I was away on holiday when the Pier caught alight in 2008. Suddenly my phone went mad, with calls from everyone from my Mum to David Cameron’s office. I spoke to Kerry Michael, who was on his way home from Portugal, and agreed to meet him at the site the next day.
The wreckage was still smoking when we got there. The sight of huge steel girders melted into a giant bowl of spaghetti showed how incredibly hot and destructive the fire had been. Weirdly, a lot of the Pier’s wooden decking had survived, often only inches from the fire, because of the blow-torch updraft which the fire had created.
Everyone was devastated for the Michael family who owned the Pier. It had been a lifelong dream for Kerry to own it, after it gave him his first holiday job selling icecream and candyfloss as a schoolboy.
But the potential impact on Weston looked even worse. If the Grand Pier was left to wither and die like Birnbeck round the corner, we’d have a rotting eyesore smack in the middle of Weston Bay. The consequences for a seaside town would be awful; we needed to act fast.
Fortunately, Kerry and Michelle Michael weren’t hanging around. The very next day, Kerry stood in front of the wreckage and promised to rebuild the Pier again.
The problem was, everyone from English Heritage to North Somerset Council and the Environment Agency had a finger in the pie, and thought they ought to have a say. For the next year, on and off, the most important thing was persuading well-meaning bureaucracies to get out of the way so Kerry and Michelle’s teams weren’t held up.
And, bless every last one of them, they did. One of the best moments of my time as Weston’s MP came a bit more than a year later, when I got to re-open the newly-rebuilt Pier. There were people queuing along the seafront and, when we cut the ribbon, we were nearly trampled in the rush.
Oddly, the fire seemed to galvanised the rest of Weston too. Since then, the town’s economic rebirth has gone from strength to strength. Some pieces of the jigsaw were already in place, of course; Weston College’s plans for enormous growth and a huge increase in local skill levels to attract new employers had been started years before when I was still one of its Governors. But the magic seemed to spread from there. The first glimpses of a solid plan for Dolphin Square trickled through a year later. Pier Square and the seafront promenade have been rebuilt and improved hugely. The Junction 21 Enterprise Area was announced, and millions were invested to increase motorway capacity and improve train services so people have alternatives to their cars, cutting jams around ‘malfunction junction’.
And then there was Banksy. We’d already saved the Tropicana from demolition, but it took one of Bristol’s most famous and enigmatic sons to show us what the former open-air pool could become, and put Weston on the international cultural map.
It was all done in tremendous secret. Almost no-one knew what was being planned until, amazingly, the news broke and the world’s media descended on us. Suddenly, the people getting off Saturday morning trains weren’t Weston’s traditional visitors; families with buckets and spades heading for the beach. They were metropolitan, metrosexual aesthetes wearing skinny black clothing and clutching exotic kinds of coffee. They stood out like sore thumbs, and we were absolutely delighted to see every last one of them.
Fast-forward to today and Weston is still living up to its ‘Ever Forward’ motto. You can spend days getting lost in the Grand Pier’s rides and arcade machines, or the Seaquarium, or playing Pirate Adventure Crazy Golf, or simply sunbathing and eating ice cream on the beach. Or there’s loads of events like the Air Festival, or the Beer and Cider Festival.
But, increasingly, the new Weston isn’t only somewhere for visitors to come and have fun. It’s a place to invest and work in too. The number of people commuting into Weston each day, from nearby villages and towns, is climbing steadily as we become an economic hub in our own right, rather than just a dormitory for Bristol.
And, at the centre of it all, the rejuvenated Pier has settled in to the seafront and bay nicely. It’s a new friend and, while it’s far from our only attraction, it’s still an important beacon; a ‘must see’ location that people come back to year after year. Like Weston itself, it’s a phoenix that’s risen from the ashes. And, equally importantly, it’s got a state-of-the-art fire sprinkler system too!