West Pier

It has been absolutely clear for many years that the West Pier could only be restored if significant public monies were granted (£15m-20m). When the Heritage Lottery Fund abandoned the West Pier in 2004, and English Heritage followed suit later that year, the last prospect for such funding disappeared. All of the public bodies consigned the West Pier to death; even the National Piers Society has called for its remains to be removed, and the site returned to the sea. -- Dr Geoff Lockwood, Chief Executive, The West Pier Trust

What we have right now is a stunning, organic structure that is both sympathetic to the modern eye and representative of our city’s faded grandeur. ... The West Pier is one of the few parts of the real Brighton that has yet to be modernised, sanitised and commercialised. It is utterly natural that, like us, our buildings should live and breathe and change and die. We should be proud of the West Pier, not ashamed of it, and that means conserving it as it is and not restoring it to some pseudo-accurate theme park mall... -- The West Pier Dilapidation Trust

West Pier and sea front The West Pier (1866) in Brighton is one of only two Grade I listed piers in the UK, the other is at Clevedon.

The West Pier was the second pier to be constructed in Brighton, the first, The Royal Suspension Chain Pier of 1823, was destroyed in a storm.

Now a sad old lady of the sea after years of being allowed to fall into disrepair and pounding by the elements. To restore it to its former glory would cost in excess of £30 million. When first opened in 1866 it had cost £28,000 to build.

Designed by Eugenius Birch, the pier was originally built as a simple promenade but later acquired a bandstand, then a theatre, and later still a sumptuous 1,400-seat concert hall.

Ironically, when built, local residents complained that the pier spoiled their views of the sea!

In its 1920s heyday the pier had its own resident orchestra (Elgar had conducted it). The theatre presented plays, pantomimes and ballets all year round. In its heyday, it attracted 2 million visitors a year.

The addition of new landing stages in 1894 made it possible for steamboats to use the pier as a terminus for travel to France, the Isle of Wight, Bournemouth, Weymouth and Dover.

The heyday of the West Pier was in Edwardian times.

In the Edwardian era novelties and shows took place on the end of the pier - a manacled strongman used to dive into the sea on a bicycle, his clothes aflame - these were stopped when a crowd of hundreds of onlookers saw him drown one day.

The West Pier was destroyed in an arson attack. Plans to attempt to restore the pier have been abandoned. [see End of West Pier in sight]

Now lying derelict, plans to restore the West Pier had to be abandoned when all public funding was withdrawn.

The West Pier is embroiled in scandal, and that was even before it was destroyed in an arson attack. Plans to renovate the pier should not be confused with restore to it original Victorian splendour. Supporters of the pier have been badly let down by the West Pier Trust.

The development included a commercial development on the shoreline and possible commercial development off the end of the pier.

The West Pier Dilapidation Trust:

Brighton’s West Pier has been giving joy to residents and visitors for over 130 years, from its heyday as an Edwardian pleasure palace to its current status as nesting place for starlings and dilapidated art object. But the storm clouds are gathering. The West Pier has been hijacked by the pernicious construction-heritage industry and is in danger of being turned into a plastinated corpse that serves no one but the bankers.

These interfering busybodies can’t bear the fact that the West Pier, second only to the Pavilion as a Brighton landmark, is currently generating zero income for the city. What profit is to be made from the sight of half a million starlings wheeling gracefully above its stark outline? Where’s the revenue stream from a winter sunset blazing through the ancient cast iron? And the projected yield from poking around its occasional flotsam at low tide is a big, fat zero.

As a city, we should think very carefully before sacrificing this beautiful and unique structure in the name of profit. If you believe all the talk of ‘sympathetic restoration’ and ‘appropriate use’, just look at the Aquarium terraces, where an important Victorian building has been topped by a burger-infested steel and glass turd. Do we really need another temple to tourism and consumerism?

A few quotes illustrate what was planned:

The interiors of the buildings on the pier will be adapted to modern leisure requirements.

On the lower esplanade, either side of the pier and fully integrated with it, there will be an exciting new complementary retail/leisure development.

Some views from street level are reduced for short lengths... The development provides a southern extension of the promenade which will have direct views of the pier and the sea.

The Noble brothers, owners of the distinctly different Brighton Pier of 1899 (traditonally known as the Palace Pier) joined the objectors, having originally been supporters of the restoration scheme (the 1996 Year of the Pier was launched from the Palace Pier). Their reported point of view was that subsidised rebuilding, were it to happen, would represent unfair competition.

The company earmarked to carry out this work was property developer St Modwen. Their track record is not good. They have destroyed Farnborough town centre to make way for a superstore, are wishing to destroy Queen's Market, a century-old, under-cover street market at Upton Park in the East End of London, for you've guessed, a superstore.

As in too many town centres, greed has become the driving force, the seafront to be destroyed to provide yet another development opportunity for property speculators. As Julie Birchill, a strong supporter of Save our Seafront, said of the local council:

They know the price of everything and the value of nothing. The West Pier is beautiful as it is. I'm one of the SOS mob. The proposed development is the equivalent of sticking a massive Nissen hut right in the middle of Trafalgar Square.

Clive Buxton, head of SOS:

We all wish to see the West Pier restored. But not at any cost. We would welcome a sensitive development that does not forever obliterate our views of the sea from this beautiful and historic seafront. The present proposal is a development too far.

Actress Joan Plowright, widow of Laurence Olivier and long-time Brighton resident:

It would be lovely to see the West Pier restored. But I'm appalled to think of a commercial building rising so high along the promenade.

As Jonathan Glancey said, writing in the Arts section of The Guardian, 'Brighton's magnificent West Pier must be saved, but not at the expense of the seafront.' [see A blot on the seascape]

An alternative plan for the West Pier has been put forward, one that would not involve either St Modwen or destruction of the traditional seafront, but it appears to have fallen on deaf ears. Money talks! [see Opponents to press on with alternative plan]

What is left of the pier is to be removed. The team that developed the London Eye, is to erect in its place the Brighton Eye, not as in London a gigantic bicycle wheel, but a tall slender viewing tower.

In Spring 2006, the West Pier Trust announced a new plan to fund the restoration of the pier: The Brighton Eye, a 183-metre observation tower, 'Brighton i360', situated on the West Pier promenade deck. The tower is planned to carry 100 visitors at a time to a pod 150 metres above sea level. The projected cost of the tower is £15 to £20 million and it would take 2 to 3 years to build. A ticket will cost around £8 and the Trust expects around half a million paying visitors each year. No date for the construction of the privately-funded tower has been announced.

Plans for the i360 West Pier Observation Tower and a Heritage Centre were submitted to the council on Monday 17 July 2006. The proposed development consists of two applications: a full planning application and a listed building consent application. [see 'i360' West Pier Observation Tower and Heritage Centre]

If it has finally been decided not to restore the West Pier, then one option, which does not appear to have been seriously considered, is to leave it to slowly rust and decay gracefully, and eventually collapse into the sea.

An amazing sight in the evening is to see upwards of a million starlings wheeling around in the night sky. The starlings reside in the derelict West Pier. English Nature has expressed concern as to what will happen to the starlings, as has many local residents. [see Fears for West Pier starlings]

The National Piers Society, founded in 1979 by Sir John Betjeman, is dedicated to promoting and sustaining interest in the preservation and continued enjoyment of seaside piers.

Sussex ~ Brighton ~ The Royal Suspension Chain Pier ~ Brighton Pier
(c) Keith Parkins 2006-2009 -- October 2009 rev 3