Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Weston's Other Pier

Let me tell you the story of a Pier. Not the one you think I’m going to talk about. Another one. And one that needs your help. Stick with me to the end and then follow the links and help to make a difference…….

At the Northern end of Weston-s-Mare, the end that hardly any casual visitor gets to these days, is the town’s other, forgotten Pier.

This isn’t the famous Grand Pier, burned spectacularly in 2008, speedily rebuilt and the subject of other Blog Posts of mine. This is something altogether different, more historic, more interesting and certainly more threatened. This, dear reader, is Birnbeck, or the “Old” Pier.

Birnbeck Pier was designed by a man called Eugenius Birch, the IK Brunel of pier-building who is said to have designed no fewer than 14 around the British coast. None of his designs is what you might call “ordinary” but Birnbeck is even more unusual, for rather than being a simple pier, it is in fact a pier-cum-bridge, linking the mainland with the rocky islet of Birnbeck.

The Bristol Channel is subject to the second highest tidal rise and fall in the world (before you ask, it's the Bay of Fundy in Canada) which makes shipping hazardous and finding landing places useable for much of the day deeply problematic. Birnbeck managed to meet those criteria though and as early as the 1840s there were plans for a suspension bridge linking the island with the mainland so that it could be used as a landing place. These plans were to say the least problematic and in the event, the town had to wait until 1867 before the Pier was eventually opened.

It’s hard for us to imagine now what a major event this was. Flags flew, holidays were proclaimed and Weston took its place among those seaside resorts which “had arrived”.

We tend nowadays to think of piers as pleasure places, for promenading and for amusements and Birnbeck came to have all this. It shouldn’t be forgotten though that they originally had a practical purpose as landing places and in the pre-Severn Bridge Bristol Channel this passenger steamer traffic was significant. The relatively wealthy mining population of South Wales would descend on Weston en masse at weekends and holidays and Birnbeck was their point of arrival. Indeed, a much repeated legend with probably more than a grain of truth was that many day trippers never left the confines of the Pier, it having more than enough to keep them occupied.

For those venturing further afield, horse drawn carriages met the ferries at the Pier and from

1902 Weston’s electric trams arrived. By then, though, railway excursion traffic was becoming important, too and the focus of the town moved ever more Southward, prompting the opening of the Grand Pier in 1904. (The Grand Pier has managed to burn down twice; Birnbeck has managed it only once, on Boxing Day 1897.)

During WWII, Birnbeck was requisitioned by the Admiralty for weapons testing, receiving the designation “HMS Birnbeck”. Their “Directorate of Miscellaneous Weapons Development” carried out some work here concerning the famous “Bouncing Bomb”. As I'm always telling sceptics, there's real history in that mud. (And by the way, it's not mud at all. It's ozone-rich sand. So there.)

After the War it was quickly business as usual and the steamer services of P&A Campbell continued to bring visitors over from South Wales, as well as taking Weston holidaymakers on day trips to other English and Welsh resorts. Indeed, in 1962 Campbell’s bought the Pier. But for a variety of reasons the writing was on the wall.

Perhaps the biggest single factor was the opening of the Severn Bridge in 1966. Steamers continued for a while until the last trip left in 1979. In 1994 the quickly deteriorating Pier was closed and has not reopened since. The RNLI still use it (having made repairs so that their crews can reach one of the few all day launching places in the area) but even they are reported to have gone looking elsewhere for a site, should the worst happen.

New owners, promising much from hotels to apartments on the island have come and gone and competitions for new designs have seen some suggestions which might be charitably described as “different”.

But what actually stands there, albeit crumbling, is a beautiful, elegant Victorian pleasure palace. For the past couple of years or so the wonderful vintage Carters Steam Fair has come to Weston with its brilliant period fairground equipment. And you know what? People, even the iPhone X-Box generation, love the simple old-fashioned stuff, so there’s certainly a market for it. A period looking hotel on the island would seem to have some possibilities, too. After all, it works at
Burgh Island.

So where are we? Well the Pier has now been sold (again) to two local businessmen, so let’s await the next plans.

But I told you this long story to try to get you interested in this fabulous bit of surviving (albeit dilapidated) Victorian social history. There is a body of people, interested, caring people, called The Friends of the Old Pier Society. You can check out their new website at

you can buy Stan Terrell's new book, or, as I’ve done, you can join them as a member.

The Grand Pier came back from disaster and a generation ago so did Clevedon Pier, just up the coast (possibly the most beautiful in Britain but that’s another story I must write about one day).

Let’s get the Old Pier back, too and put some life into this lovely bit of Weston.

1 comment:

  1. I remember as a boy taking Sunday steamer trips from Birnbeck Pier to look at Cardiff and Penarth, when we stayed in a flatlet just above it and overlooking it.