The transformation of Southsea’s South Parade Pier

PUBLISHED: 10:38 14 August 2018 | UPDATED: 10:40 14 August 2018

South Parade Pier seen from Southsea beach (Photo by Theo Andrae)

South Parade Pier seen from Southsea beach (Photo by Theo Andrae)

Theo Andrae

When Southsea’s South Parade Pier closed in 2012, derelict and a shadow of its former glory days, who’d have thought that six years on it would be Pier of the Year

There’s something about stepping onto an archetypical British seaside pleasure pier. Within minutes, the impulse to indulge in an ice cream cornet whatever the season, to risk handfuls of small change in a slot machine that seldom pays out or to throw caution to the wind and surrender to a bad hair day, becomes curiously irresistible. And Southsea’s Grade-II listed South Parade Pier is no exception.

Originally stretching-out almost 2,000 feet from the four-mile-long seafront, the site’s first superstructure was built in 1879 as a steamer passenger terminal for travellers to the Isle of Wight. Destroyed by fire in 1904, Portsmouth Corporation bought the pier, hich was completredesigned by local architect GE Smith in a feat of Victorian engineering - its lattice of iron girders supporting an innovative concrete deck instead of the traditional wooden planking. At a little over a quarter of its former length with windscreens on all sides and two pavilions - one housing a 1,200 seater theatre, the new-look pier proved a big hit with day-trippers and locals alike, who flocked to soak-up the entertainment now on offer.

However, like the tide, the fortunes of such venues ebb and flow. Requisitioned by the government during WWII, South Parade Pier reopened with beauty pageants replacing troop battalions. And, soon, some of the biggest names in showbiz including Peter Sellers, Frankie Howerd and Tommy Steele were treading its boards. Despite rocking to the likes of Status Quo a second fire devastated the theatre in 1966, with more smoke damage inflicted during the filming of the Ken Russell film ‘Tommy’. It re-emerged as a music venue with The Stone Roses, Genesis and Blur among those performing up until the early noughties. Yet, before long, spiralling maintenance bills exacerbated by damage wreaked by winter storms put paid to these halcyon days and following safety concerns the City Council closed it down in 2012.

Today, those seeking a taste of nostalgia will not be disappointed. South Parade Pier Ltd, having bought the landmark for an undisclosed sum in 2014, has reportedly splashed over £5million on its restoration. With the pier having risen once more from the ashes in April 2017, the striped deck chairs are back for an afternoon’s basking in the sun, and against a backdrop of crashing waves, excited cries come from the fairground rides and family amusement arcade.

With the smell of take-away fish and chips wafting on the breeze; there’s a chance to dine in comfort at Deep Blue’s nautical-look brasserie encircled by the near 360-degree views.

But perhaps the biggest nod to the pier’s past is the return of its famous Gaiety Bar. Run by local business partners Trevor Bratty and Jack Edwards, regulars from years gone by will recognize the building’s restored arches, beneath which classic tea dances, boxing matches and concerts have been revived. Both the entertainment programme though and the interior has now been given a 21st century facelift with Portsmouth’s answer to Britain’s Got Talent – Search for a Star – among the live events on offer. And fast becoming established as a party venue, the Gaiety is alive and kicking once more.

Heading back outside towards the end of the pier, the shoals of anglers hoping to bag the catch of the day are also becoming a regular sight. Summer months promise mackerel, bass, pollack and bream, those in the know preferring to wait until high tide, as darkness falls. With rods, tackle and bait available from the pier’s shop, it’s a chance for young and old to share a traditional seaside pastime. Indeed, with so much happening above the water, it’s easy to forget the important role that piers play in providing a habit for marine wildlife; as researchers on the Heritage Lottery funded Piers Tale project across the Solent at Yarmouth are currently discovering.

According to the National Piers Society, at the turn of the last century, almost a hundred piers existed around our coastline: now only half remain and several face an uncertain future. Founded in 1979 under Sir John Betjeman, the Society shines a spotlight on these valuable historical relics.

And, in April 2018 Southsea South Parade Pier was awarded its coveted ‘Pier of the Year’ accolade beating Felixstowe into second place, and Worthing into third. The award is in recognition of the commitment and investment South Parade’s owners, the Ware family and their associate Bob Pettett, have devoted to the 110-year-old pier, enabling it to once again become a tourist attraction and a source of civic pride.

Society president Gavin Henderson said of the award: “Southsea’s South Parade Pier is so beautifully back from the brink and fully deserves to be heralded as ‘Pier of the Year’”.

Whilst Tommy Ware Snr, speaking on behalf of South Parade Ltd, was clearly delighted at the news: “This is truly wonderful. I don’t quite know what to say! It has been a hard slog to get this far but we are delighted to have the efforts of every one of the pier team recognised with this superb award.”

And Councillor Gerald Vernon Jackson added: “My congratulations to Tommy Ware, Bob Pettett and all the team on the great work to bring South Parade Pier back into life again. Tommy has shown that with good business sense, hard work and real long term investments, a derelict pier can be made to thrive again. Everyone in Southsea will be grateful to Tommy that he brought our pier back to life”.

Hampshire’s other historic piers

With many piers becoming a distant memory, it’s worth taking time out to experience these famous seaside landmarks:

• Hythe: The 2100ft pier began operating on New Year’s Day 1881. Reputedly the oldest continuously running pier train in the world has a ferry service link to Southampton.

• Ryde: After opening in 1814, a tramway was added in 1864. The Island Line railway still carries passengers from Shanklin to Britain’s oldest pier, and the Wightlink ferry service to Portsmouth.

• Sandown Culver: 16 years after it opened, the pier was extended to 875ft in 1895. Having survived fire in the past, it remains a pleasure pier.

• Southsea Clarence: Unusual because it’s wider than it is long, since 1861 the pier has offered a variety of rides and attractions. It currently features the Solent Wheel.

• Yarmouth: An appeal in 2015 led by patron Alan Titchmarsh helped save the 142-year-old pier. Now timbers from Portsmouth Dockyard will be used as part of a Heritage Lottery Fund restoration.


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