Alec Marsh

The timeless appeal of Clacton Pier

Perhaps you’ll see Nigel Farage on the dodge’ems

  • From Spectator Life

You approach the pier at Clacton-on-Sea by passing under an elegant bridge, one which in Venice you would probably stop to admire. But this is Essex and the stonework is emblazoned with the town’s coat of arms and motto, Lux, salubritas et felicitas – light, health and happiness.

Here you can admire the turning blades of the 172-megawatt Gunfleet wind turbine array or the grey masses of distant container ships

Those familiar with this East Coast town will know that these qualities are in pretty short supply here – the constituency in which Nigel Farage hopes to be elected the next MP. Indeed, if George Orwell were chronicling Britain’s social failures today, this would be just the place to come. Clacton ranks in the country’s top 1 per cent of most deprived towns with only 51 per cent of the population deemed economically active, compared to an English average of 80 per cent. 

Yet for all that, Clacton still has its pier. Opened in 1871, ‘No. 1 North Sea’ is 1,180ft of Lux, salubritas et felicitas protruding from a town that money and time forgot. Besides the main entrance there’s a fish and chip shop – ‘cash only’– that is worth visiting in its own right. Here the whitebait and salad is a bargain at £7.95.

In the pavilion, electric singsong voices and tunes assail you from all around, as well as bright, flashing screens, shouting signs and chrome-rimmed machines all demanding your attention and small change. There are motorbike and car racing games, shoot ’em ups bristling with large plastic bazookas, basketball hoops to shoot and glass boxes filled with cheap stuffed toys waiting to be pinched to freedom – or not – just as they have been for decades. There’s even one of those Zoltar fortune teller machines – complete with eerie life-size mannequin – last seen in Tom Hanks’s 1988 film, Big

A sign tells you that the pier has been named best family attraction in Essex in 2024 (and, indeed, it was named ‘pier of the year’ in 2020 by the National Piers Society). Another sign exhorts you to ‘take your darts to the next level’ at the Boardwalk Bar and Grill, beyond a phalanx of chorusing fruit machines. If this hasn’t yet been visited by the Reform UK candidate then it’s only a matter of time. 

In the main hall, a Wacky Races-themed machine adorned with Penelope Pitstop and Dick Dastardly invites you to insert your two pence pieces in order to win more teetering coppers from the shifting shelves. From the ceiling above huge stuffed Disney characters hang by their necks in bunches, like the victims of a mass toyland gibbetting. It’s all very bright, clean and cheering, like an Ealing Comedy but in colour.

Feeling peckish? The presentable Captain’s Table cafe sells the sorts of delicious foods that scientists now warn are likely to cause early onset bowel cancer: pizzas, ‘fully loaded’ wraps, hot dogs and side dishes that include cheesy garlic pizza bread. 

Nearby, surrounded by towering palm trees, there’s a cracking crazy golf course with significant water features and an outdoor section with sea views that will keep children sated for an hour or more. At £6, it’s cheap at thrice the price. Next along is the towering, multi-level netted soft-play area – not for the faint-hearted, which has its own deep-fried family restaurant. Here your kids can get lost for hours for just £8 each (plus £1.50 for each adult) while you sink yourself with chips. What could be better?

I assure you, however, that the appeal of Clacton Pier has just begun. As well as Jurassic Pier (an ‘immersive dinosaur walkthrough and 4D experience’ which left by my four-year-old terrified out of his skin) there’s the fairground. Leave the pavilion and there it is: a rickety looking rollercoaster overlooking sea, and a socking great go-karting ring arranged over two levels. What wonders. There’s also a waltzer, of course, one with a jazzy paint job reminiscent of Top of the Pops c. 1985, as well as a plausible looking log-flume and a vertical ride decorated with pictures of bikini-clad ravers designed (I think) to give you whiplash. Even discounting for sad-looking ‘bumper boats’ stand in the corner – think chlorinated dodgems with outboards – this is an impressive line-up. And there’s a bloody great ferris wheel, too, of course.

Then you’ve got the helter-skelter for a Victorian expression of abandonment, as well as yards more of railway sleepers to tramp across before arriving at what was once the end-of-the-pier theatre. This is now mostly the Jolly Roger Restaurant, where the salt and pepper pots wait with bottles of vinegar on each table for ham, egg and chips at £9.95 – accompanied by a 180-degree-view of the North Sea. Here you can admire the turning blades of the 172-megawatt Gunfleet wind turbine array or the grey masses of distant container ships, and an estuarine seascape that, thanks to the mud, will always be brown no matter how blue the sky.

Looking towards shore you can see the glorious sandy beach going on for miles either way and the hillside dotted with hotels and mansion flats. Squint and it could be 1925. You might even see Poirot with a parasol. Somehow there are people are fishing for bass at the end of the pier. They’ll eat what they catch too. Clacton Pier caters to life’s small hedonisms – the universal joys of ingesting sugar and fat, and of games of chance and skill – as well as offering the proximity of the sea, where we all began.