has suggested that it will shun the usual slot machines in favour of restaurants and an exclusive hotel.

The i360 is planned to open in 2010 and the West Pier Trust hope to have a new pier in place by 2011.

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