Peerless piers

On one occasion, once the hormones had started playing up, I sneaked away from my parents to crank up one of those old “What the Butler Saw” machines. What a waste of time that was. I wasted thruppence and learnt nothing!

Most of our traditional seaside piers were built in Victorian times. They suffered major fires and storm damage over the years, though some have been restored at great expense to their former glory. It’s still a pleasure to soak up the sea breezes on a stroll along the boardwalk – and the standard of amusements has improved no end. 

Take Weston-Super-Mare’s Grand Pier, for example. Built in 1904, it was wrecked in a blaze but re-opened four years ago with the UK’s first laser maze, go-karts and mini-rollercoaster among its numerous attractions.

Southend-on-Sea’s pier (built 1890) is the world’s longest at 1.3 miles, while Eastbourne’s (1870) is one of the most handsome, featuring restaurants, bars and gift shops beneath its turrets, domes and gables.

Once regarded as an architectural masterpiece, Brighton West Pier (1866) closed to the public in 1975 and is now a sad ruin. Thankfully Brighton’s Palace Pier (1899) remains a  thriving entertainment centre.

I made my first-ever visit recently to Southwold, the rather charming and genteel old resort town on the Suffolk coast. It, too, has a pier with a colourful history – and some quirky and entertaining slot machines.

The pier was built in 1900 and until the 1930s steamships brought day-trippers there from London Bridge. A violent storm swept away the landing stage in 1934 and in 1941 a wartime mine blew up another section. It was restored in the late 1990s, re-opened again in 2001 and bought in 2013 by Gough Hotels who now plan to build a 30-bed hotel at the pier entrance.

The pier’s biggest current attraction is the Under the Pier Show, an ‘alternative amusement arcade’ established by local artist, engineer and writer Tim Hunkin. Here you can Whack a Banker, operate the My Nuke personal nuclear reactor, or try the Quickfit machine which promises a completely effortless aerobics workout with ‘no embarrassing perspiration’ and ‘no obnoxious panting.’

My favourite slot machine was Pet or Meat where, on the spin of a wheel, a cute lamb finishes up on the sofa as the family pet – or being carved up as the Sunday roast. I watched one little lad try his luck and saw his face fall when his lamb became dinner. He’ll probably grow up to be a vegetarian.

*Tim Hunkin also has an amusingly scary Fortune Teller at Gough’s Salthouse Harbour, a boutique hotel by the waterside in Ipswich noted for its collection of Banksy prints and other modern art.

Together with its sister hotel, the Angel at Bury St Edmunds, Salthouse Harbour is offering a break featuring Southwold Pier. Guests are given money to spend in the pier’s amusement arcade, lunch in one of its two restaurants, and overnight accommodation with dinner and breakfast. Available until September 30, the break costs £250 per couple.
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