The best of Dorset in words and pictures

A day in the life of Swanage Pier

Joël Lacey talks to the people who work, rest and play on Swanage’s Victorian pier, which needs £900,000 of funding to safeguard its future

816EdSwanage_1_Panormama

Three different refuse-collecting vehicles buzz around outside the entrance to Swanage’s pier before it opens for business on a misty late-spring weekday morning. A fourth Swanage town council vehicle drops off a smart new sign (showing the extent of the 5 mph limit in the bay) to the joint Piermaster, Andy, who also takes in a parcel from the postman. Andy then starts the extensive process of putting out sandwich boards for trips, cruises and parking, and changing the high and low tide times on the blackboard on the gate. When he has finished, the pier is officially open for the day.
On the north side of the pier, the fishing charter vessel, San Gina II, chugs rhythmically, while on the pier there is the sound of insults being traded, good-natured moaning about who is carrying what and money changing hands that can only mean a group of close friends are heading out for a day’s sea fishing. The group has come from Weymouth, Sydling, Piddletrenthide and Dorchester to go searching for turbot and brill. A brief conversation about the weather ensues before the volume and weight of tackle boxes and cool boxes being loaded onto the (pier-provided) trolley becomes the main bone of contention and mock-tempers flare again before the trolley gets underway and they all make their way to board.
There is more banging as the Land and Wave instructor is getting the kayaks down and into the water, ready for a school party to paddle around the area to the north-east of the pier. The kids are late, an hour late, but there is no impatience – they have obviously already re-calibrated themselves for Swanage time. And it is not just a sense of time that slips away near the pier; one volunteer recalls being asked by someone in a car if this was where they should board the Sandbanks Ferry.
Out in the bay, there’s a Dutch tall ship silently slipping away in the mist. The day before, when two passenger ships were trying to moor on the same part of the pier at the same time, Moonfleet (which is normally berthed on the south-east side of the pier) slipped out to join its companion-under-sail while the passengers were disgorged onto the pier. Back in its proper place, the day begins with breakfast aboard Moonfleet. Afterwards, skipper and owner Jez Hallett is downstairs talking rugby union with an old friend while ‘Scrummage’, Jez’s black lab, makes friends with everyone.

Moonfleet berthed in its usual position on the pier. The orange boat beyond is Spike of Divers Down.

Moonfleet berthed in its usual position on the pier. The orange boat beyond is Spike of Divers Down.

This is Moonfleet’s first full season at Swanage Pier and Jez and first mate Brian will take up to twelve people out at a time to dip a metaphorical toe in the water of tall ships sailing. Jez was originally going to be based at Weymouth, but when he was looking at the charts with the Harbourmaster there with a view to discovering where he might wish to sail Moonfleet, he saw Swanage and decided to pop along the coast to see it. He was immediately convinced of its merits and started operations in August last year. ‘I like the fact that Swanage is a place you go to, not pass through,’ says Jez, ‘and it’s a friendly town’. Scrummage’s head settles firmly in my lap as if to confirm the point.

Jez, Scrummage and Brian of the Moonfleet

Jez, Scrummage and Brian of the Moonfleet

Elsewhere on the pier, there is the hissing sound of the divers’ tanks being prepared for a dive at what is the UK’s oldest dive school, Divers Down. Two years shy of its 60th birthday, it has been owned and operated by Pete Williams for ten years. Swanage Pier is all at once the centre of operations for the business, the location of a museum of the artefacts from various wrecks nearby and the place where many people take their first dive (under the pier). ‘There’s parking right here and divers, with all their gear, can just bowl up, get their tanks filled and be ready to dive,’ says Pete. Swanage’s location, in particular its proximity to the World War 1 wreck, Kyarra, makes it a great place from which to dive. Dive boats are dependent on the tides for their schedules, and low tide is quite late today, so it is a less brutal than usual start to the day for Pete.

ust a few of the thousands of items that have been brought up from the troop ship Kyarra, one of the most popular diving wrecks off the Jurassic Coast

ust a few of the thousands of items that have been brought up from the troop ship Kyarra, one of the most popular diving wrecks off the Jurassic Coast

