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   Inside Out - West: Monday February 14, 2005

THE END OF THE PIER

Birnbeck Pier
The famous Birnbeck Pier is falling foul of old age

Birnbeck Pier has been part of Weston-super-Mare's history for many years, but now it is literally crumbling into the sea.

To save it will cost a small fortune, but for some local people, giving up hope isn't an option.

Birnbeck Pier is a bit of a landmark in Weston-super-Mare.

It's the only pier in the world which is joined to an island, and it's one of the oldest piers in the country.

For the local people, it's a part of history, but the Grade II-listed landmark is in danger of tumbling down.

Local heritage

The pier opened in 1867, having been designed to attract the thousands of visitors brought by paddle steamers from all over the Bristol Channel.

Over a hundred years later, the pier is closed to the public, and visitors need special permission to brave the rotting wooden decks.

Dilapidated pier building
The pier is literally crumbling away

Stan Terrell and John Stephens are passionate about the pier, so much so that they've become experts on its 138-year history.

And they're sad to see how the pier has ended up.

Stan describes what the scene would have been like the day the pier opened, over 100 years ago.

He says, "Bands would have played, and 130 speeches, I'm told, were said in the town hall.

"There were marches through the town, children were given the day off school - it was really a very special occasion."

The opening of the pier marked a new phase in local history, which saw hundreds of visitors flocking to Birnbeck to enjoy its attractions.

Stan explains, "There was masses of entertainment - there would have been the water chute, the switchback, a jungle, a hall of mirrors, shooting galleries, and even a skating rink!

"In those early days there was the development of the cinema, and the pier had a cinema!"

New developments

But 30 years after its opening, Birnbeck Pier had a new rival.

A second pier was built nearby to compete for the hundreds of ferry passengers and the revenue they brought with them.

Although the newer pier was built in 1904, it wasn't anywhere near as successful as the original.

Stan, Constance and John
Stan, Constance and John are big fans of Binbeck Pier

Stan explains, "The channel silts up so badly and the tides are so dangerous that we know only two ships ever tied up at the Grand Pier's jetty.

"So, they did try to compete but, in that sense it didn't work."

Birnbeck Pier was streets ahead in the bid to pull in the punters, especially those thirsty passengers coming in from Wales, as John Stephens points out:

"On a Sunday the whole of Wales was dry - you couldn't get an alcoholic drink!"

Stan continues, "So the people used to come over here - they could drink on board the boats on the way and once they landed some of them just stayed in the two bars on Birnbeck Pier.

"And then of course they'd be able to drink again on the boat again going back to Cardiff!"

But the good times were about to come to an abrupt end, as war broke out and Birnbeck was dragged in to the country's military operations.

A new role

During World War Two, Birnbeck was taken over by the Admiralty for the Department for Miscellaneous Weapons Development.

Constance George worked in an office at the bottom of the pier during the war, where she made a mysterious discovery.

"One day I walked in and I had quite a surprise. I said to my colleagues, 'That's strange, you've got two typewriters here but not the usual type."

'Danger' sign on the pier walkway
The pier's wooden walkway is unsafe for visitors

What Constance saw was an enigma - a decoding machine used to encrypt secret messages.

Constance recalls, "I remarked on it but they did not give me satisfaction of telling me the truth.

"You see you kept your mouth shut - you dared not speak about it."

When the war ended in 1945, Birnbeck continued to pull in the crowds, and the one place they all headed for was the cocktail bar where Shaun Slattery worked.

But things are very different now than Shaun remembers. He says:

"It was quite a lovely building when I was here.

"I'm very anxious to have a look in - I wouldn't recognise the place."

It's been 30 years since Shaun last visited Birnbeck and the pier has changed beyond recognition.

Shaun says, "It's shocking to see the state of the place now - it broke my heart today.

"I don't want to see it again, not the way it is - what I knew was a lovely, beautiful building and I can't believe it's gone like this."

Now, thanks to years of disrepair, it seems the memory of Birnbeck Pier is better than the reality.

These days the only visitors to the pier are the RNLI lifeboat crew.

Anchors away

Peter Holder
Peter and the Lifeboat crew think of the pier as their home

There has been a lifeboat station on the island since 1882.

But when the pier started to disintegrate, the future of the station hung in the balance.

