People of the pier

Piers are often considered to be an evocative reminder of holidays past, but for these Southwold locals, it’s the hub of their seaside community

Piers are often considered to be an evocative reminder of holidays past, but for these Southwold locals, it’s the hub of their seaside community

A short stroll from Southwold’s Georgian high street is the town’s most popular attraction – the 625ft pier, built in 1900. Destroyed by a gale in 1934, it wasn’t redeveloped until 2001, when Antonia and Stephen Bournes made it their mission to regenerate the pier in keeping with the genteel nature of Southwold. To stand on it today, looking down over the curving arc of sand and the town’s famous multi-coloured beach huts, is to be reminded of the role structures such as this play in our national identity and heritage. We talk to the people who make it such a special place.
Mary and George Filby, pier devotees
George: Southwold is so peaceful, particularly on the pier. We’re getting on a bit now, and it’s very nice to start the day with a cup of coffee down here, before we do anything else. This café is so marvellous – the view is lovely and the staff couldn’t be kinder. Each day we rate the visibility by checking if we can see Sizewell or not. It’s very bright today – a good day!
Mary: Thirty years ago, there was nothing much here, but now the pier has really come to life. We have a daughter and two grandchildren, and every time they come home we bring them here. It’s so welcoming. I said to George that when we’ve gone, there ought to be a plaque saying ‘Mary and George loved it here’.





Jonny Riordan, fish fryer 
I’m from Essex originally, but I’ve been here 16 years and consider myself a proper Suffolkean now. I love the pier – it takes you back in time and it’s a great place to work. When I’m frying, people stand and watch me through the window.

There’s an art to it, depending on which fish you’re battering.  With plaice, you have to make sure it stays as flat as possible and flick the tail down. If it curls up, it won’t look right on the plate. Cod and haddock are simple to do. Dogfish has got a spine, so you need to keep the bone on top.

The atmosphere can be full-on, but there’s no point getting stressed. After my shift, I go for a drink, or a walk along the beach. I’m an old man in a young man’s body: I get more pleasure speaking to a retired fisherman than I do speaking to someone my own age who thinks he knows everything. This place is perfect for me.


Derek Wentworth, window cleaner
I was born in Southwold 67 years ago. You used to walk down the street, knock on a door, go in and have a cup of tea, but now there’s no local atmosphere. For a lot of the old people, the only time they meet a friend is when they come onto the pier. I worked here in 1968, when I used to drag a tea trolley to the fishermen – the pier was full of fishermen in those days. Now, I clean the windows and glass. It takes about three hours, and needs to be done every three or four days – more if there’s a south east or north east wind, when the salt and sand mark the glass. I love doing them. I’ve lived and worked near the sea my whole life, and you can’t beat being out in the fresh air.


Tim Hunkin, inventor
Ever since I was a child, I’ve made silly things that make people laugh. I’ve had a recurring fantasy about having an amusement arcade stocked with my own home-grown contraptions. I started on the pier with just five coin-operated machines in 2001 – including the Autofrisk and the Chiropodist – but decided to put my life savings into building more. 









Laurie Walker, amusement arcade assistant  
I live about seven miles away, but have been coming to Southwold with my friends and family for years. I used to play the machines in the arcade, but never thought I’d end up working here! It’s a lot better now. There are fewer slot machines, and it’s become more family-friendly. My job involves paying out change, selling buckets and spades, and looking after the machines. I don’t get to see much of the sun, but it’s nice to walk up and down the pier now and again, when I get a break.

Now there are 21, ranging from the Bathyscape, in which you ‘dive’ to the seabed, the Booth of Truth automatic fortune teller, and the addictive Cyclepong – a sort of hybrid Ping-Pong. Visitors love them, and I like being on the pier, keeping them going. I can go and see people chuckling at my handiwork whenever I want.


Vince Lamb, fisherman
Southwold has changed in the past 20 years. A lot of Londoners are buying up homes, and there’s not such a sense of community as there used to be. When you walk down the streets at night in winter, it’s pitch black. I come up to the pier to go fishing all year round. I normally fish right at the end because it can get so busy.

In summer you get a lot of sole and bass; in the winter, it’s mostly cod and whiting. You can’t beat it, fresh from the sea. Our angling club has a key so we can get on when the pier is shut. At night, the fish feel more secure and come in closer. It’s nice – there’s nobody else around.





Geoffrey Munn author, broadcaster and Southwold local
The first time I came to Southwold was about 25 years ago. First, we had a beach hut; then we managed to buy a small house. Southwold is a very nostalgic place and the pier fits perfectly. When it was first developed, I dreaded it because I thought it would turn the whole place into a bad-taste seaside town. Happily, that’s been avoided thanks to the scale of the pier and Tim Hunkin’s extraordinary Under the Pier Show. Imaginative and slightly surreal, it’s in keeping with Southwold’s artistic past; the town was always a magnet for artists and musicians. I’m delighted that the pier has worked in Southwold’s favour.





Katherine Barney, ceramicist
I make hand-painted ceramics and sell them on the pier. I love the whiteness of the wood and the sculptures. It’s quirky – not your traditional pier – so it fits my work perfectly. I’m also an ale lover, and the beer from the Adnams brewery round the corner is absolutely fantastic.









Stephen and Antonia Bournes, owners
Stephen: We bought the pier seven years ago. Since then, it has been our job to develop it, realise its potential and match it to what Southwold’s all about – family and quality. It’s been hard work, but our work/life balance is a lot better now. My favourite spot is sitting in one of the little windbreak booths with a glass of rosé, feeling the sun on my face.

Antonia: At 7am, it’s magical, perfectly quiet. The sun rises at the end of the pier like a big ball of gold coming over the horizon. It’s incredibly relaxing – you can see visitors visibly unwinding as they walk on the boards. Even if it’s just for an hour, they go back to being children again.


Lotty Barbour, farmer
We farm at Cratfield, about 14 miles away, and we come here to do the farmer’s market on the fourth Saturday of every month. It’s probably the most unique place to host a farmer’s market in the UK. Both locals and tourists come – the more people we can tell about local produce, the better.

We’ve got pork, lamb and beef; there are French-style tarts and pastries, local fish, locally grown vegetables, honey, preserves, chutneys and cakes. You don’t always appreciate what’s right on your doorstep, do you? The pier is lovely. I just wish I had more time to come down and enjoy it.

A closer look: peering at piers Bone up on our coastal icons

* Britain’s first pier was built in Ryde, on the Isle of Wight, in 1814. It was designed purely as a working pier, so that ferries could dock without having to come right up to the shore.
* Pleasure piers became popular in the Victorian era, when railway expansion made days by the sea an option for city dwellers. Having come all that way, they wanted to see the sea, which wasn’t always guaranteed at low tide. Piers allowed them to walk out over the water.
* The longest pier in the UK can be found at Southend-on-Sea, in Essex. It extends more than 2km out into the North Sea. Britain’s shortest pier is situated at Burnham-on-Sea in Somerset.
* Built in 1869 from iron sleepers left over from Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Western Railway, Clevedon pier in Somerset is the country’s only intact Grade I-listed pier. The only other pier to hold this status is Brighton’s West Pier, which is now largely in ruins.
* There are 55 pleasure piers around the UK. The 36 ‘lost’ piers – those destroyed by fire or storms – include former seaside icons like Scarborough North, Dover Promenade and Aldeburgh.
For more information on Britain’s piers, contact the National Piers Society. 01325 318317 
Feature Bridget Ward

Photographs Sylvaine Poitau 

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