The Victorian pleasure pier is perhaps the most iconic symbol of the British seaside holiday. For two centuries, piers have been the place to see and be seen at the seaside. They continue to play a vital role in terms of resort identity, heritage, employment, community pride and tourism.
But they are under threat. In the early 20th century, nearly 100 piers graced the UK coastline, but almost half of these have now gone. Under constant risk from fire, maintenance issues, rising costs, and climate change, many have succumbed and now lie derelict and in a state of decay. Dr Chapman, Senior Lecturer at BU and Honorary Secretary of the National Piers Society (NPS), is helping to raise awareness of the importance of seaside piers and the critical role they play for coastal communities.
When piers were constructed, British seaside resorts were at the height of their popularity. The Victorians wanted to demonstrate engineering prowess and their ability to master the force of the water. A pier extending into the sea was a very visible nod to this expertise.
But over the last 40 years, many notable piers have succumbed to time and tide. Climate change is posing a serious threat. Increased damage from storm surges combined with rising sea levels are two of the biggest challenges faced, with extreme weather events becoming more frequent.
Brighton West Pier has suffered multiple storms and fires since closure in 1975, leaving an isolated skeleton as a haunting reminder. Similarly, Weston-Super-Mare’s Birnbeck Pier has been closed for over three decades.
Blackpool’s special status
In the 19th century, Blackpool’s piers and other attractions were the key to its growth and success. When the North Pier opened in 1863, it had 275,000 visitors, and its popularity led to the construction of two more. These are now under considerable strain, with the North Pier having suffered significant storm damage.
Help is now at hand for piers across the UK and Blackpool’s iconic structures. In her role with the NPS, Dr Chapman worked with Penny Mordaunt MP and the Department of Communities and Local Government to develop the Coastal Revival Fund. This helps address the difficulty of accessing funding that many family-owned piers in the private sector face.
In March 2019, Dr Chapman was awarded a research grant from Blackpool Council to conduct a feasibility study into Blackpool’s piers to ensure their sustainable future. To date, 165 seaside regeneration projects, including Blackpool’s piers, have been awarded such grants of up to £50,000 from the Coastal Revival fund. The Coastal Revival study, which Dr Chapman is part of, has been set up to develop a pier sustainability toolkit for all piers in the UK.
Dr Chapman has also worked in conjunction with Blackpool Council, Historic England, The Theatres Trust, and the Victorian Society, to develop a strategy and secure World Monuments Fund Watch status for the three pleasure piers. The Watch status is significant and covers heritage sites worldwide, acting as a catalyst to improve the safeguarding of monuments that need protecting.
Inclusion on the Watch List enables a series of high-profile events and activities to take place to secure the piers’ future, including tackling issues on funding, government policy, climate change impacts, and promotion and engagement. One such event is the SEA CHANGE conference, of which BU is the academic sponsor. Due to be held in Blackpool in September 2019, the aim of the conference is to understand the impact of climate change on coastal heritage. Dr Chapman will be leading the scientific committee.
Creating a USP
Anya’s research looks at resort regeneration and how piers act as a barometer in a wider socio-economic context. Often, regeneration of a pier leads to a revival of the town as a whole. In growing recognition of this, some local authorities are promoting their piers as flagship tourist attractions and investing in their refurbishment and new facilities. Southport Pier, which narrowly escaped demolition during the 1990s, is now at the heart of the resort’s development strategy and is currently undergoing a £2.9m refurbishment.
Others are reinventing themselves, offering unique selling points. Bournemouth Pier now features the only pier-to-beach zip line. In Folkestone, the Harbour Arm, which was redeveloped as a pleasure pier in 2016, provides pop-up bars, restaurants and its very own champagne bar. Weston’s Grand Pier boasts an indoor suspended go-kart track.
Conversely, says Dr Chapman, losing a pier can have a negative impact: “Piers tend to feature in advertising as a marker of a resort’s status. When they lose their piers, they lose their identity as a resort to an extent.”
Despite obtaining the aforementioned funding for pier regeneration as part of the Coastal Revival fund, finance will continue to be a major issue in the long-term preservation of piers.
“One big issue in terms of regeneration in general is that 95 per cent of private sector organisations on the coast are SMEs. They can’t tap into funding from government, heritage lottery funds or the like. Piers are in a similar situation. The vast majority of piers in private ownership are SMEs with limited funding.” says Dr Chapman.
Dr Chapman has also prepared evidence on seaside town regeneration, specifically pier regeneration, for a select committee at the House of Lords. This informed the report, The future of seaside towns, which was published in April 2019. The Select committee is looking into the impact of resort regeneration programmes so far and what more needs to be done.
Dr Chapman hopes that the committee will take steps towards enabling further funding for private sector heritage attractions in general. “Opening up more funding will continue to be a viable way forward,” she concludes.