If the pier collapsed and the lifeboat station was forced to move, 123 years of local RNLI history would be wiped out.

Fortunately the RNLI spent £20,000 back in 1999 to install a new walkway, which would allow the lifeboat crews to get to the boathouse safely.

Lifeboat crew member Peter Holder is proud of Birnbeck's RNLI heritage.

He says, "We're one of the busiest stations in the Bristol channel, somewhere in the region of 50 to 55 calls a year.

"Our average response time is usually 10 minutes and that includes a quarter-of-a-mile sprint across the pier to the boathouse.

Cllr John Crockford-Hawley
John Crockford-Hawley has some ideas on how to save the pier

"The RNLI would wish to remain on Birnbeck as long as possible - the only criteria we see as an obstruction is the state of the pier."

But the pier has been closed now for nearly 10 years, and the ferries are long-gone.

According to the local council, it would cost about £13m to restore the pier and the main jetty to their former glory.

Councillor John Crockford-Hawley explains, "The problem is not so much the restoration, but it's what to do with the pier once it's been restored that's the big question.

"A regeneration trust is the only way forward unless some private person is prepared to sink money for no return into the project."

Unfortunately for Stan and other friends of the old pier, all they can do is wait and see.

Hope for the future

The future of the pier has yet to be decided, but a glimmer of hope may be on the horizon.

Artist's impression of Birnbeck Pier. Copyright  J. Scott
James Scott has ambitious plans for the pier, as illustrated in this artist's impression
Copyright: J. Scott

Property developer James Scott has ambitious plans to redevelop Birnbeck.

He's just bought the pier and has a bold vision for how it might look in the future.

He wants to bring back an ice rink, along with flats, a helipad and eventually a marina.

This news will be warmly received by Constance and Stan who have been desperately hoping for a reprieve.

Constance says, "I'm 80 now - I've loved it for 75 years.

"We'd love to see all those lovely boats in here again."

And Stan continues, "It's so misused, so neglected, but it's such an asset that I feel should be and is part of the town.

"I would like to see it being used - it's sad that it's not being enjoyed."

See also ...

On the rest of Inside Out
Winter at the seaside
Skegness - the popular holiday resort for generations

On bbc.co.uk
History

On the rest of the web
Birnbeck Pier
Weston's Lifeboat Station

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Readers' Comments

We are not adding any new comments to this page but you can still read some of the comments previously submitted by readers.

Michael Gale
1. Many Sundays in the winter my father took me fishing on the Old Pier. In those days (approx 1948-1954) there were still small shelters at intervals along the pier but it was still a cold place to be. 2. We also spent days of summer weekends on the pier and witnessed the passengers landing from and re-embarking on the Campbell Steamers. I remember a large contingent of older boys from some Welsh youth organisation were required to break step when walking its length. 3. My father had some kind of contact with the two people who, at one time, ran the slot machine arcade, on the main concourse behind the lifeboat house. 4. Beneath the pier, on the rocks on the south, landward side, there were shrimp nets slung on very tall poles and I have witnessed the shrimpers collecting and sorting their catch. 5. Somewhere in among our old family photos I have some pictures taken on the Old Pier. 6. In approximately summer 1960 I went to a dance in the open air on the pier, where a jazz band played to people dancing in the main open area on Birnbeck Island. Mike Gale (Old Westonian living in Sussex)

ronald
RON ILETT I AM NOW 67 YEARS OLD BUT BACK IN THE LATE 1940s & 50s WHEN BILL WEELAN & HIS FAMILY LIVED IN THE FLAT ON THE PIER,I USD TO GO TO SCHOOL WITH JOHN HIS SON,& STAYED WITH THEM DURING MY SCHOOL HOLIDAYS IN THE FLAT. THEY WERE SOME OF THE BEST DAYS OF MY LIFE, IT UPSETS ME TO SEE THE STATE ITS IN NOW,I HOPE IT WILL BE RESTORED VERY SOON. MY REGARDS RON ILETT.

Bob Griffin
I am now 55 but avidly recall my childhood days when my parents used to take us to the old pier. It was far more fun than the new pier as you could clamber over the rocks and have great adventures. Even in our teens friends and I used to come back to it as it still was a fun place to be. Long may it live and I do hope that restoration will take place.



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