The story of Cromer’s greatest seaside treasure
- Credit: Archant
Ian Collins tells the story of much-loved Cromer Pier.
East Anglian treasures: In the latest of our occasional series, IAN COLLINS looks at Cromer Pier.
In the 1960s summers of my childhood I always went to Cromer for the day, with my grandparents by train from Wroxham. The journey was blissful, the destination bittersweet.
We'd lunch at the Hotel de Paris – Lord Suffield's former holiday home turned Victorian grand hotel by then in freefall from splendour.
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While the view was still to die for, the lunch was nearly lethal.
First I was presented with a lobster, whose claws overhung the plate. Then one of those 'dressed' (distressed) crabs – caught in pots on offshore banks from April to September and, for the adult me, the true treasure of Cromer.
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But it seemed then a strange and sickening place which served entire carcases of prehistoric marine monsters instead of the battered fingers of fish alone.
After lunch (with most of mine in my pockets) grandma and I made for the pier, while grandpa had a secret appointment with a book-maker. Having never seen him wield a pen, I was surprised by his
sudden interest in writing.
Later I learned the meeting was actually with his turf accountant. Another mystery, for he hated gardening.
The pier was the world of the Donald McGill postcard, with fat ladies trapped in deckchairs or shrieking as playful breezes blew their dresses over their heads in mock tributes to Marilyn Monroe.
Once gran laughed so hard her necklace unhooked and slithered like a sea-snake through a hole in the pier planking, never to be seen again. Through that same gap I'd been dropping gobs of crab and lobster.
By the mid-1970s I'd visited all 10 of East Anglia's surviving piers, from Hunstanton to Clacton, including the then sad little stump of Southwold. But Cromer was – is – my peerless attraction. It weathers all weathers and every passing fashion.
In the 1860s and 1870s, as Britain lost its traditional hydrophobia and sent trippers to the seaside, via factory and bank holiday acts and spreading railways, the country averaged nearly two new piers a year. They offered the novelty of walking above the water and a range of sedate entertainment.
Cromer had a workaday pier as early as 1391, with the last of several wooden jetties lost in 1897. By then such a stylish bathing resort – patronised by the infant Winston Churchill and the ancient Lord Tennyson, plus Austria's Empress Elizabeth and Germany's Kaiser Willem II – had long needed an elegant place to
The gala opening of the new pier, on June 8 1901, saw a comic contest between the two railway companies then serving the north Norfolk town. The Great Eastern brought dignitaries from London; the Midland and Great Northern added VIPs from as far afield as Birmingham and Bradford.
The Blue Viennese Band played in an open bandstand converted into a pavilion four years later for seasons of concert parties. Between the wars the Cromer Protection Commission scoured our coasts for shows to poach.
Like most piers, Cromer was sectioned from 1939, with planks removed to sabotage possible Nazi landings.
Cromer resumed its jolly end-of-the-pier shows when peace returned, where similar sites failed to recover. The Great Gale of 1953 demolished the pavilion and wrecked the pier, but the variety show was back in place two summers later.
In 1978 Seaside Special was formed in the Pavilion Theatre with impresario Richard Condon, and seven
years on the last of the traditional summer revues was celebrated in a Forty Minutes BBC documentary. It seemed an advance wake for an institution sure to succumb to the inevitable tide of changing taste.
By then a storm had washed away much of Hunstanton Pier, Great Yarmouth's Britannia Pier had recovered from fire, while the Wellington Pier – home to Torquay's Winter Gardens since 1903 – was shortly to resist the threat of demolition.
Lowestoft struggled to keep South and Claremont piers afloat – the latter on sale for £2.8m in 2006. Felixstowe, Walton and Clacton piers clung on, though minus their miniature rail or tramways, having earlier lost the Belle steamers which brought holidaying Londoners to East coast resorts as far as Yarmouth.
In 2001 Southwold proudly relaunched a revamped pier – the first to be built in England for 50 years and instantly a huge attraction.
Meanwhile, in Cromer, the show must – and does – go on.