Tourists and locals watch as the pier burns. Photo Mrs Gina Powers. © Weston-super-Mare Town Council
Damage to the Grand Pier at Weston-Super-Mare in today's fire is potentially so bad as to render future restorations extremely difficult, according to a conservation expert.
Fire broke out on the Grade II listed structure just before 7am today, Monday July 28 2008. By 8.30, the whole of the four-towered Art Deco pavilion at the end of the pier had collapsed in on itself.
Smoke from this morning's blaze could be seen as far away as Wales and Dorset.
After examining pictures of the pier and of what remains of the building at its far end, Neal Charlton, of architectural heritage experts Fuller Buttress and Alsop said:
“There seems to be very little left, the structure underneath, even if it is still standing, it was such an intense fire, whether there is still structural integrity would remain to be seen.”
The privately-owned pier is on the English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register and although it is one of the latest examples of seaside pier building, it was given listed building status in 1974.
Fire fighters are dwarfed by the skeleton of the destroyed pier. Photo Mrs Gina Powers. © Weston-super-Mare Town Council
It was originally built to serve the many holidaymakers heading to the resort at the end of the 19th century as the railways brought access to the seaside holiday. Until today, it was the focus of the town's current tourism industry.
“Although the pier was relatively modern, it was an archetypal building for a seaside town and the destruction of a pier can be the destruction of a whole cultural scene in the town," added Neal. "Everyone will remember a visit to a pier and to lose the only pier in this vibrant seaside town is a disaster.”
Commenting on the day's events, the town's mayor, Councillor Andrew Horlers, said: "This is a real blow, the pier is the heart; the very heartbeat of this town and now it's destroyed. I really, really hope it can be rebuilt. It is an iconic and vital tourist attraction to the town that has featured in so many people's lives and has done for over 100 years."
However, with so much of the structure devastated by fire, the chances of a rebuild are not yet clear. “One would hope that they are able to rebuild,” said Neal, “ but if they do, it then becomes a modern building on a pier. Even with a true restoration where you try to go back to historic detail when you’ve got a building that far gone, it can only be a facsimile. Time will tell.”
“As soon as a building becomes derelict and it loses its integrity, the elements take it further," added Neal. "The sea can attack it and further rot occurs. It will continue to deteriorate beyond the fire.”
The latter scenario was mirrored in Brighton's experience of its West Pier, which eventually burned beyond repair in 2003 after years of stalling regarding plans for its restoration.
Tourists flocking to the Grand Pier at Weston-Super-Mare in June 2008. Photo Mrs Gina Powers. © Weston-super-Mare Town Council
A pier was originally proposed for Weston-Super-Mare in 1880 and was intended to be 2,011 metres (6,600 feet) long. This length was due to the incredible distance the sea goes out at low tide on this stretch of the North Somerset coast.
The final length of 457 metres (1,500 feet) did not allow boats to dock easily at its far end and this still remained impossible despite an additional 1,500 docking extension being constructed in 1906. Only 36 metres (120 feet) of this extension remained before today’s blaze. The pier opened on June 11 1904.
Designer P Munroe included a large 2,000-seat theatre on its far end. This original building was destroyed by fire on January 13 1930.
The building that went up in flames this morning was built to replace the original structure during 1932 – 1933. Rather than a theatre, it was used to house a funfair and more recently the two-storey structure housed amusements and newer rides and attractions.
Photo Mrs Gina Powers. © Weston-super-Mare Town Council
As well as the rebuilding in the 1930s, a new entrance building was constructed in 1970. Further restoration and development work was performed in the early 1990s.
Most recently, much investment was put into the pier by new owners Kerry and Michelle Michael. This included renovating the now-destroyed pavilion and adding new attractions and rides.
Find out more about Weston Super Mare's Grand Pier at www.grandpierwsm.co.uk/history.asp
We received this message from Mr Ray Dove of Vancouver, Canada: "I remember the 1930 fire very well. I was 11 years old. I have been living in Vancouver, Canada since 1952. Imagine my surprise when today's fire was shown on the TV news, this is not the way to get international attention! We lived next door to the Cornwalls in Ellenborough Park and the story goes that he had a financial interest in the pier in 1930. He was alleged to have been seen on the seafront in his nightgown shaking his fist at the adversity. Sincere sympathy at this disastrous loss to my hometown."
Do you have any memories of the Grand Pier? Get in touch and tell us about them.