If you’re not familiar with the West Country, there are two seaside resorts of note on the English side of the Bristol Channel; Weston-super-Mare and Clevedon.
If Weston is the noisy lively teenager, all arcades-kiss-me-quick-candyfloss-and-donkey rides on the sand, Clevedon, the seaside town just to the north, is it’s restrained decorous maiden aunt.
It always seemed thus to us anyway. With two boys and a dog to amuse Weston-super-Mare was the favourite. Ten pin bowling, a visit to the nearest amusement arcade for Outrun, Sega rally or a shoot-em-up game, an air hockey tournament on the end of the pier and then a long leisurely stroll along the beach to Uphill while chucking a frisbee about and trying not to let the dog run off and bury it.
In comparison, the boys found Clevedon boring. We’d park up next to the flat grassy recreation area behind the sea wall and they might look briefly at the small traditional kids playground, we’d have a dog walk up the path over the cliff but that was about it.
Walking in the opposite direction there was a section of rock optimistically described as the beach and a view of the wrecked pier – dilapidated and abandoned since disaster struck during load-testing in l970 when the two end spans buckled and collapsed into the sea.
Every time we visited Clevedon, we gazed out at the forlorn wreckage of the pier and wondered why someone wasn’t renovating it. My mother had spoken of cross-channel voyages on the Waverley paddle steamer and landings at Clevedon. She knew how to live, our mam.
So when I revisited Clevedon recently, it was a lovely surprise to find that not only has the sad little pier been fully restored, it is in fact a Celebrated Pier; the only intact Grade I listed pier in the country. It’s both a credit to the Victorians and the pride of Clevedon.
The surroundings had also been refreshed considerably with stylish iron railings and a variety of bars and restaurants with sitting out space, continental style, from which to watch the sunset over the low hills of Wales. Ahem. No such luck the day I was there but I should imagine, at the height of summer, with a cocktail to hand, it could be very pleasant.
Even on a chilly grey day, the pier is a construction of rare elegance and beauty, with slim graceful arches stretching out into the Bristol Channel towards Penarth and a pretty little iron and glass construction (cafe upstairs) perched at the end plus sheltered seating areas. Its eight spans were made from rails surplus to Brunel’s requirements which he built the South Wales railway.
It was also the first pier built on mathematical principles to cope with, remarkably, the second highest tide range in the world.
While I only discovered it a few weeks ago, the world is about to discover it as it’s featured in “Never Let Me Go” the film of Kashuo Ishiguro’s excellent book which is on general release.
The film crew had long gone when I was there. Walking along the plain boarded walkway, most of the wooden planks beneath my feet were sponsored and the barriers either side are studded with brass plaques from all those who have contributed to the restoration. Many of them are in memory of someone passed on, others are tributes to the living, there are marriage proposals and among all the others, a rather larger plaque marked Griff Rhys Jones.
With a windchill factor of minus 2, the fishermen lining both sides of the pier hoping to catch codling and sea bass were muffled up in several coats each and equipped with flasks and refreshments.
Meanwhile down the “beach” (yes they do call it that. Perhaps there is a smidgeon of sand right up against the esplanade wall that I didn’t notice) three hardy souls – two men and a woman, were trudging, dripping, out of the freezing, brown Bristol channel. Yes, it was Saturday the 29th January 2011 and the men wore Speedos.
There must be a tradition in Clevedon for swimming all the year round. There is also a tradition for swimming long distances – right across the Bristol Channel and back in some cases. The youngest and fastest person to swim the Bristol Channel from Penarth to Clevedon was a 17 year old, Gary Carpenter in five hours 35 minutes in 2007.
Another plaque on the pier commemorates Steve Price’s first ever nonstop Clevedon to Penarth return swim – a distance of 30 miles – in 15 hours 43 minutes and 17 seconds on 2 September 1994.
I do hope they were both sponsored. Looking at the colour of the channel water and feeling the keen bite of the winter breeze, I think every penny was well deserved.