Pioneering pier is 200 years old
Ryde pier on the Isle of Wight celebrates its 200th anniversary
The 200th anniversary of the opening of Britain’s first seaside pier is being marked this month. Ryde pier on the Isle of Wight opened on July 26 1814, and today still stands as a reminder of the feat of Victorian engineering.
It was the original seaside pier and paved the way for dozens of others up and down Britain, from Dunoon in Scotland to Falmouth in Cornwall. Along with fish and chips and rock, piers became a staple of British seaside life and a magnet for holidaymakers before the boom in international travel.
But as the years passed and with the rise of cheaper foreign flights and the decline in some resorts, many piers have been lost forever. Like many piers, some locals concede that the best years for Ryde pier – owned by ferry company Wightlink – were in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
Today the pier is seen as one of the main gateways to the Isle of Wight, with trains leaving the pier-head and ferries shuttling passengers to and from Portsmouth from it. Derek Tomlinson, volunteer co-ordinator at the Historic Ryde Society, fondly remembers the Grade-II listed pier when it was a mainstay of the area.
He said: “In the 1950s and 1960s, the use of the pier was phenomenal. It’s half a mile long and at times you would have people queuing for the boats. But with the introduction of cars and coaches, the number of foot passengers coming across to the island diminished. In the 50s and 60s, there was a ballroom known as the Seagull, a cafe, rock shops and amusements to keep everyone entertained.
“On part of the Seagull, there was a pub called the First and Last. It was called that because it was the first pub you would go to when you arrived and the last as you left. Nowadays, the end of the pier is just more or less a car park, and not a pleasure pier in the traditional sense of the word. I have fond memories of it, going on the steam trains and the trams and attending the dances on it. It really did used to be the mainstay of Ryde.”
Local resident Wayne Whittle, 51, a town and county councillor who was born and bred in Ryde, said: “My fondest memories of the pier are of coming into Ryde over many years. It’s a great attraction, which people sometimes forget is the gateway to the Isle of Wight. It’s an important part of the island and long may it reign.”
Carol Strong, a volunteer with the Ryde Social Heritage Group, said an all-day party will be held on the pier on July 27 to mark its 200th anniversary. She said: “In most of the pictures of Ryde, the pier is somewhere to be seen in the background. It has made Ryde what it is today as it is the gateway to the Isle of Wight. For most people in Ryde, it is the way in and out of the town. I think it will continue, as long as Wightlink continue to run it.”
At the turn of the 20th century, around 100 piers existed around Britain’s coastline, but those numbers have halved today. Those no longer here include piers in Sheerness in Kent, Aberavon in Wales, and Redcar, Scarborough and Withernsea in the North West. But in Hastings, East Sussex, the locals are trying to ensure that, in 1066 Country at least, the pier lives on for generations to come. Efforts are well under way to revive its Grade-II listed pier after almost being destroyed in a fire in 2010 following years of neglect by its Panama-registered owner.
The Hastings Pier Charity, now responsible for its long-awaited restoration, has sold more than £500,000 of shares to more than 1,900 people. More than £13 million was secured mainly through the Heritage Lottery Fund to help pay for the renovations. The share scheme was offered to pay for attractions needed to make it financially viable, with plans for funfairs, a circus and an open-air cinema.
Along the coast in Brighton, millions of pounds have been invested into the maintenance and redevelopment of what was formerly known as the Palace Pier. Arguably Britain’s most famous pier, it is used routinely in pictures and footage to illustrate the Great British Seaside. It featured in early black and white films and over the years, famous actresses including Greta Garbo, Bette Davis and Grace Kelly have shot scenes there.
Yet nearby is the mesmerising remains of the Grade I-listed, 148-year-old West Pier, a mangled mass of metal slowly falling to pieces into the English Channel. Southend-on-Sea, in Essex, boasts the longest pleasure pier in the world at 7080 feet (2,156 metres). The pier, which was used by the Navy in World War II, was badly damaged by fires in 1976 and 2005 and was closed for a time after it was struck by a barge in 2011 and a fishing boat in 2012.
Recent years have been happier. TV chef Jamie Oliver and farmer Jimmy Doherty promoted the pier when they opened a pop-up cafe there for the show Jimmy and Jamie’s Food Fight Club and, i n February 2013, Ian Barnes and Emma Hunter made history by becoming the first couple to get married in the pier’s new Cultural Centre. The pier in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, has also recovered from a devastating fire in July 2008 and visitors still flock there.
Elsewhere, at Colwyn Bay, a fight has been rumbling on to try to save its pier from demolition amid reports its restoration would cost more than £15 million.