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Culture: Brighton's Piers

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The Wreck of the West Pier

The West Pier

The photo to the left shows the West Pier as it is today: a burnt out wreck. Its cast-iron screw piles which form its support are still there, but all they support now is the metal skeleton of its famous pavilion. Yet the derelict pier still remains a fascinating attraction. And is as much photographed, if not more so, than its vibrant neighbour, Brighton Pier.

For decades the pier has been a roost for thousands of starlings who stream in from all directions from the land at dusk and create a giant swarm, like some seething dark cloud. Awed promenaders watch as the starlings put on a display of aerobatics which makes the Red Arrows look like amateurs. Then like some sort of twister a black funnel of starlings shoots out of the swarm and into the pier. This process is repeated many times until the cloud has evaporated and all have roosted for the night. The starling swarm is a much photographed West Pier event. But is this what the West Pier will become: an ancient monument, off the beach on Brighton's seafront, and a roost for a very large population of starlings? Well, in fact, since the pier was burned to its metal skeleton in two arson attacks in 2003, most of the starlings have deserted the West Pier for the more luxiourious accomodation of Brighton Pier. A survey in 2004 put the population of starlings roosting on the West Pier at less than 3000, and on Brighton Pier at more than 20,000.

The West Pier was built as a pleasure pier. It cost £27,000 to build and opened in 1866. It's deck was 1,115 feet long. Over the early decades of its active life it saw many alterations in order to make it more attractive and therefore financially viable.

As first built it was fairly simple and consisted of a long open deck to a wider pier head. In later years it acquired a bandstand on a widened central platform, a windshield running down the centre of the deck, a wider pier head to allow for a steamer landing stage, and a large pier head pavilion. A concert hall opened in 1916 was the last major alteration, and so it remained throughout the twentieth century. Between the wars the West Pier had its own repertory company, but after the war it became essentially an amusement arcade over the sea, and went into a steady decline.

 

Wreck and Ruin - or Renaissance?

In the post-war decades all British seaside resorts struggled to find a new role as the British increasingly went on foreign holidays, especially to Spain. The West Pier and the Palace Pier (now Brighton Pier) declined along with the rest of Brighton's seafront.Nearly the End In the 1970s its owners could only think of demolishing large bits of the pier in a desperate attempt to achieve some sort of commercial viability. This in turn brought out the massed ranks (at any rate a 5000-signature petition) of conservationists whose first victory was to have the pier officially declared a listed building. That sealed its fate. There were no plans to hand that could achieve financial viability. The company went bust, and the pier closed. The pier had become a part of the not-quite-yet-born heritage industry, but even so it still had no obvious route to financial viability.

In the early 80s the pier became the property and responsibility of the West Pier Trust, a charitable trust dedicated to rebuilding the pier and returning it to its former glory. It has had offers of government funding support on and off ever since 1985 and since 1988 various private developers have put forward schemes.

The big problem is the same problem: to decide what role the rebuilt pier would play in the city that would make it financially viable. It's one thing to rebuild the pier but to do what? What would be its source of future income?

Any scheme will need some size of foreshore 'supporting development', that is, commercial property that can generate an income additional to whatever revenue-raising is possible on the pier itself. Its 'rival', Brighton Pier, has a solution - see below - but there's no point restoring the West Pier simply in order to have another Brighton Pier.

And what of the size of the supporting development on the lower promenade? Will it amount to another shopping mall? Many think so, and hence opposition has grown. One developer wanted 112,000 sq feet of foreshore development.

Tragically, in addition, in the winter of 2002/3 the pier sustained significant storm damage, and then in 2003 two arson attacks (crimes still unsolved) destroyed it.

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