For sale: 134 years of seaside resort history
By Western Morning News | Monday, December 02, 2013, 08:01
Bids are now being taken after it was announced Paignton Pier has been put up for sale – Martin Hesp has been considering the importance of this unique structure.
Paignton pier above, is on the market for £1.8m. Below from bottom left: The pier as it was during the Second World War, covered in barbed wire, and during the fire of 1919 Picture: Andy Styles
A unique structure has gone on the market in the Westcountry, and if the estate agents selling it are thinking about making a promotional video they could do worse than have a rousing chorus of "I do like to be beside the seaside" as the soundtrack.
Because it is exactly the sort of music that comes to mind when you view 134-year-old Paignton Pier.
I do like to be beside the sea!
I do like to stroll along the prom, prom, prom!
Where the brass bands play, tiddely-om-pom-pom!
Somehow you can't help yourself – it's all too easy to imagine the dapper early crooners and songsters who performed out at the end of the pier skipping and cavorting their way into the world's most famous Victorian seaside ditty.
And yet, it could have all been so very different. Historically speaking, Paignton was just as likely to have a song celebrating its once famous cabbages or cider as the altogether more ethereal concept of ornate beach promenades.
It's true – so recognised was Paignton for its cabbages at the beginning of the 19th century, that the inhabitants were nicknamed "flat-polls" after a well known local variety.
Cider – made from apples grown in orchards, the remnants of which can still be seen in the valleys inland of the town – was also famous, so much so that the original harbour is said to have been built from the proceeds of its export.
The high-day-and-holiday story of Paignton only started to evolve after 1859 when the railway arrived. The idea that the place could become a seaside resort took further hold when a Mr MacLean gave Polsham Green to the town in return for an assurance that sea defences would be built to prevent flooding across the area.
Local historians believe this move was the key to Paignton's success. Polsham Green was then landscaped for the enjoyment of holidaymakers, who shared it with flocks of sheep – the owners of which still had grazing rights there until 1908.
But it was in 1867 that the idea of a pier first twinkled in the eye of a man called George Soudon Bridgeman. He was a local architect who'd been brought in to design a sea wall for the rear of the sandy beach. Just over six years later the, Paignton Pier Act received royal assent on June 3, 1874, and work on the structure – financed by Arthur Hyde Dendy, a Paignton barrister, and designed by Bridgeman – finally got under way in 1878.
A year later, in 1879, the pier was opened and from then on its magical pavilion, perched out there over the waves, played host to all manner of entertainments. Singing, dancing, recitals and music hall acts were the usual order of the day – but the pavilion's red-letter moment occurred on July 27 and 28, 1880, when Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera, retitled HMS Pinafore on the water, was performed by Mr D'Oyley's full company.
A year later the pierhead was enlarged and a billiard room was added, extending the pier's length to 780 feet.
Alas, the whole glorious seaborne caboodle was destroyed by a huge fire in June 1919 – and everything along the prom, prom, prom went downhill from there. The local council tried to help out, but its plans to buy the pier were thwarted by local opposition.
The structure's next notable interlude occurred when Dad's Army – or the local equivalent, at least – annexed the place as a military defence-work in 1940. It was duly repaired and returned to civilian use after the war.
More latterly it had a revamp in 1980, when £250,000 was spent on replacing the buildings. Since 1995, another £2 million has been spent.
The £1.8 million which might, if your bid were to be accepted, buy you the pier today would bring you an entrance building at the shore end, along with a series of pavilion buildings along the neck which forms a single large amusement arcade.
At the pierhead there is an open amusement area containing several rides, a cafe and shops, together with the various electronic amusements. The 15-or-so concession agreements on the pier are believed to generate an income of approximately £90,000 a year.
But what are these figures when compared to the historic importance of the place? After all, Paignton Pier gives the place a panache it could never have earned through the production of cabbages – or even cider.