Southend Pier is almost a national institution. It enjoys its status of being the longest pleasure pier in the entire world and is an amazing 1.34 miles (2,158 m) in length. This is due to extensions, which have been completed over the years, all of which have created a sense of a landmark facility.
Architecturally it is quite an interesting construction and it is now a Grade 2 Listed building, which is quite imposing and grand, in its own uniquely Victorian way. Sir John Betjeman, the famous poet once commented that ‘The pier is Southend and Southend is the pier’ so inextricably linked are the two. Its length simply marks it out from other piers and it really does look beautiful at any time, but particularly at dusk, when you see it stretch out into the Thames Estuary. A real treat for the eyes! Because it is made of iron, it looks robust and firm, very steadfast and this, combined with its length does make the pier look quite unlike any others and for these reasons alone it should be seen.
Originally constructed to enable boats to carry passengers and then dock at Southend, the pier certainly started off with a functional role. It opened in 1830 and was at this point constructed from wood, this was later replaced, around the turn of the 20th Century, with an iron pier. The iron pier was designed by James Brunlees and was quite a feat of engineering, since it took the length of the pier from 182 metres, to the length it is today.
Due to the length of the pier two trains ferry people up and down the pier, although the walk is quite bracing and excellent exercise.
The pier is maintained by the local authority, Southend on Sea, which means that the resources for its upkeep are somewhat limited and there is a constant campaign to acquire both European funding and donations, to ensure that the pier is retained, kept in good order and updated. In 1980, the local authority declared that the pier was actually such a drain on its resources that it would have to close. Visitor numbers were dropping and a massive cash injection was needed to ensure the viability of the pier. A huge public campaign was mounted to ensure that the pier could be kept open and indeed the Council then announced that it would indeed keep it open. The cash injection was also to come in 1983 with a grant from the Historic Buildings Committee. However, the pier is not affluent and it is also in constant need of work being done to it.
Southend Pier has also experienced quite a lot of adversity in its time. It has sustained a number of fires, starting in 1959 and then again in 1979 and in 1995 and 2005 fires again wreaked havoc on this beloved pier. This ahs resulted in many parts of the pier being rebuilt, but the traditional style and integrity of the design has been maintained, so it does not look like a pastiche: it has its own identity.
It is open all year round, so people can enjoy the summer sunshine or the driving rain in winter. There is a fair bit to do on the pier, although compared to other piers it does lack a certain amount of facilities. There is a Museum, which is dedicated to the pier at the shore end of the pier but this is only open from May until October each year.
Due to the length of the pier and the fact that it juts out so far into the Thames Estuary, many people enjoy fishing from the pier (note a pass is required and this will be issued by the local authority). Other people enjoy bird watching and can spend the entire day with a picnic and a pair of binoculars, just watching all the different types of birds out and about. The people fishing, bird watching, or simply being there to soak in the ambience, do give this pier a very relaxed feel and it is a very nice way just to spend a day or part of a day unwinding and being reminded that the sea is powerful in a way that man is not and although we can build structures which go into the sea, we cannot master it completely.
At the very end of the pier there is an RNLI Lifeboat station as well as a gift shop and a sundeck is also available for when it isn’t raining! It is also possible to take a trip on a boat leaving from the pier, with some cruises lasting all day or others just for an afternoon or evening. These trips have to be pre-booked, but they are absolutely amazing, since you get to sail on a real tall ship, complete with sails and step back in time, so see just what life was like on one of these ships. These trips are not cheap, and for a family ticket, the 2008 rate is £150, but it is well worth the expense. Tickets do need to be pre-booked, so don’t expect to turn up and get on board.
Unlike many of its counterparts, Southend Pier is not brash or loud and vulgar and it is a place to come where you can really feel the power of the sea and its moods, sighs and even its playfulness. It is also a great place to connect with wildlife and just spend some time listening to the roar of the waves and the cries of the birds as they communicate amongst themselves.
If your interests are in slot machines, thrilling rides and candyfloss, then Southend may be a bit of a disappointment, but if you like the idea of a pier that stretches out for almost 1.5 miles, then you are sure to love Southend and all the joys that this really intriguing pier has to offer. It is unique, interesting and with its own very tumultuous history and for those reasons it is worth visiting at least once.