Two individuals have been arrested on a charge of arson in connection with the fire at Hastings Pier on October 5th 2010. Of course, they’re innocent until proved guilty, but even if these two were uninvolved, arson is the likely cause of the fire. Derelict seaside piers are not prone to spontaneous combustion.
The most spectacular example of such destruction is Brighton West Pier (1863-6), built – like Hastings –by the great Victorian pier engineer Eugenius Birch. This most splendid of British piers, Grade I listed, was a location in Richard Attenborough’s film, Oh! What a Lovely War (1969). It was partly closed the year after the film came out, and completely closed to the public in 1975.
Battles between owners who wanted to demolish it and Brighton residents who wanted to take it over and restore it continued until the Brighton West Pier Trust bought it for £10 in 1984. Storm damage in 1987-8 isolated the concert hall and pavilion: a temporary connection was eventually built in 1996 on the strength of a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of just under a million pounds, which was followed two years later by the promise of over ten million pounds of funding for a full restoration.
Two successive devastating storms on December 29th 2002 and January 20th 2003 caused the central section of the pier and the concert hall to collapse.
On March 28th 2003 the isolated pavilion was destroyed by a fire. On May 11th the same year what was left of the concert hall caught fire. The following day that fire reignited. On June 23rd 2004 the remaining shell of the central section blew down in a gale.
The West Pier Trust was eventually compelled to give up hope of restoring what was left of the pier, and turned their attention to building a 150-metre observation tower, I360, on the site. The current intention is to complete this structure by the summer of 2015: http://www.westpier.co.uk/the-future.
The sad vestige of the pavilion has an elegance of its own, and Flickr is awash with superb photographs of its outline against the sea and the sky [http://www.flickr.com/search/?q=brighton+west+pier]. There is also a poignant documentary of 2003 by Hannah James: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=egikqrDRcww.
The most exciting and evocative e-experience of the West Pier, however, is a virtual tour by the Brighton-based F10 studios: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6rtkWdauc5E.
A further stage in the inevitable disappearance of the remains of the West Pier is chronicled at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-sussex-26046379.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all: the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside: the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool’s Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire’s Seaside Heritage, please click here.