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03 May 2020
When steamships were developed 200 years ago they were much more manoeuvrable than sailing ships, and could come close inshore, but they still needed landing jetties that could be used at low tide. Early piers were ways of walking from the land onto the deck of the ship. Soon it was discovered that people enjoyed just strolling out to sea along the pier, pretending they were on a ship. Promenade piers became the fashion, and amusements were soon added.
Weston’s Grand Pier in North Somerset is actually quite a late example, but it’s now one of the most popular and thriving in the country. Weston Bay’s tidal fall is the second largest in the world, and the pier was originally more than twice the length it is today, with a steamer jetty stretching out beyond the modern pavilion. Piers, steamship fleets and railways were all owned by the
same companies in those days, so you would have sailed over from Devon or South Wales, landed at the pier, and taken a tram to the railway station to continue your journey within an integrated transport system.
The Grand Pier opened in 1904 in the heart of the town, and soon the 1080-foot pier had a 1500-foot jetty added, now demolished. This original elegant Edwardian structure boasted a 2000-seat theatre and opera house — before the Second World War Weston had three opera houses — but a fire in 1930 destroyed all that, to be replaced by the amusement pavilion, which old Westonians remember. History repeated itself in July 2008, when the fire which destroyed that pavilion made news headlines around the world.
Two years and £39 million spent by the pier’s owners created a multi-purpose end-of-the- pier facility far better than anything that had preceded it, which today is the centrepiece of Weston’s thriving entertainment and tourism industry. Recently even more money has been spent to bring Weston’s attractions and amenities up to date, for the benefit of visitors who can still feel they are taking part in a tradition dating back 200 years.
For more on Somerset's incredible history and heritage go to our interactive E Book.
No. 24 Somerset Fascinating Facts
There are three wonderful examples of the golden age of piers within a few miles, unique along the British coastline, and fascinating in their differences. Seaside piers are one of the great British inventions.