Grand old pier still serving the Isle of Wight community
Ryde has been accepted for many years as the ‘gateway’ to the Isle of Wight. So it is fitting that the town’s majestic pier, which helps transport thousands of passengers to and from the Island, and is steeped in so much history, played such an integral role in the town’s development.
Ryde Pier may not have the penny arcades, kiss-me-quick hats, and entertainments that can still be found on some other piers scattered across the UK. But it does have the distinction of being accepted as the country’s oldest pier, and the second longest, beaten only by Southend, which is a mighty 1.34 miles in length.
The grand old pier in Ryde celebrated its 200th birthday in July, 2014 with a ‘Party on the Pier’, but it was back in 1812 that an Act of Parliament was passed to allow its construction. It was designed by John Kent of Southampton, with the foundation stone laid the following year. The pier soon provided a vital link between the Island and the mainland, because before it was constructed the only means of reaching Ryde by sea was to get off a boat before it became grounded, and come ashore on the back of a porter. Depending on the tide, that often meant a long haul of up to half a mile across wet sand to reach the beach.
Before its first pier was constructed Ryde was somewhat isolated, less popular than it might have been because of difficult access. But once the pier was opened, the town took on the mantle of ‘gateway’ to the Island, becoming a desirable location, and continuing to develop into the thriving community that it is today.
Built solely of wood, Ryde’s original pier stretched 576 yards into the Solent, before being extended in 1833 to an overall length to 745 yards . But work did not end there, with a second ‘tramway pier’ opened in 1864, enabling horse-drawn carriages to transport passengers two and from the pier head to the Esplanade, and then through the town to connect with the original station at Ryde St John’s Road.
A further big operation was completed 16 years later with the opening of a third pier, this time giving trippers a steam railway link to the pier head. This pier considerably enhanced the ferry-train connections on the Island, and although that put the tramway pier under threat of redundancy, it somehow temporarily survived, but has not operated since 1969. From 1886 to 1927 the trams were powered by electricity from a third rail, and from then until 1969 were petrol-powered.
Meanwhile, the pier continued to be a vital link between the mainland and the Island, and it was given a much-needed concrete ‘facelift’ in the 1930s. During the Second World War it was used for military purposes, after various modifications. After the War ended, the Ryde to Portsmouth ferry service became more and more important to the Island, and by the 1960s queues often formed right along the whole length of the pier on some Saturday nights!
The Concert Pavilion on the pier was at the centre of the narrative in Philip Norman’s book, Babycham Night; the author’s family ran the venue when it was known as the Seagull Ballroom in the 1950s, and his relatives produced the eponymous champagne perry. The pavilion was later demolished, but a few of the rotting piles are still visible around the edge of an extended car parking area constructed in 2010.
The pier was hit by a wayward ship in 1974, and two years later in 1976 – the year of that long, hot summer – Ryde Pier became a Grade II listed building. As more cars took to Island roads, it finally became possible to drive along the pier, with car parking on the large pier head.
In the early 1980s a modern waiting area, including some of the original buildings, replaced the original Victorian waiting rooms at the pier-head. Further modifications were made in 2009, including provision of a conservatory-style refreshment area with views towards Ryde.
Vehicles continued to be driven along the wooden planks without too many hitches until August, 2010, when the pier was suddenly closed to all vehicles after it failed to pass a safety inspection.
Although it remained open to pedestrians, who were able to walk along temporary decking on the old tramway pier during structural repairs, no vehicles were allowed back on until March, 2011.
A couple of months after the full re-opening, the lighting columns on the Promenade Pier were fitted with Victorian-style brackets and lanterns. To help offset the cost of the vital £5million structural project, a toll charge of £1 for vehicles was introduced along with a height and weight restriction. A 10mph speed restriction also came into force, with average speed cameras installed at regular intervals to ensure law-breakers paid the penalty!
Ryde also had the Victoria Pier for a few years. It stood a few hundred yards to the east of the original one, opening in 1864. But as it was much shorter it could not be used in all tides. So in 1875 the ferry service ceased and Victoria Pier became a pleasure pier only, with public baths at the ‘wet end’ and a swimming platform at the ‘dry end’.
However, it fell into disrepair and because it was later considered a hazard, its demolition was authorised by Act of Parliament during the First World War. Within a few years it had disappeared completely, with not a single trace remaining.