I adore piers. They’re bridges that connect land and sea, a gateway between the world of the known and the mysterious lure – and lore – of the ocean. I think of them as the shore’s forefinger, pointing out to sea and all its mystery.
The world is a different place on the pier, a very British, steampunk souk of weird memorabilia. Dried seahorses, anyone? Hand-ground balm to remove stretch marks and bleach moles? How about hog roast in a bun, or five cinnamon doughnuts for a quid, to be shared with seagulls and quick-hopping sparrows? A new battery for your watch? Digital binoculars? Would you like your fortune told by Miss Petulengro, whose family has been peering successfully into the future for ten generations? Would you ride the teacups, loop the loop, or spy on sunbathers through the lens of a state-of-the-art Victorian camera obscura? It’s all available in the demimonde of the pier. What looks and sounds tacky on terra firma is transformed into magic here, in this world where the sea is glimpsed, flashing like half-hidden treasure, under your feet.
I only managed to visit one pier this summer, in Llandudno, Wales. It’s well over two thousand feet in length, an elegant mix of Victorian wrought iron and weathered wood, the metal above the planks a cupcake frosting white and blue, the part below much rusted and frilly with emerald algae. There used to be a theatre at the end of the pier, a magnificent pavilion. Everyone from Cliff Richard to Petula Clark to Russ Conway performed in it. The late conductor Sir Malcolm Sergeant had his debut in its orchestra pit, in 1926. The Beatles never played here, but Ringo Star was often seen sailing to its landing platform. The pavilion was destroyed by fire in 1994. The landing stage was deemed unfit for service in 2005.
The pier survived both catastrophes and is still thriving. Run by 6 Piers Ltd, it hosts jazz sessions in the bar and Punch and Judy shows in the sunshine. There are two penny arcades. The weekend I went, there was a stall selling vintage ware and antiques too. The shops and kiosks sell everything from Welsh souvenirs, to costume jewellery, magic tricks, soap, healing potions, plaques with house names, sportswear, beachwear, winter wear, lace, candles, books, DVDs, beach toys, fishing tackle, junk food, seashells and…fairies. Honest! You can buy a fairy on Llandudno Pier. If you don’t believe me, go and see for yourself. I told you piers were magic!