The Helensburgh Pier is a stone-built pier with a timber extension. It has suffered over many years from a lack of purpose, resulting in a minimum of maintenance and funding of repairs. The timber extension has noticeably deteriorated and has now reached the stage that a “Notice to Mariners” has been issued prohibiting its use to maritime traffic. The only previous use of the pier was made by infrequent small boat usage and notably the Waverley during its annual summer sailing schedule in the Clyde, which has currently ceased. The pier generated no income, but the town benefited economically from the Waverley passenger traffic.
Matters have come to a head with the construction of a new multi-million-pound swimming pool in close proximity to the pier. The absurdity of placing such an investment adjacent to a derelict eyesore is inescapable and reflects badly on the town image for visitors. Argyll & Bute Council has invested in a number of technical studies of the pier in the past two years which now give a better understanding of the condition of the pier and what may be possible to correct the current deterioration.
Helensburgh Pier is a prominent feature on the seafront and esplanade area of the town. It stands as a visual and historic maritime link between Helensburgh and Greenock, Gourock and also Dunoon.
It has a close historical association with the former Provost of Helensburgh, engineer Henry Bell, who, in 1812, invented and built The Comet, the first sea-going paddle steamer in Europe. The history of the pier itself began in 1816 when Bell is recorded as building the first pier in Helensburgh in order to bring customers to his Baths Hotel in the town. The Comet ran the first commercial passenger paddle steamer route from Glasgow to Helensburgh.
The pier mainly dates from 1859 when it was designed by William Spence. The timber extension was added to the south end in 1871. The pier is overall 250 metres long. The use of timber piling to form marine structures has a long history in Scotland. Once commonplace, these structures are now a rare building type. The structural design of the timber section was purposefully over-engineered to withstand the severe storms along this particular stretch of coast.
Helensburgh Pier is of interest mainly for its rarity as a surviving 19th century stone and timber former steamer pier, and for its historical association with Henry Bell. Of around 60 piers of various sizes along the Clyde, less than ten now survive. The pier was listed as a C-Grade structure by Historic Environment Scotland in 2019.
Analysis of Reports and Studies
Salient Points in chronological order:
- Arch Henderson – Reference A
Mainly photographs of damage/decay
Masonry pier is 221 metres long, 8.5 m wide generally in good condition
Timber pier is 20m wide 37m long with deteriorating timbers
232sq m of timber pier have been isolated for public safety
- Bmtrada – Reference B
Timber piles on south-east corner have significant cross-grain fractures as a result of heavy regular impact damage. Majority of inspected piles around the perimeter were in sound condition. Expectation that tropical hardwood piles will last a further minimum of 15 years of life. Fungal decay was present in the majority of softwood deck joists and have come to the end of their service life.
- Tritonia Scientific Ltd – Reference C
Fire damage, missing and misaligned rafters. Most of the piles structurally sound. The underside and topside of the pier structure were largely intact.
- Argyll and Bute Council Report on the structural assessment of Helensburgh Pier – Reference D
A slow accumulation of decay and fire damage has resulted in serious degradation of the timber structure. Vessel berthing only permitted after strengthening work has been completed.
For some time, the Helensburgh Community Council has been developing a ‘Vision for Helensburgh’ which seeks to energise the waterfront area, stimulate tourism and attract visitors. Included in this examination is capitalizing on the potential benefits that our proximity to the sea can provide. In this context, the future of the pier assumes much greater importance and relevance than its non-functional status at the moment.
Inaction on the problem is not an option. The reports and surveys on the timber pier are unanimous on its damage and its weakened state and the prevailing weather will continue to add to its inevitable destruction if nothing is done. On a positive note, the expert view is that repairs can be successfully achieved but at a cost. The logic of spending a great deal of money on a feature that will provide no return income is difficult to justify. However, if a longer view is taken of future economic and social possibilities the future of the pier becomes more coherent.
Recently, Transport Scotland publicly mooted the consideration of a ferry link from Helensburgh to Gourock. This gave added impetus and support to the even more recently signed Rural Growth Deal which laid heavy emphasis on tourism and the need to open Argyll & Bute coasts and waters for the maritime leisure market.
The historic nature of the pier also cannot be discounted. Its association with Henry Bell and within the historical context of such piers in Scotland places an onus of responsibility on this generation to preserve such history for future generations. Financial considerations become of secondary importance if priority is given to matters such as this.
From the available data, three options were drawn up:
A. Minor repairs to the existing timber pier (excluding the fire-damaged section) and allow pedestrian access only.
B. Major repairs to the existing timber pier (including the fire-damaged section)
C. Monolithic piles with fendering system and access gangway (excluding major repairs to the timber structure)
Options B and C were both calculated to allow the berthing of the Waverley to continue.
The cost estimates were calculated in early 2019.
Option A – £62,186.54
Option B – £844,284.58
Option C – £576,912.00
The 10-year investment plan of the Argyll & Bute Council Harbour Board indicates no funding allocation for Helensburgh Pier up to the year 2029/30.
Inevitably the subject of funding lies at the source of any consideration of a decision on this matter. Helensburgh Pier has no source of income, exacerbated by being currently banned from maritime use. However, Helensburgh town centre benefited economically from the visits of the Waverley in the past, as passengers came and went on board.
For perfectly understandable economic reasons Helensburgh Pier has suffered from benign neglect in past years. A ‘make do and mend’ approach has kept investment and maintenance costs at a low level, commensurate with Health & Safety requirements. It would therefore seem not unreasonable to redress this lack of historic investment by repairing the pier to a functioning entity.
The economic possibilities opened up by Transport Scotland allied to the aims and ambitions of the Rural Growth Deal signed by Argyll & Bute Council are self-evident from the strong emphasis of both on future investment in tourism particularly the maritime leisure market where people can gain access to boat excursions and water leisure sports. Helensburgh Pier could become a focus of such activity if the necessary investment in repair was undertaken. A functioning pier could also lend itself to overnight marina possibilities, maritime traffic and tourism and an increased visitor footfall to the town.
- There are only two options; one is to repair the timber pier, the other is to remove it and leave the stone pier in situ.
- Based on both Transport Scotland and the Rural Growth Deal future projections, there is potentially a good economic case for the repair of the pier.
- A fully restored pier will be of economic benefit to the Helensburgh & Lomond community.
Standing still and doing nothing while the timber pier deteriorates to destruction is not an option, nor is fudging any repair. The pier should be repaired back to operational soundness and sources of funding should be identified as a matter of urgency.
At its February meeting (Thursday 25 February 2021) the Helensburgh Community Council agreed in principle to support the full repair of the timber pier.