I woke up this morning to learn one of the two main landmarks of my home town of Eastbourne in the UK was on fire, probably burnt beyond repair and just two weeks before the town’s largest tourist weekend, the annual air show. This article from the Guardian has some pictures of the pier in full flames. The other landmark just outside the town is, of course, Beachy Head and the accompanying lighthouse, which would be hard to set alight.
Growing up literally 10 minutes’ walk from the seafront, (or promenade if you’re feeling Edwardian) we either walked to the pier and back, or to the Wish Tower and back, looking at the pier on the return journey. As we got older, we walked past the pier, sometimes to Holywell if we felt really energetic, usually stopping at Fusciardis for ice cream at some point. An Italian word all Eastbourne residents can say confidently, thus expanding their repertoire beyond lasagne or Bolognese. The pier, such a stalwart of Victorian and Edwardian holiday towns, along with the seafront proper was protected in Eastbourne to retain as much of its original façade as possible. The Duke of Devonshire was proud of the heritage of the town, so planning controls restricted extensive changes and development that differentiates Hastings and Brighton from their sleepy cousin in the middle.
My brother and I lived on the beach in the summer. Mum packed up a picnic every day there was no chance of rain; indeed sometimes if there was still a chance of rain, we’d charge down to beach in front of the Belmont Hotel, basically the first beach we got to. Reminding us daily to stay away from swimming near the groynes, we’d scamper down to the sand if we’d timed it right and there was a low tide, playing for hours with other children who were also armed with buckets and spades. As the tide turned, we’d get hungry, scramble back up the pebbles for cheese sandwiches and orange squash. We’d be allowed back to play by the water, but had to ask to go swimming so that Mum was happy our lunch had settled enough, so we didn’t drown.
Those pebbles! Gingerly stepping down to the sea at the beginning of the six weeks summer holiday until our skin had hardened. We’d stay in the water for so long, coming back up the beach was always tricky with our prune-like feet.
Mum would sit with other parents on the beach, they’d take it in turns to watch us children, allowing the other parents (usually mums) to doze and sunbathe in peace and quiet for a few minutes. Until their offspring emerged with a good shell, stone or piece of seaweed and stood dripping over their mum to show off their trophy for approval. Our hair grew blonder, our skin browner, we must have looked like urchins at the end of the day, our hair stiff with salt and sun cream, leaving a trail of sand in the bottom of the bath each night.
I can remember one day the water was so warm, I stayed in it for hours and caught a chill. Another day I swam out and out and out, until I was level with the end of the pier. Floating on my back looking at the clouds, wafting on the waves, I couldn’t hear a sound from the traffic, I was utterly alone. When I got back onto the beach, I got given merry hell by Mum for swimming out too far, so never repeated it, even as an adult. The wrath of an angry mother in full roar has a lasting impact on any child.
Working at the Sovereign Centre as a lifeguard and swimming teacher in my early twenties, I’d often either cycle or drive to work along the seafront. The pier in my rearview mirror, or glinting at night with thousands of white light bulbs illuminating it. I can remember the furore when the council decided to switch to white instead of coloured light bulbs along the whole seafront, it looked lovely, much nicer than having random patches of gloom where people had climbed up to steal the coloured bulbs.
I used to go clubbing on the end of the pier, not in the building that burnt, originally the ballroom, now an arcade with lots of video games; they said online this morning that an electrical fault behind a wood panel may have triggered the blaze. One unforgettable day we were walked to the pier for an exceptionally high tide and winds, causing waves to lap at the bottom of the boards we were walking on, freaking me out so much, it took me months to walk back on it. I’ve got so many happy memories of that hunk of wrought iron, it is a real shame that it may well now stand forlorn out at sea and never be repaired. I hope they can repair the building, that it’s not caused too much damage to the structure.
Like many of my friends and family who spent time in Eastbourne, we looked at the pictures online today with tears in our eyes. While I spent my childhood dreaming of a way out of Eastbourne, and now live on the other side of the world; it’s such a quiet sleepy place, it needs the pier to bring people to the town. Without it, as Eastbourne is already struggling, the town may well die a slow, economic death.