The proud history of Hunstanton’s pleasure pier

With a rich history dating back to 1870, Hunstanton’s pier was the epitome of 19th century architecture, helping to put the seaside town on the map

Hunstanton is one of Norfolk’s shining seaside gems, enjoyed by locals and tourists all year round. Its popularity as a pleasure destination didn’t really begin until 1845, when nobleman, local landowner and entrepreneur Henry le Strange set out to realise his grand vision for turning the town into a quintessential seaside resort. His ambitious dream led to the development of Hunstanton as we know it today. 

Centred around the prominent triangle green, with a slope down towards the bracing sea, Hunstanton is characterised by its Victorian Gothic Revival architecture. Many of the town’s striking original buildings are still standing proud today. One of the first to appear was the Grade II listed New Inn in 1848, designed by renowned Victorian architect William Butterfield. It’s now called The Golden Lion Hotel and, along with other archetypal structures such as the Town Hall, it serves as a reminder of Hunstanton’s Victorian heritage. 

The real jewel in the town’s crown was the pier, the perfect finishing touch to a vibrant Victorian seaside resort. Designed by J.W Wilson, the historic Hunstanton pier opened on Easter Sunday in 1870 and was a staggering 830 feet long.

In its day it was regarded as the finest Victorian pier in the East of England

“In its day it was regarded as the finest Victorian pier in the East of England,” says John Maiden, a member of Hunstanton Society, Hunstanton Heritage Centre and Hunstanton Heritage Pier Community Trust. “Though it is sadly no longer there, its memory lives on in the residents of our town and we will continue to do our best to preserve the past.”

When it was first built, the lengthy pier provided Victorians with breathtaking west-facing views and an opportunity to enjoy the invigorating sea air, with benches running the full expanse of the structure. Later a ‘handsome and commodious pavilion’ (as described by the National Piers Society) was added to the seaward end, but this was unfortunately destroyed by a fire on 11th June 1939 and was not replaced.

“When the pier first opened, rent was set up at just £1 a year,” says John. “This was paid to the le Strange estate, who were landlords of the landmark until 1955. Under the rules of the covenants and conditions set out in the 999-year lease, the pier was only allowed to have an entrance building adjoining the green.” 

It remained that way for some time and the pleasure pier enjoyed a time of prosperity. It was enhanced with a number of beloved attractions such as a miniature steam railway, which ran the length of the pier until it was dismantled in the 1950s. The pier also housed a skating rink and a small zoo at the seaward end after World War II, where many happy memories were made. The pier even made an appearance in the 1957 film ‘Barnacle Bill’. Later at the shoreward end, an arcade and café were opened and subsequently replaced by a two-storey amusement building in 1964. However, the good times came to an end after the pier suffered a series of unfortunate events. 

The first was a bad storm on 11th January 1978, which destroyed most of the pier. Only the amusements were left behind, but they were eventually damaged by a devastating fire in 2002. Nothing but a shell remained. The Hunstanton Pier Family Entertainment Centre takes its place on the coastline, and though it is often locally referred to as ‘The Pier’, it has no connection with the original structure. 

Since then, local advocates like John have remained passionate about preserving the memory of the pier and bringing about its resurrection. “When the previous amusements burnt down in 2002, there were a number of us who felt it was the perfect opportunity to bring the pier back to life,” says John. “I presented the case at a Hunstanton Civic Society meeting, where I argued that it would be a fitting way to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee. Then in 2006, John Selby (who was West Norfolk’s Conservation Officer) campaigned for a pier at a Local Business Seminar. Dedicated resident John Bridger felt the same, which led to the launch of the Hunstanton Heritage Pier Community Trust about seven years ago.”

Today, John and a crowd of staunch supporters continue to work towards a future where the pier might once again bless the shores of Hunstanton. In the meantime, the Hunstanton Heritage Centre will continue to preserve the area’s history as the town moves into its next chapter. To find out more about the pier and speak to one of Hunstanton’s local experts, you can visit the centre on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays between 2pm and 4pm. 

Hopefully, the proud history of Hunstanton’s pleasure pier will live on. It may be gone, but the seaside town’s crowning jewel has never been forgotten. 

PICTURES: © Hunstanton Heritage Centre

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