Prized pier of the realm

Yorkshire's only remaining seaside pleasure pier has been voted number one in the country. Chris Foote Wood, who has visited all of them, reports.

Saltburn Pier, its shoreside buildings resplendent in their distinctive red and while livery, is now fully restored to its original 140 year-old design. But it has had a turbulent history. It has been closed several times through storm and ship damage and even to deter invasion in the Second World War.

At one time demolition threatened. Yet it has come through to gain its current Grade II* listed status and now national recognition. Each year the 600-plus members of the National Piers Society, founded under Sir John Betjeman in 1979, vote for their favourite pier of the 55 still standing around the coasts of England and Wales (none in Scotland). There are no application forms and no manifestoes for this annual election; each member simply votes for his or her own preference. Saltburn, the runner-up in 2006, narrowly beat off rival piers at Yarmouth (Isle of Wight) and Bangor Garth in North Wales to claim this year's crown. Saltburn's win is all the more remarkable as the great majority of Britain's seaside piers – and NPS members – are in the south of England. The award, which was instituted in 1997 following the Year of the Pier, will be presented at the Society's AGM in Penarth, South Wales on June 13.

Seaside piers have been a passion for me ever since as a six-year-old I was taken by my grandparents onto Blackpool North Pier. The sight of the waves dashing below my feet through the cracks in the wooden deck was exciting and dangerous.

I became even more fascinated with piers when I looked over the side and saw another pier – Blackpool Central – further down the beach. "Can we go there too?" I asked, only to get the haughty reply from my "posh" Nana: "No, that's not the sort of place we want to go". (Blackpool North Pier had a "superior" cachet, and still has.)

That was in 1947, and in 2007 I finally got round to undertaking my long-held ambition to visit every seaside pier in Britain. I did so both for my own pleasure and to research and write a book on all our remaining piers.

It was far too late in the day to see others that once existed in Yorkshire. The 1,000ft (305m) Scarborough North Pier, designed by the doyen of pier designers Eugenius Birch, was opened on May 1, 1869. It was demolished after being almost entirely destroyed by a severe storm on January 7, 1905.

Other former seaside pleasure piers – not to be confused with harbour groins – on the Yorkshire coast once existed at Withernsea (1877-1903), Hornsea (1880-1897), Redcar (1873-1981) and Coatham (1875-1899). Yorkshire has had fewer seaside pleasure piers than other parts of the country mainly due to the ravages of the North Sea. Other regions have fared better thanks to gently sloping beaches and more sheltered locations. The railways played their part, and piers were often built close to railway stations. Victorian pier owners often had shares in railway and steamer companies, as well as having an interest in nearby pubs, hotels and theatres – entrepreneurs all.

As to their finances and viability today, piers fall roughly into four categories. First, there's the out-and-out commercial – like Brighton (Palace) Pier and Blackpool South and Central Piers which are entirely given over to amusements, much to the disgust of some pier purists. But piers were built to make money.

At the other end of the scale there are piers which are owned and lovingly kept by voluntary effort, such as Clevedon and Mumbles, and which in general avoid commercial clutter. In between are piers with an uncertain future, often family-owned, which are part-commercial, and finally there are piers owned by local councils who maintain them as visitor attractions – Bournemouth and Boscombe being good examples. Living in County Durham, it was only natural that I should have started my original researches with Saltburn Pier, and Saltburn was again the starting point for my second book last year. Tony Lynn, chairman of the Friends of Saltburn Pier, gave great support and help on both occasions. Of the new award he says: "We are absolutely delighted. This is a thank-you to all the people who for many years have worked so hard every time the pier has come under threat. Saltburn Pier is still fulfilling its original purpose in that people can still take a 'walk over the waves'. In October 2005 the pier was greatly enhanced by the installation of lighting which illuminates the pier at night from underneath, a stunning sight and a photographer's paradise." The NPS President, Gavin Henderson, said: "Sincere congratulations to Saltburn – Yorkshire's only surviving pier and a worthy winner".

It is owned by Redcar and Cleveland Council. Councillor Sheelagh Clarke, their culture, tourism and leisure cabinet member, said: "This award recognises the hard work and commitment of many people who were involved in the pier restoration and shows what true partnership can achieve."

Each pier has its own distinct character and personality. Saltburn's great strengths are its simplicity, clean classic lines and lack of clutter without any garish amusements. It also has the asset of a water-powered cliff lift, one of only three such in the country and the oldest in the world still working. The durability of its Victorian construction is proven by its massive brake wheel which was replaced recently after operating for 128 years without a single failure.

Saltburn Pier was opened in May 1869. It was 1,500ft (458m) long and had a steamer landing stage. The pier was part of the development of what had been a small fishing village into a popular seaside resort following the extension of the Stockton and Darlington railway to Saltburn. It was designed and built by local man John Anderson who also built the Alexandra Hotel on the seafront. Anderson formed the Saltburn-by-the-Sea Pier Co in October 1867 and was both designer and contractor for the project.

The ironwork was provided by the Ormesby Foundry Co. The first pile was driven on January 27, 1868, and the pier was opened in May 1869. The new pier was a great success, attracting more than 50,000 visitors in its first month.

The pier has suffered storm damage several times, and in May 1924 it was severed by the ship Ovenbeg. This left a 210ft gap which took six years to repair. During the Second World War the pier was "sectioned" by having part of the deck removed by the Royal Engineers to guard against German invasion.

The pier re-opened in April 1952, but was badly damaged by a storm the following year. Rebuilding work was not completed until 1958, and there was yet more storm damage in 1959 and again in 1961, 1971 and 1973 when the pier was closed. In 1975 the local council, which had bought the pier in 1938, applied for listed building consent to demolish it. A Save the Pier campaign led to a public inquiry which found that only 13 trestles at the end of the structure needed to be removed.

Saltburn Pier reopened in June 1978, and a caf was added in 1979. In 1993, the roof was renewed and restored to its early 20th century condition using Welsh and Westmorland slate.

In 2000, a 1.2m Heritage Lottery Fund grant funded a complete restoration of the pier and a return to its original appearance, albeit much shorter at its present length of 681ft (206m), but with its listed building status upgraded from Grade II to Grade II*. The pier was reopened on July 13, 2001 by Chris Smith MP, former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who had been very supportive as a minister. The National Piers Society held its AGM at Saltburn in 2003.

As the pound plunges, more people are holidaying at home and the British seaside holiday is making a comeback. It means our seaside pleasure piers are enjoying more popularity than they have had for decades.

Walking over the Waves – Quintessential British Seaside Piers by Chris Foote Wood Whittles Publishing 16.99 and www.piercrawl.