Today, a Facebook friend made a post that began with the words: “what Southend Pier needs is more to do at the end to attract more people down and it need not cost a fortune to provide this”, which sparked off several comments, together with a brainstorming session of what needs to be done and a trip down memory lane of what it used to be like, in which I chipped in. As I came to write this post, I checked the last few days letters pages of our local paper and counted five to do with the pier and all seemed to be urging the Council to encourage private investment to attract more people.
It all got me thinking about what many see as the number one iconic landmark of my town of Southend-on-Sea, the longest pleasure pier in the world, that has long played a part in my life. It has long fascinated me the pier had to be that long to catch permanent water, given the tide goes out a long way. Due to some unfortunate fires in recent years and a serious lack of investment, if you were to walk the mile and a bit pier (or for the more sedate take a train) what you see at the end is not a lot – a couple of refreshment places (which are nothing to write home about), a lifeboat shop, what seems a barely used pavilion area, and some extra seating. No wonder the pier is losing customers and money, when what you get at the end is an anti-climax, despite the invigorating experience of getting there.
It was not always like that. I can remember the pier in the 1950’s, as a child growing up in the town, when it was a popular tourist attraction and could be yet again despite huge changes in how people spend their leisure time. My parents often took me and my sister for outings that included the pier and, because we didn’t have much money, we usually walked, which was fine as walking out to sea, even when the tide was out, had a special attraction, as did racing the trains that overtook us. There seemed to be a lot of things going on at the end of the pier and us children felt a certain buzz.
The two stand out attractions for me were the boat trips that started from the end of the pier and a pavilion area, where shows would often take place. My dad being a sea lover, often took us on boat trips on the Medway Queen paddle steamer to Herne Bay, and sometimes to Clacton or Sheerness. Trips to Margate or even Calais were also on offer, although it was a bit outside our price range as a family. As for the pavilion area, this hosted a variety of fascinating indoor games. The one that I was particularly attracted to was table tennis, when I got to play my dad, who I recall was quite good.
Following my childhood, I often visited the pier. Sometimes, when guests were staying with us, I took them for a walk along the pier. I also walked along the pier alone, in all weathers, and found it strangely therapeutic regarding my depression. The pier was not the only attraction of course. Opposite there was a magical mystery arrangement, called Never Never Land, which intrigued us children, and is nowadays overtaken by cliff subsidence. There was also the illuminations, long since gone. Along the Golden Mile, east of the pier, there was the usual arrangement of pubs, eating places, novelty stores and amusement arcades. I recall squandering my pennies there on the slot machines as a thirteen year old. And there was the beach, which as I recall was crowded on hot days! Later, when I was sixteen, I took jobs at Peter Pans Playground (amusement park) and the boating pool, situated either side of the pier entrance.
But nostalgia aside, the big question is where we go from here? In an attempt to modernize facilities, Southend seafront has received investment in recent years, and still attracts visitors. But it could attract more, especially if the Pier were made more attractive. There was a move following the heyday of the sea front (1960’s and before) to develop an economy around offices, which have in recent years seen a drastic demise. It seems to me that part of the economic future of Southend can be around what could happen in the sea front area, with the Pier being the centre piece. The recent changes to the local airport seem to have been an economic success and the recent development of the university still has a lot of potential. One wonders if the same could happen with the Pier and sea front (and, in the light of my earlier posting on the subject, WITHOUT casinos).