Fire crews have saved two thirds of Eastbourne Pier after fire destroyed part of the structure, leaving a metal skeleton.
The blaze broke out on Wednesday afternoon behind some wood paneling in the arcade building.
Just after 3pm a fire took hold in the wooden wall panels of the former 900-seat music pavilion and ballroom, which is now an amusement arcade. Thick black smoke was soon billowing up into the sky which, until then, had been the blue of a perfect day at the seaside. Holidaymakers on the beach watched as 60 firemen, later increased to 80, struggled to douse the flames which engulfed the near end of the 330-yard pier.
The fire was initially described by authorities as “small” and there were even cheers when the first engines arrived. But any hope of stopping the destruction of the town’s Grade II* listed landmark faded quickly as a fierce blaze stripped it back to a smouldering metal shell.
Despite the devastation, the pier was safely evacuated and nobody was injured, but a police cordon was repeatedly pushed back along the promenade as loud explosions emanated from the inferno.
It is 148 years since the first pile of Eastbourne Pier was driven into the sea bed. Designed by Eugenius Birch, the Victorian architect who crafted much of Britain’s south coast, the pier was officially opened by Lord Edward Cavendish on June 13 1870.
It was the age of expansion, when seaside towns across the country were following the example set by Ryde pier on the Isle of Wight — 200 years old this week — and constructing increasingly elaborate wood and wrought iron edifices that jutted further and further out to sea.
Eastbourne was no exception. By 1888, the first 400-seat theatre had been built on the pier at a cost of £250 at the seaward end. A 1,000-seat theatre, bar, camera obscura and pier office complex followed, and in 1925, the music pavilion was constructed at the shoreward end.
But the elements have long inspired against the pier. In 1877, a New Year’s Day storm washed part of the shoreward end away. A century later, hurricane damage tore through the landing stage.
According to Tim Wardley, the chairman of the National Piers Society, the “constant onslaught of Mother Nature” has halved the number of British piers to just 61 over the course of a century.
Fire presents the gravest risk. The pier’s Pavilion Theatre was destroyed by a blaze in 1970.
Further along the coast, Southend Pier, the longest pleasure pier in the world at 2,360 yds, was devastated by its fourth fire in 50 years in 2005, destroying a pub, restaurant, fish and chip shop as well as an arcade and train station. The Grand Pier in Weston-super-Mare was badly damaged by a blaze in 2008, while in 2010, the Grade II-listed Hastings Pier was almost completely destroyed.
In May 2002, more than £1.5 million of damage was caused to a pier in Hunstanton, Norfolk, when it was engulfed in flames.
Some piers do recover, such as Weston-super-Mare which was reopened by Princess Anne in 2011.
In 2003, the 148-year-old West Pier in Brighton was left a mass of derelict metal by two major blazes within two months.
In February, part of the ruin collapsed after being battered by winds of up to 70mph and rough seas. The pier, which is not maintained, was shut in 1975 after being deemed unsafe. Its crumbling skeleton, still standing sentinel not far from the shore, is slowly being reclaimed by the sea.
But each time Eastbourne Pier’s sturdy foundations have come under threat, it has so far stood firm.
Even when the order came in World War Two to blow up the pier in an attempt to stop it being used to aid an enemy invasion, the building was spared and gun platforms were instead installed in its theatre to ward off German ships.
Five years ago, the pier was put up for sale for £5 million, but a successful summer season ensued and it was taken off the market just months later. Still the crowds come to enjoy the sort of attractions that only the English seaside can provide. The pier’s Victorian camera obscura remains in situ as the last surviving working example on a pier left in the world.
In two weeks, Eastbourne’s annual air show, Airbourne – the town’s biggest tourist event held on the seafront – was due to draw in tens of thousands of visitors.
They may still come, but this summer season has been blighted for holidaymakers and residents of Eastbourne alike.
On Wednesday evening, Stephen Lloyd, the Liberal Democrat MP for Eastbourne, said: “I hope and pray that our wonderful pier has not been lost forever.”
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