Skegness Pier – a walk along its history
“Race you to the end,” shouted my husband, already several paces ahead of me and picking up speed as he set off. Normally my reaction to such a challenge would be to shrug it off, I’m far too middle-aged and sensible for such things. But there is something about Skegness Pier, even on a windy and damp February afternoon, that brings out the inner child and I found myself hot-footing it after him toward the end of the pier and the North Sea.
We were nearing the end of a long weekend visiting Lincoln to celebrate our wedding anniversary and, not yet ready to head home, we fancied blowing away the cobwebs beside the sea. Skegness and its pier, an hour’s drive from our hotel and not too much of a detour from our journey back home, fitted the bill perfectly. No matter that the amusements were quiet, almost deserted in fact as the winter weather seemed to be keeping most folks at home, we were happy just strolling – until hubby decided to turn it into a sprint – in perfect isolation (and nothing to do with Covid-19, as yet unheard of) along the 387ft length of the pier.
Mind you, when it was first built in 1881 Skegness Pier was much longer. In those days it had the enviable distinction of being the fourth longest pier in England at 1,844ft and was a popular tourist attraction, especially among the increasingly wealthy Victorians from central England who liked to be seen ‘promenading’ and taking in the beneficial sea air.
The then leading landowner, the Earl of Scarborough, had formed the Skegness Pier Company in 1876, four years after successfully bringing the railway to town and with it the beginnings of a tourist industry. By the late 1800s the town’s population had risen dramatically as people began arriving by rail from all corners of the UK. Pleasure grounds and a swimming pool were introduced, a golf course and hotels soon followed and entertainment such as donkey rides on the wide clean beach brought holidaymakers in their droves to this newly thriving seaside resort.
The now infamous Billy Butlin arrived in 1925 bringing amusements including model cars and a haunted house. A few years later he introduced the first dodgem cars in the UK and in 1936 he built the first Butlin’s holiday park here in Skegness. Today there is a plethora of fish and chips shops, fairground rides, candyfloss stalls, bucket and spade sellers, not forgetting that award-winning, long sandy beach, perfect for making castles.
But back to the pier and the Earl of Scarborough. He came up with the ingenious plan of running a competition to find the best design for the new attraction. With a princely prize of £50 (which would be well over £4million today) it is perhaps surprising that there weren’t more than the recorded 44 entrants. The winner was a civil engineering company named Clarke and Pickwell who began work on the new pier, with the Head Wrightson construction company, in 1880.
Designed as a cast-iron structure with a 25ft wide wooden deck and a large Gothic archway entrance from the promenade, there were to be projecting bays every 120ft, some of which would contain wood and glass shelters making the pier more usable in the inclement English weather, with small shops to sell food and knick-knacks to their sides. The T-shaped head would include a grand saloon/concert hall with seating for 700 people.
Work went to plan and, with much pomp and ceremony, the new pier was opened by Prince Albert, Duke of Edinburgh (second son of Victoria and Albert), on Whit Saturday, 4th June 1881.
It was an instant success and immediately began attracting visitors from all over England – the August Bank Holiday of 1882 saw an astonishing 22,000 day-trippers pay to enjoy the pier. Mind you, I can’t imagine many of them sprinting along its wooden boards, red faced and breathless, as I was now doing!
They, sensibly, preferred more leisurely pursuits, maybe sitting on a bench enjoying the views or embarking on a steamboat trip from the head of the pier. So popular were they that an extension was soon required to add additional landing stages. Steamboat trips ran from the pier to Norfolk until 1910 by which time the journey across the Wash was becoming increasingly difficult as sand continued to build up creating a need for diversions and the landing stage became unsafe and was eventually removed.
Further damage was caused in 1919 when a schooner famously hit the pier and created a 150ft breach. This was covered by a temporary platform, which was only made permanent in 1939. At the same time further restoration work was undertaken, adding new entrances along with more shops and a café. However, not long after this restoration the country found itself in the grip of World War II and the pier was closed in an attempt to deter enemy invasion from the sea. It didn’t reopen until 1948 when a cinema and amusement arcade were added to help encourage visitors to return.
Disaster struck again 30 years later, when, in 1978, severe gales ripped the pier head and its shelters apart from the rest of the structure, leaving them stranded at sea. They were eventually demolished and the pier itself reduced to 381ft. Part of the pier caught fire during the demolition, adding to its woes and by 1986 only the cast-iron stanchions remained of the once proud and elegant edifice.
It is hard to imagine this period of decline as I catch up with my husband and stand, breathless and giggling from my sprint, at what is now the end of the pier (luckily the structure had more recently undergone substantial restoration to save it from ruin, so enabling me to be here) and turn my gaze seaward. Instead, I imagine those paddle steamers carrying elegant Victorian ladies holding up parasols, arm in arm with their gentlemen beaus and laughing as the sea breeze catches their skirts. My mind’s eye sees their children playing at the water’s edge and I have to suppress a sudden urge to take off my boots and socks and go for a paddle, perhaps search for seashells (although I have it on good authority that I am just as likely to find Roman remains from an even earlier period in the town’s long history) on the golden, currently almost deserted, beach. There is a special magnetism about this seaside that calls to you, draws you in and invites you to play.
It remains to be seen exactly how the restored pier will look and feel when its new owners complete their rebuilding work, but I am certain that it will prove just as popular as when it first opened its doors 140 years ago and I can’t wait to come back. But for now, I’m off to make footprints in the sand – after a sit down on a bench on the pier to get my breath back that is!