Saturday, 3 September 2016

65 Mumbles Pier

65 Mumbles Pier (photos: pier, entrance, mumbles train at pier) - 3 September 2016

Britain’s coastal piers might puzzle a resident of a landlocked country.  The thought of strolling along to the end of a pier, admiring the view, and strolling back could seem a strange British custom, even if not as bizarre as rolling a giant cheese down a Gloucestershire hillside for sport.  In his book ‘Icons of England’, American Bill Bryson recalls his initial puzzlement at seeing Brighton pier - “the idea of constructing a runway to nowhere would never have occurred to me”.  Of course a pier also serves as a landing stage for pleasure cruisers, and provides access for fishermen to deep water regardless of the state of the tide.

During the nineteenth century piers were often like off-shore islands connected to the beach by a narrow bridge.  Then civil engineer and seaside architect Eugenius Birch devised wrought-iron pillars that could be screwed through sand and shingle directly into the bedrock beneath.  This allowed many pillars to be used, and beginning with Margate, Birch constructed 14 piers around the country, including Brighton’s West Pier and the North Pier at Blackpool.  Throughout Victorian times piers proliferated, so that by 1900 there were 80 around the coast of Britain.  Although built primarily so that people could promenade out to sea, to breathe in healthy sea air without having to set sail on potentially dangerous seas, piers also soon became places of entertainment - with concerts, Punch-and-Judy shows, amusement arcades and shops.

With the Mumbles railway being extended in the 1890s from Oystermouth Square to the headland, Mumbles pier was constructed, being opened in May 1898 by the wife of Sir John Jones Jenkins MP, Chairman of the Mumbles Railway and Pier Company: refreshments followed at the Mermaid Hotel for 100 invited guests.  The pier was 835 feet (255m) long, 25 feet wide, cost £17,000, and was lit by acetylene gas.   Entry to Mumbles pier cost 2d, and by 1900 the South Wales Daily Post (forerunner of the Evening Post) advertised that a “splendid band” was playing every Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, followed by tea and refreshments. 

There were tentative plans for a deep water harbour, so that passengers could travel by the Mumbles train to the pier, and then embark on large ships to other ports, but these plans were discarded.  The landing stage sufficed for pleasure cruises to Lundy Island, Ilfracombe and along the coast of the Bristol Channel, especially in the White Funnel paddle steamers of P and A Campbell. 

The 1904 Mumbles Railway Centenary Souvenir declared that “among the most attractive features during the season are the vocal and instrumental competitions which bring forward the cream of the musical talent of South Wales.  Splendid bands are engaged, while an accomplished troupe of troubadours give concerts twice daily”.  It described “the busy worker listening in the open air to sweet music whilst inhaling the health-giving ozone from the Atlantic Ocean”.

Alongside the pier a new slipway for the lifeboat was built in 1916, with a boathouse added six years later, so that Mumbles pier became an excellent vantage point to watch the lifeboat being launched.  This has been superseded by the new boathouse for the RNLI lifeboat at the end of the pier, which was opened in March 2014, with summer sailings, such as by the Waverley paddle steamer, taking place for many years from Swansea’s King’s Dock.

Of nearly one hundred piers that used to be around Britain’s coastline, only about half survive now, and several face an uncertain future.  So in 1979 the National Piers Society was founded under Sir John Betjeman to promote and sustain interest in preserving and building seaside piers.  For Mumbles pier the future seems bright, with major repairs currently being carried out, part of ambitious plans to regenerate the area that include building a hotel, spa and exhibition centre. 
Even Bill Bryson might be impressed when the plans reach fruition.  

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