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North Wales: candyfloss drift

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For the first time in ages, I got the early train from Ormskirk. A dawn flit, slightly mazed with little sleep, hurtling towards some gonzo geography. I could actually have gone later as the online timetable had given me a substantial block of time to get the Chester train. So I went in search of coffee, negotiating Liverpool Central by an unusual route that took me outside via some gravelly Zen gardens, delivering me to the shop with the blissful utility of an automated Costa machine. Then, two train rides got me to Bangor by just after 9.30am. It was a Monday in August, and I was taking leave I had booked, though it still felt like playing hooky (UK: bunking off) somehow.

Bangor is another place I have never been to. I didn’t like it. On a grey morning out of termtime, the streets seemed spattered and shabby. A 100-year-old university building dominated the skyline, a glowering fusion of castle, cathedral and college. In the shopping centre, bright M&S graphics seemed, in an obvious way, incongruous.

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I walked down towards the pier, seeing for the first time the official brown-sign icon for ‘pier’:

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Then there it was – oriental onion-domes gleaming in a brief break in the cloud. Interesting to think of this pleasure-seeking projection into the sea, and the huge house of knowledge on the hill, had appeared within a twenty-year timespan – education and tourism changing the town irrevocably.

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Bangor Garth Pier

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No-one was collecting money, and none of the kiosks was open on a Monday. I promenaded to the end with a few fellow strollers in the immense quiet of the Menai Straits.

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Along the way I saw many memorials, to people, pets, and ships.

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Stretches of railing, kiosks and the tea room were all In Memory, with hundreds of functional etched inscriptions and some DIY additions.

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Brighton’s West Pier was once described by Patrick Hamilton as a ‘sex-battleship’; using a similar analogy, this pier could be a ‘death-freighter’. This is perhaps not the impression desired by the local tourist authority, but that’s how it worked for me, as a wandering misery-guts/hedonist on a diffident mission. In my personal gazetteer, it is a quiet home for Angels of Death.

Beaumaris Pier

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Next on the agenda was Beaumaris. This required a short bus journey, crossing the Menai Straits on to Anglesey. By contrast with Bangor’s pier-mausoleum, Beaumaris seemed like a monument to life. In the throes of redevelopment, the pier was nevertheless busy with anglers and visitors. A circus had been here until the previous day, and there were still posters around for the ‘ALL-HUMAN SPECTACULAR’.

And back on the bus, glimpsing Bangor pier from the vantage-point of the bridge, and a lovely piece of unlicensed University branding on a takeaway shop sign.

I now had two piers under my belt, both achieved in a morning. Together with Llandudno, I had walked on all of the working piers of North Wales. I decided not to call it a day, but to break my return journey at Colwyn Bay. It turns out that one can still do this with the return half of a ticket – even the automated barriers seem to understand.

Colwyn Bay Pier

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Colwyn Bay pier has been closed for a while, its history an unhappy one including a hunger strike and accusations of corruption. This pier seems to be in limbo, clearly decaying and with no clarity as to who owns it.

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And yet it offers the eternal promise of the walk towards the horizon, of play and comfort. Like most piers, it has a long history of adaptation and change – Pavilions burning; the Dixieland Showbar, where the Damned once played, becoming a disco; the whole thing becoming a ruin. Hopefully it still has enough life left in it to evolve into something else.
I took what pictures I could, unable to walk on it or even under it – the beach was fenced off, and in fact a panel had fallen from the pier days before, making the news.

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Apparently there are Eric Ravilious murals inside the pier pavilion. I could not see these, but a few minutes later I was admiring a mural painted on the space where the screen would have been in the nearby Princess Cinema, now converted by the J D Wetherspoon chain to the Picture House pub.

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A news screen glimmered beneath the mural, relaying soundless news of riots unfolding in London. While I roamed the coast archly observing transformations effected by tourism, regeneration and the Wetherspoon corporation, currents of protest, greed and violence were transforming city centres in other ways. Over the coming hours and days, many of us would find our concepts of the city and ‘England’ pulled apart, requiring reconfiguration and repair. Lens flare in the video capture of burning cars and buildings formed shifting areas of white-out on the TV, cutting through the special gloom of an afternoon drinking session. A subtitle saying ‘let’s get more on the Eurozone crisis’ had jammed on the screen, making a collage-connection with larger forces. It was still there when I finished my pint and left.

Rhyl: site of former pier

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It was still quite early, so I stopped off again in Rhyl, idly fancying the completion of a set. The town is seeking to regenerate its way out of high unemployment, with a new college, a funfair and the ‘Drift Park development’ all underway; invoking education and fun (‘more things to do than you can shake a stick of candyfloss at!’) as tactics, an all-human defence against the days and nights of running and shouting, the smoke of burning tyres, the unravelling.

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The pier had been demolished in the 1970s, but I visited its site anyway, an imagined line into the sea projecting from a stretch of sandy beach. Black clouds were moving swiftly, so that rain and sunshine alternated by the minute. A recorded voice from the Seaquarium spoke of the ‘cold depths of the abyss’. Fine sand blew in over the beach, toward the promenade and the town.

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That’s all. Here, you can look at all the pictures if you wish.

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