When I was a boy I spent hours upon hours on Southend Pier, walking its length, feeling its girth, teasing its claim to be the longest in the world at 1.25 miles. Its slot machine alleys whispered to me alluringly. Cheap, trashy items like tin rings and shoddy pen knives (that I would have left on the ground if had I found them) became irresistible treasure if found on a moving tray of pennies or laying prostrate below a mechanical crane. I would lose myself for hours in these glittering, garishly painted palaces, emerging into the light and air feeling poorer and coppers lighter to lean against the walkway rails.
Southend Pier. The daddy of all piers has been rebuilt more times than the six million dollar man, made up and repainted more times than a Soho harlot and yet it still receives its lovers, supplicants and one-day tripper stands.
In 1959, three years after I was born, a fire destroyed the Pier Pavilion at the shore-end, replaced by a ten-pin bowling alley. Eighteen years later another fire swallowed up the 1908 Pier Head which remained derelict until a £1.3m grant from the Historic Buildings Committee in 1986 made good and also financed new rolling stock so that the tiny railway recommenced the traditional ride back for the outward bound walkers. Almost immediately afterwards the MV Kingsabbey sliced through the pier between the old and new pier heads leaving an ugly, yawning 70 foot hole. It was patched up reluctantly, like an old lady at a modern dentist in 1989. Six years later the bowling alley was destroyed by fire, repaired in 1998, followed by a brand new Pier entrance in 2003 – only to play with fire again in 2005 which swallowed and spat out the station, cafe, restaurant, toilets and the pavilion. In 2007 Southend Pier was awarded Pier of the Year and two years later its brand new station platform and office was officially opened by Southend’s Mayor.
The result of all this wear, tear and repair is that the end of the pier is now pristine, clean and virtually clear of buildings. The RNLI building stands alone, proud of its heroic status, poised for action, imperiously dismissive of the simple tourists that climb its stairs for a prurient look.
No end of pier theatre, no varieties, not even a stick of rock in sight. Length isn’t everything. As a young man, I felt that there must be a better pier. The kiss me quick hats would always be faster and racier elsewhere. In 1977 I left Southend in search of true seaside seediness in Brighton.
Before that, in the faraway fifties and sixties, a boy played on the longest pier in the world, a pier with no beginning or end, a pier that stretched as far as the imagination would stretch. Beyond that, there was always Kent.
Like the pier, I have had fires, objects that sailed straight through me, numerous repairs, modifications and people walking all over me.
We are both still standing.