Aberystwyth pier - courting disaster

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Over the closing months of 2012 the promenade and pier at Aberystwyth took something of a pounding from the elements. Wind, rain and waves all seemed to conspire, as if trying to smash the coastal section of the town off the face of the earth.

The pier - the Royal Pier to give it its full name - and promenade are well used to the vagaries of Welsh weather. Arguably the crowning glory of the town, over the years the pier has endured the worst that the Irish Sea storms could possibly throw at it.

Aberystwyth pier has been battered and, at times, almost destroyed but it is still there and parts of it at least are still in use.

Aberystwyth pier

Aberystwyth was the first pleasure pier to open in Wales in 1865. British pleasure piers, a peculiarly Victorian invention, had a two-fold purpose - firstly, to embark passengers on paddle steamers and other holiday craft, and secondly - probably more importantly for Aberystwyth - to give holidaymakers the opportunity to parade up and down the wooden planking, taking the sun and feeling for all the world as if they were on board ship - without, of course, being seasick!

Aberystwyth Pier was developed by a group of local businessmen who banded themselves together into the Aberystwyth Pier Promenade Company. Designed by the famous Eugenius Birch (the Capability Brown and doyen of pier builders) and constructed by the local firm of JE Dowson, Aberystwyth Pier was 242 metres in length and cost £13,600 to build - an enormous sum of money in the 19th century.

The pier opened on Good Friday in 1865 and was considered to be an essential part of the town's development as a seaside resort. On opening day over 7000 visitors paid their admission fee and duly walked out onto the pier, marvelling at the waves and water 50 feet beneath their feet.

The huge turnout on that spring day was partly due to the popularity of the enterprise but also partly due to the fact that the new railway line between Machynlleth and Aberystwyth opened on the same day. It was the ideal chance for visitors and locals to use the new railway and, at the same time, experience the town's new tourist attraction.

So far so good. But disaster struck just seven months later, in January 1866, when the town was hit by one of the most severe gales of the winter. The storm washed away 30 metres of the seaward end of the pier, smashing the iron girders as if they had been made of matchsticks.

The original owners of the structure - still struggling to recoup their initial investment - were simply unable to make good the damage. And so the pier was sold. The new owners took their time and for six years it lay half demolished and open only at the landward end.

Finally, however, in 1872 a new 70 metres was added to the pier, making the structure longer and thinner in construction than the original. A new head gallery and refreshment stall was added at the same time and business carried on as usual.

A new glass pavilion was added to the pier (designed by Gordon Croydon-Marks) at the end of the 19th century. Opened by the Princess of Wales on 26 July 1896, it was a Gothic-style building with glass domed roof - hardly the ideal design for a building that was constantly prone to the vagaries of the weather.

Despite the potential problems of the design, the pavilion and pier struggled on for many years. Then, on the evening of Friday 14 January 1938, yet another gale hit the town.

This time the storm was immense, the worst in living memory. Winds estimated at 90mph smashed into the pier and into the promenade. Most of the houses along the road were damaged as pebbles, paving stones and rubble flew through the air. Many of the second floor windows in the houses were smashed, either by debris or by the force of the wind.

Most serious of all, however, was the damage to the pier. Over 60 metres were again washed away this time reducing the length of the pier by half. In the aftermath of the disaster, repair and reconstruction work began again, although the missing seaward end was not replaced.

A coffer dam was built as added protection, the work on this lasting until 1940. It cost the staggering sum of £70,000, the modern day equivalent of over two million pounds.

During World War Two the pier was regarded as a serious safety risk and so the structure was closed until the end of hostilities. After the war it was again repaired but facilities were not improved. By the 1970s the seaward end of the still-truncated pier had become so bad that it was once again closed for public use.

In 1979 the pier was bought by Don Leisure Group, a company that spent almost a quarter of a million pounds on refurbishment. There were plans to build a new pier, alongside the old one, but these came to nothing - perhaps fortuitously, considering the rather chequered career and life-span of the original.

The Royal Pier at Aberystwyth remains in place on the seafront of the town. It has survived some of the worst gales the area has ever seen - and that alone must speak volumes about the quality of workmanship from the original builders, men and speculators who dared to challenge and defy the weather on this, the most open and defenseless part of the Welsh coast.

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