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Ryde Piers, Isle of Wight, UK

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Ryde, on the north-east coast of the island, is the largest town on the Isle of Wight. Ryde was also the first town in Great Britain to have a pier, a pier that is unique in that it is really three piers - a promenade, tramway and railway pier - in one. Yet there was once another pier in Ryde - Victoria Pier - which is often neglected and forgotten. Both piers, though, have interesting histories.

Ryde Pier

The Promenade Pier

Traditionally, all ships travelling to Ryde have faced a problem. The Ryde sandbanks extend out to sea for almost a mile, meaning ships could only approach at high tide. In 1812, a group of Ryde's businessmen found a solution - building the first promenade pier in Great Britain.

In July 1812 the Act of Parliament allowing the pier to be built was passed, and in 1814 the pier was finished, at a length of 1740 feet. Ryde soon became a popular resort, and was the easiest way to get to the island as the pier was accessible at all tides. The first regular crossing from Ryde Pier started with the Britannia in 1817. Although 750 feet of the pier was damaged in a storm in 1818, the pier remained popular and the pier was expanded in 1824 to 2040 feet, and in 1827 the pier head was expanded to allow two steamers to berth at once, and small landing stages were built too. From the pier you could regularly travel to Portsmouth or Southampton, or take excursions to places such as Lymington, Bournemouth and Brighton.

By 1833 the pier was 2250 feet long and equipped with an 'octogan lamp' navigational aid, but in 1838 a brig crashed into the pier during a gale, destroying 50 feet of timber and piles.

In the 1830s and '40s, transport throughout the country improved with the first phase of railway building. Trains to Gosport in 1842 launched a Gosport to Ryde service, and when Albert Pier1 was built in Portsmouth, steamers could travel between Ryde and Portsmouth during any tide. Ryde Pier was popular not just for promenading, but was constantly busy with the flow of passengers arriving on day trips. The pier head was enlarged again between 1856 and 1860, and in August 1864 Ryde had its first railway station, Ryde St. John's, on the line to Shanklin. The main problem for the pier was that, at half a mile long, some form of transportation along the pier, to both the esplanade and town and also to the station, was needed.

The Tramway Pier

Originally the only way along the pier was to walk; the pier's timber decking was unsuitable for horse-drawn carriages. This walk was very long, and very unpleasant in bad weather. In 1864 it was decided that another pier would be built alongside Ryde Pier that would connect to Ryde Pier Head. This was the Ryde Tramway Pier, which opened on August 29, 1864, and at once made a large difference to people using the pier for the steamers. The trams went from the pier head to Ryde Esplanade, and to Ryde itself - even through the middle of a building called Holywell House. The trams were originally horse-drawn until 1885, when the line was electrified. This became one of the first electric railways in the world, earlier even than the London Underground.

Petrol-engine trams were introduced in 1927, which were then converted into diesels in 1959. The pier trams were in service until 1969, when they were withdrawn and dismantled. The pier has been unused since then, although there are now plans to either convert the pier into a pedestrian walkway, or even rebuild the tram lines.

The Railway Pier

In 1878 plans were drawn up to build a third pier in Ryde to connect with Ryde Pier Head. The plan was to build a railway pier that was co-financed by the London and South Western Railway Company and the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway Company from Ryde Pier Head to Ryde St. John's Road station. A tunnel was built at Ryde Esplanade leading to Ryde St. Johns, and after a cost of £250,000 the railway pier opened in July 1880, at half a mile long to the existing pier head.

In January 1881 some of the worst weather in island history struck Ryde. On January 18 the collier Havelock smashed into the pier, and on January 21 the John Warder also collided. Over 100 yards of the pier had to be replaced, yet after that the service ran smoothly, with a brief pause when the route was electrified between 1966 and 1967. Since 1966 old London Underground stock has been used on the line. Anyone who boards a train at Ryde Pier Head 2 can travel south as far as Shanklin.

Having the tramway and railway piers beside Ryde Pier made the pier even more popular, and in 1887 people petitioned for a pavilion at Ryde Pier Head, where music could be played and even more entertainment performed. By 1895 it was finished, and was an octagonal, domed, beautiful two-storey building containing reading and refreshments rooms, a concert hall and an upstairs sun lounge.

The pier, though, was not only further developed in the interests of comfort, but in the interests of safety also. In the 1870s a lifeboat station was built at the pier head which served until Bembridge's more effective motor lifeboat became operational at the Bembridge station in 1922.

Until 1969, paddle-steamers continued to call at Ryde Pier, after which more modern ships have served the Ryde-Portsmouth route. The pavilion was converted into a ballroom, and then a café, restaurant and roller-skating rink, and a pub (called The First and Last after either your first or last drink on the island). However, as crowds on the pier were unpredictable and irregular, the pavilion was closed and demolished in 1971.

In January 1979 the shipping section of British Railways became Sealink, which was privatised in 1984. In 1990 Sealink's Isle of Wight route was bought by Wightlink, who have owned the pier head and ferry route ever since. Ryde Pier remains three piers in one, and not only is it the oldest pier in Great Britain, it is the third longest, with only the piers at Southport and Southend longer3.

Victoria Pier

In Ryde, an unconnected pier, separate from the main Ryde Pier and 500 yards east of it, was begun in 1863. This was financed by the Stokes Bay Pier and Railway Company and was intended to link with the new Gosport ferry service from Stokes Bay. Although it was originally intended to make Victoria Pier the same length as the other piers, a shortage of funds meant that it ended up at only 970 feet long.

It opened in November 1864, yet could only be used by ferries at certain tides, despite an asphalt surface, which it was hoped would avoid the problems that the promenade pier suffered. In 1865, the pier was sold to the Ryde Pier Company, and when in 1875 the Stokes Bay Pier and Railway Company was bought by the London and South Western Railway, the ferry service to the pier ended.

Victoria Pier was then used as a bathing station, eliminating the need for bathing machines. Public baths were built at the pier head, and a free bathing stage at the shore end. Hot and cold ozone baths were also advertised, and from 1876 to 1900 they proved very popular. Sadly, after the end of the century, the bathing facilities fell into disuse, and an Act of Parliament of 1916 allowed its demolition. Nothing remains of it.

Blue Funnel FerriesWightlink FerriesIsland Line RailwayHovertravel
1It is now the site of the Portsmouth Harbour station.2Affectionately known as the 'Wet End' of Ryde Pier.3They, though, are single piers, and not three piers in one like Ryde.

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