Clevedon pier’s simplicity and straightforward approach sum up the whole environment of the town
Originally publised in AR May 1969, this piece was republished online in September 2016
The seaside pier is an accepted part of English seaside culture yet it infiltrated into this context quite by chance. The first pier was built in 1823 primarily as a landing point for the Brighton Dieppe packets. Brighton was already a resort in 1823 and its pier became sufficiently popular with visitors to suggest that piers could be financially attractive. The first pier at Brighton set a precedent which was followed by the construction of piers designed mainly for pleasure. Their use as a jetty became only of secondary importance and a pier soon became an essential amenity for any fashionable resort.
‘A pier became an essential amenity for any fashionable resort’
Clevedon in Somerset was just such a resort; having developed from a farming community of 334 inhabitants, in 1800, to a population of 1,147 in 1831. Its position on the River Severn, fourteen miles west of Bristol, was the main reason for this growth. It was within stage· coach distance of Bristol and subsequently became popular with Bristol’s middle class. In 1846 a railway was built linking the two towns, and Clevedon mushroomed in size, with the result that in November 1866 a pier was suggested for the town and was optimistically planned as a direct communication with the catchment area of South Wales in addition to being a pleasure attraction. A board of directors was formed and sufficient capital was raised in a few months. The scheme adopted for the pier structure was· almost industrialized in concept, factory-made components being assembled on site rapidly, and by March 1869 the pier was opened and in use.
The pavilion at the pier head
In 1872 it was used by 48,000 people, but by Brighton standards the facilities it offered were distinctly limited. There were no camera obscura or wine and spirits, yet the pier with its pierhead cafe must have had a character of its own. Gradually however the pier became less profitable and its value increasingly limited. The only trace now remaining of the use intended by its nineteenth-century financiers is the twice-weekly pleasure cruises up the river to such places as Tintern Abbey and Chepstow. Its decline was caused by better transport and longer holidays, which allowed people to travel further from Bristol, but this has at least meant that the monopoly of Victorian architecture in Clevedon has remained intact. The pier and its environment remain almost completely unaltered.
Part of the landing stage underneath the pier head, showing the cast-iron piles (see also the cover of this issue)
The pier provides a point of integration between townscape and seascape, stretching into the Severn Estuary from the base of a small saucer shaped bay formed by the town behind. The town, curved and raked behind it like an auditorium, focuses on the pier from all points. Rather than a single structure, the pier forms a group of buildings, consisting of the tollhouse and abutment, the pier structure, the pier head, and finally the pier head superstructure. They are separate entities, yet they have a harmonious and integrated relationship due to massive and dominant horizontality. The stone toll-house is the most discordant part of this relationship. It is frivlous compared with the pier structure and its backcloth of Victorian domestic architecture; yet if the turrets are taken away there remains a surprisingly functional work.
‘The town, curved and raked behind it like an auditorium, focuses on the pier from all points’
Its total spatial concept makes no real concession to the arbitrary forms imposed by its Scottish Baronial exterior. The pier structure itself has a simplicity and elegance which are more obvious. Its textural qualities (those of rust, barnacles, worn decking and rotting benches) are comparitively recent, but a mathematical economy of structure has existed throughout its life. It is an early, yet sophisticated, example of industrialized wrought ironwork. Alterations to the original structure have fortunately been few; the 1948 piles added to the first bay being the worst offenders. The most significant alteration is invisible-the corrosion of part of the vertical structure has resulted in the spreading arches becoming cantilevers.
Elevation with the toll-houses on the right
One of the wrought-iron supports of the pier at Cleveton
The existing pier head was opened in 1891 and is comparatively new. Its typically straight forward cast-iron pile and joint details make a subtle comparison with the flowing forms of wrought ironwork in the pier. The original timber landing stage of 1891 was for some reason considered as a separate problem, and its replacement by a more recent reinforced concrete mediocrity has not improved this anomaly.
The pier head superstructure makes a more conscious effort to continue the vernacular instigated by the pier and pier head. The cafe and shelters combine a decorative yet restrained cast-iron framework, and illustrate yet another aspect of the same material, with a more exotic use of wrought iron- namely the pagoda style roofing. The total form and spirit create a successful crescendo to the pier run, and a subtle interrelation of materials.
Cast-iron decoration on the pier head pavillion
In Clevedon pier, as in many other structures of the time in which both architect and engineer worked ‘together’, the contributions of t he two professions are in fact harshly separated. Although not as harsh as the separation found at St. Pancras, the conflict of aesthetics was a bitter one. The toll-house and abutments are pure Romantic Victorian; the pier structure is an honest piece of structural ironwork; the pier superstructure compromises between the two. Clevedon was a Victorian resort, and this was a Victorian pier.
Neither typifies the extravagance of the more publicized resorts where both pier and town have been obscured by a veneer of twentieth-century brashness and commercialism. In a sense the simplicity and straightforward approach of its pier sums up the whole environment of Clevedon. Both pier and town typify the restrained indigenous simplicity which must have existed at other small resorts of t he nineteenth century and illustrate a relatively unconsidered aspect of Victorian culture.
The pier seen from the shore
Photographs and text by John Rayner and Keith Mallory