A tale of two piers

IT is a tale of two piers - one now a flourishing tourist attraction, but the future of the other looking uncertain. RICHARD SMITH looks at the fortunes of the piers at Southwold and Felixstowe.

IT is a tale of two piers - one now a flourishing tourist attraction, but the future of the other looking uncertain. RICHARD SMITH looks at the fortunes of the piers at Southwold and Felixstowe.

TWO piers on the Suffolk coastline were closed within months of each other five years ago for safety reasons.

The future looked bleak when the piers at Southwold and Felixstowe were condemned as being a danger to the public. Both structures had suffered damage in their vulnerable locations stretching out over the North Sea.

When they were built within six years of each other there were 100 piers in the country. Now there are 50 and it is feared Felixstowe's pier could be allowed to rot away.

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Today Southwold Pier is a flourishing tourist attraction after up to £1million was spent on returning the structure to its former glory.

But in contrast the pier at Felixstowe remains closed and could be demolished following the failure to gain enough financial support to prepare a feasibility study into a £15million project to build a 100-seat revolving restaurant and other attractions. The pier ownership is being transferred by the trustees back to the original owner, Pier Amusements Ltd, who will decide what to do with it.

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Chris and Helen Iredale bought Southwold Pier in 1987. It was built in 1899 and in those days it was 810ft long with a t-end to enable paddle steamers to bring holidaymakers to the town.

In 1934 the t-end was swept away in a violent storm and during the Second World War a sea mine blew a gap in the pier. This was repaired in 1948 but over the years the seas relentlessly attacked the pier and a large part was destroyed in 1955. There was more structural damage in 1979.

There was about 90ft of pier left when Mr and Mrs Iredale bought the landmark and they patched up the wooden structure before realising their dream of building a new pier.

The first estimates were about £1.5million to build a 500ft pier and Mr Iredale, put off by the high quotes from companies experienced in sea defence and piling, sought advice from colleagues at Walton on the Naze.

The cost of Southwold pier was cut to around £1million after Mr Iredale hired specialist equipment and used a highly skilled local builder. An EU grant and the sale of commemorative brass plaques helped to finance the cost.

All the hard work earned a royal seal of approval two years ago when the Duke of Gloucester officially opened the pier and within a few weeks the pier was joint third in the National Pier's Society's Pier of the Year 2001 competition.

The pier continues to attract tourists by arranging visits from the passenger ship MV Balmoral and steamship PS Waverley. On the pier are a licensed restaurant, café, exhibition, a replica of the Crown Jewels Coronation Set, amusement arcade, hand built machines of curiosity, gift emporium, disabled ramp and toilets.

There are also two function rooms and you can even hold a marriage ceremony on the pier as you look out to sea.

Mr Iredale said yesterday: ''I think a pier is what makes a seaside resort. People like the feeling of walking on water and if they can not afford a cruise, it is the next best thing.

''It is a profitable business now and quite an attraction. I do not really know Felixstowe but you have a big catchment area of Ipswich and if I was to do it, I would go for more low key things because you cannot get the money.''

Anglers countrywide still phone Castaway fishing tackle shop, Undercliff Road West, Felixstowe, asking Marion and Gerry Bell if they can fish from the pier. The couple collected hundreds of signatures when they launched a petition to save the pier from demolition and they hope to hand it in with supporting evidence to Downing Street.

Mr Bell said yesterday: ''The pier is sorely missed and the town is losing business. What has happened in Southwold has kept the town alive. In Felixstowe I would like to see our pier twice as long with facilities for steamers. I do not think the pier is beyond repair.

''People would drive hundreds of miles to fish from the pier. It is where most youngsters started fishing and it provided a place where everybody up to wheel-chair bound adults could fish.''

Mr Bell said he believed Felixstowe needed the low-key simple style of facilities offered at Southwold's pier rather than a multi-million pound mega-attraction.

The pier's landward end remains open with an amusement arcade and fast food outlets, but the limited attractions on the pier (children's rides and Slippery Dip) have closed.

The Coast Development Corporation opened Felixstowe Pier in 1905. It was half a mile long and one of the longest in the country. Electric tram cars ran from the pier head and steamers alighted at the end to take people to and from other resorts.

During the Second World War the pier was severed in order to stop Germans landing and running along the structure to invade the town.

Felixstowe's pier has never really matched the attractions offered by many other piers. The pier was a place where people walked out to sea to admire different views of the shoreline and anglers cast for fish.

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