At the front gate, Artem Bondarenko of City Cruises Poole – the company that offers trips to Swanage from Poole and vice versa, as well as combination trips with the Swanage Steam Railway and buses in Bournemouth – has begun a day’s vigil in the booth. His day will be a largely low-tempo one until about fifteen to twenty minutes before the boats sail, at which point snaking queues of people, who have made up their minds that the weather will be good enough for them to see what they want to see, urgently need to buy their tickets. He helpfully explains the return time (and writes it on the reverse of the return ticket) for those wishing to go on a day trip to Poole. Artem believes that the pier is essential to Swanage: ‘Swanage is a Victorian seaside town, and an important reason for that is the pier. It just wouldn’t be the same town without it.’
In the pier’s museum and coffee shop, Lilian and Colin Bowyer are using the café’s swanky coffee machine. They have been volunteering here for five years and for the Swanage Pier Trust for seven, but Colin’s connection goes back much, much further: ‘I first came here at the age of five in 1949. I was fishing on my own off the pier when I managed to put a fish hook through my finger and had to go to Swanage hospital.’
Also in the coffee shop is a gentleman who is complaining at the 90p strolling charge he has paid to come onto the pier. This is an argument that started at the front gate and seems unlikely to end here. This objection to a tiny entrance fee demonstrates the difficulty facing the Pier Trust: that some people expect there to be a pier in a seaside town for their pleasure, but they also expect someone else to pay for it.

Artem Bondarenko prepares for the mid-morning rush hour of passengers for the cruise boats

Artem Bondarenko prepares for the mid-morning rush hour of passengers for the cruise boats

Back at the front gate, Piermaster Andy points to a number written on a whiteboard. The number is 10,396, and that is the number of sponsored plaques that have been installed so far onto the pier. Once, a plaque was for life, but now so many have been installed that there is a real chance that there will be no room for new ones at some point. They are now fitted for 25 years and their cost, including a vital contribution to pier restoration and repair, is £100.
The chief executive of Swanage Pier Trust (SPT), Ben Adeney, has spent this entire day in meetings about the Trust’s Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) bid and the pier restoration project. Although some local people think the trust has already been awarded £800,000 of lottery money, that grant is dependent on SPT being able to raise the other £900,000 of the £1.7m project cost, and by November 2016.

The wooden piles are under constant attack by gribbles

The wooden piles are under constant attack by gribbles

Currently, 41 of the 180-odd supports are critically in need of attention to ensure that the pier can physically survive, but the project is about more than that, it is also to improve the facilities on the pier to ensure that the pier is financially viable in future. ‘In terms of the project,’ says Ben, ‘the SPT spends something in the region of £175,000 every time it does major works and unfortunately the pier has got to the stage where that’s unsustainable in the long term, because the number of piles we have to replace outstrips the amount of money we have.’
The ultimate aim of the project is to get the pier into tip-top condition, but the trust is also keen to make the most of Marine Villas – the Grade II listed building on the pier – to incorporate an educational facility and to provide an up-to-date café. ‘The one thing we desperately need to get across to the world is that this pier is run by a charity and we are entirely dependent on entry fees to make ends meet,’ admits Ben. ‘My aim is to create something that’s up to date and provides people with an experience on the inside that’s on a par with what they would expect to see elsewhere in the country. We want to create an aquarium in Marine Villas. We’re planning to put some glass sections in the floor and get a real picture of the history of the building, which still has the saltwater baths underneath that were fed by the tides.’

Marine Villas, the Victorian terrace that will, should the funds be forthcoming, add even more to the experience of visiting Swanage Pier

Marine Villas, the Victorian terrace that will, should the funds be forthcoming, add even more to the experience of visiting Swanage Pier

The Victorian pier may be 120 years old this year, but it is clear that its guardians have no intention of letting it turn into stumps like its predecessor, but are determined to ensure that it is still here 120 years from now.

To find out more about helping to save Swanage’s Victorian Pier, visit www.swanagepiertrust.com
The Purbeck Pirate Festival – in aid of pier trust funds – runs from 29-31 July. More details at www.facebook.com/purbeckpiratefestival

Dorset Directory