Trust your piers

9th August 1996 at 01:00
They are rarer than they used to be, but the Brenner family is hoping a year of celebration will change all that.

Teignmouth has all the ingredients of a Victorian seaside resort. This being Devon, they include cream teas, pasties and a generous helping of smuggling folklore. But there are also fishermen's cottages, a promenade, a ferry across the estuary and (no resort's complete without one) a pier.

Teignmouth Grand Pier has jutted proudly from this coast for 131 years. It's a link between land and sea and one of a dwindling number of such constructions - only about half the piers built in the heyday of Victorian engineering remain.

But Teignmouth is not the genteel resort of old. "It's a shame," says Lucie Brenner, as she surveys the hotel which dominates the shabbily elegant seafront and has lain derelict for ten years.

Lucie and her family - Dad Anthony, Mum Elizabeth and brother Nik - run Teignmouth pier. Lucie joined the family business three years ago after working in the National Health Service for six years. Now she wouldn't swap her job for all the tea in Tenerife.

"I've worked on the pier on and off since I was 13. And I love every minute of it - it's not like anything else."

A sudden shower sends sodden holidaymakers running for the shelter of the pier's arcade. The chinking, chiming machines are among the few bright things on a day like this and the occasional, well-timed downpour can be good for business. And business could be better.

In a changing commercial climate, the Brenners are finding it harder to keep their heads above water. The latest video games costing Pounds 15,000 are beyond them and it's hard to compete with theme parks.

Weatherwise, the English Riviera rarely lives up to its name. Indeed, things haven't improved much since the poet John Keats took his consumptive brother Tom to recuperate in the resort. "Sadly," the local guidebook records, "they arrived during a prolonged spell of bad weather which did little to endear the town to them."

Nevertheless, the Brenners are gearing up for an influx of families to their self-styled "seaside fun spot" as the school holidays begin. "These six weeks make all the difference," says Anthony. "They are the reason for our existence. It's when about 80 per cent of our business is done."

Anthony left school at 15 and abandoned plans to become a lawyer in favour of a life over the ocean waves with his father. "He worked 14 hours a day, seven days a week, from Whitsun until the second week in September. He just worked all the hours God sent and that's the work ethic I inherited."

Anthony's grandfather was "a bit of an inventor", devising an early version of the jukebox and a fortune-telling machine, which he installed at resorts around the country. Anthony's father used to criss-cross the country by motorbike, servicing the machines and collecting the proceeds. Then, after running several concessions on Teignmouth Pier, he bought it in the early 60s.

The pier once boasted a landing stage and ballroom, but structural damage forced the demolition of both. Anthony has fond memories of talent nights and tea dances but doesn't think they would pull in the crowds. "People can't dance these days," he laments.

The pier has mainly withstood the ravages of changing holiday habits and the weather - but not without incident. The great storm of 1987 lifted a children's play area from its moorings, scattering 6,000 multicoloured plastic balls into the sea.

"The kids had a whale of a time collecting them," says Elizabeth, who helps with the office work and book-keeping. She sums up the appeal of piers as "nostalgia, ice cream and holidays. Everybody remembers going on a pier sometime in their life."

This is the Year of the Pier, a joint effort between pier proprietors to raise the profile of these traditional attractions. Anthony Brenner is chairman and chief advocate of their charms. "The object is to raise public awareness of piers but also to remind those local authorities in whose resorts piers stand that they are an asset rather than a liability. There are not a lot left and we should be going out of our way to help them."

But the main enemy these days is the National Lottery. "It's taken away 10 per cent of our business. The day scratchcards were introduced, our takings dropped dramatically and they stayed down," says Anthony.

"The cafe's doing well and the driving and shooting games are always popular. People think we are making a fortune but we have been standing still for six years or more.

"Running a pier embraces so many different trades - there's electrical and mechanical engineering, flooring, glazing, roofing, everything. But it's not all bad. We still make a nice living but we are working harder and harder for it."

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