Left: this is the pile leg which collapsed on December 29, 2002, leading to the destruction of the Concert Hall. © Sean Clark
Stories about the collapse of the West Pier, Brighton, filled the newspapers during the Christmas storms in Britain. Efforts to restore the only grade one listed pier in the UK have been going on for years, but now the immense power of the stormy English Channel could be starting the last phase of destruction for the structure.
Right: a view of supporting pile legs. © Sean Clark
Behind the headlines, however, there is another story to tell. Under the weather-beaten and rotten teak planking of Eugenius Birch's 1866 masterpiece is an artificial reef populated by rare marine organisms. Over the last few years, engineer, diver and photographer Sean Clarke has documented the decline of the pier and the rapid growth of a beautiful and fertile new marine habitat under it.
Left:photographer Sean Clark climbs ladder from diving vessel Valkerie into the water to film underneath the West Pier. © Sean Clark
After leaving school, Sean studied engineering at University and got a job with Structural Engineers, the Hemsley Orrell Partnership. The company wanted engineers willing to be trained up as divers and Clark jumped at the chance. Now Sean is one of the few structural engineers in the UK who specialise in repairing Victorian seaside structures.
"It was really fascinating challenge - one day I'd be up on top of the roof of the Concert Hll, then the next day down under the pier shoring it up," said Sean, speaking to the 24 Hour Museum.
Right: looking at the serpent head on a submerged Victorian serpent gas lantern. © Sean Clark
According to Sean, the recent years of legal challenges to restoration funding by local pressure groups and the owners of the other seaside pier have been frustrating for all concerned with the fabric of the West Pier. "The way it usually worked was that it was propped up. We were always just propping bits up, patch repairs and so on."
Left: looking towards the surface between two pile supports covered in marine life underneath the West Pier, Brighton. © Sean Clark
Temporary repairs by Sean and his team carried on as the West Pier Trust and the engineers waited for substantial funding to be released before restoration and effective rebuilding could begin.
And as legal challenges and protests about commercialisation of the restoration have continued, proper repairs just haven't taken place.
Unfortunately the elaborately interlocking construction of the piles and supports is now causing big problems as parts rust away and collapse: "Everything's tied together with crossmembers, and as a piece falls away it drags the good bits down - that's what happened over this last Christmas," said Sean.
Right: on top of the head of the serpent lamp rests a Blennie. © Sean Clark
So what's to be done now? Has the process of decay gone too far? "Six years ago you could walk along the decking. Now you wouldn't dare. What many people haven't noticed even today is that the building at the very end of the pier has also collapsed. It's all in a state, now, of accelerating corrosion and progressive collapse."
"What is needed now is a huge injection of funds, enough to do the whole job properly."
Left: a common starfish. © Sean Clark
Victorian piers are high maintainance structures, says Sean. "The owners of the Palace Pier (now called Brighton Pier) spend a lot of money to survey every single bit of the pier - and we then write a schedule of work which is carried through."
This is why the enabling development for the West Pier, which a vociferous minority objected to in Brighton, is so important to the sustainability of any restoration project, according to Sean.
"The West Pier, if restored, needs regular funds for maintenance. You wouldn't drive a car for 25 years without servicing - this is the same thing."
Right:a Bullhead fish on a pile leg. © Sean Clark
So what about the watery world beneath? According to Sean, what strikes you first when you dip into the chilly waters of the channel under the pier is the speed at which things are claimed by colonised by marine life.
Left: looking along a submerged Victorian serpent gas lantern underneath the pier. © Sean Clark
"I found a Serpent Lamp from the pier on a dive and within two weeks it was covered in algae and barnacles. After two months it was unrecognisable, covered in marine growth."
The variety of sea life within the artificial reef has surprised even the experts. Sean participates in Sea Search, a European marine environmental research programm. When he told a seminar group that he'd found the Spiny Sea Urchin, not usually found at all on the South Coast, nestling under the rusty piles of the West Pier he was laughed at. Luckily Clark had photographic proof!
Right: macro photograph showing the large amount of marine life growing on a 40mm bolt head underneath the West Pier. © Sean Clark
"There's a complete marine habitat down there. Algae, plankton, barnacles, starfish, mussels, spiny sea urchins. The sheer abundance is amazing. You see it if you fins across from the Palace Pier to the West Pier. Mainly it's just sandy seabed for hundreds of yards, then you hit the pier and there's big shoals: conger eels, flat fish, cod, sea bass, rays, dogfish, it's teeming."
The West Pier Trust are aware of the diversity and value of the underwater habitat beneath their structure and are keen to treat it with sensitivity, says Sean.
You can learn more about the world under the pier by clicking onto Sean's website, which shows many of his award winning pictures of the decline of one of Britain's most beautiful Victorian structures. He's also made a video about the pier and the marine wildlife underneath it. Details are on the website.
All pictures above are copyright Sean Clark. Please do not copy, store or reproduce them in any way without his permission.
Other articles about the West Pier:
Hopes Raised For West Pier, Brighton
West Pier, Brighton, Partially Collapses - More Damage Expected
Special thanks to Sean Clark for letting us use his pictures, Jon Pratty, Editor, 24 Hour Museum.