Grandad and The Pier

“It’s the people’s pier!” declares Grandad Biff. “It’s got to survive. We’re going to do it!”

It was a call to arms that spearheaded a community-driven campaign that led to the restoration of the iconic Isle of Man landmark and a major part of its heritage:  the Queen’s Pier at Ramsey in the north of the island.

This ‘beautiful, charming, cinematic documentary’ by Reuben Armstrong follows Tom Durrant, aka Biff and his fellow volunteers as they seek to bring life back to the pier.

It’s a film that many people in Clevedon will be able to connect to as it bears similarities to our own town’s saving of a beloved pier, and the values that underpin the project are very much in line with the values that motivated those who fought for the Clevedon Pier restoration and indeed the Curzon Cinema.

Grandad and the Pier is showing for one night only at the Curzon on Sunday 8th October at 7.30 p.m. followed by a Q&A with Director Reuben Armstrong and Phil Curme and Tom Vaughan from Clevedon Pier & Heritage Trust.

The film was produced by Reuben and Jamie and they were supported by Culture Vannin and The Watershed

Reuben is a director and animator working across branded content, documentary film, promos and event visuals. His films have appeared in film festivals around the world, and he has worked for clients such as Nike, Channel 4, BBC, The Guardian & the United Nations. And Tom is his grandad.

Jamie is an award-winning filmmaker, director of photography and colourist. His creative curiosity has seen him work across commercials, documentaries, promos, short films, and music videos.

Their work has won a Vimeo Staff Pick, a Royal Television Society award and has been screened at film festivals internationally, including the BAFTA-qualifying Aesthetica Short Film Festival.

To everyone’s delight, the film is being shown at The Architecture Film Festival in Rotterdam as part of their upcoming programme:

‘Moving film about a passionate and tireless man who uses his charm and persuasiveness to win over people in his battle to preserve for posterity a landmark cast-iron pier on the Isle of Man. Filmed by his grandson, it is also a gripping account of a community campaigning for the survival of heritage that is rooted in everybody’s personal history: the 130-year-old pier constitutes the memory of the island. Grandad & The Pier is a wonderful ode to life and to the power of the collective.’

So how did it come about?

Reuben told me that Tom was stationed in Jurby Airfield in the North of the Island as a younger man, and that is when he met his grandma in the 1950s. His experience of Ramsey was in the 50s and 60s when Ramsey would have been in its heyday. His grandad then moved off the island but later returned to the southwest of the island before settling in the north, back near Ramsey, in the 2010s.

Tom would have noticed that the town was dramatically different, and he quickly cottoned on to the idea that the pier was the issue as the town’s focal point. It was, after all, a 2,142 ft (more than twice the length of Clevedon Pier) derelict, decaying, domineering structure jutting out into the sea. A reminder of the transience of human endeavours and the inevitability of decay.

Can you grieve for a pier? Yes, if your childhood memories are of a once vibrant, bustling area where memories were made, laughter was shared, and dreams were realised. In 2008, I was teaching languages in a school in Weston-super-Mare, and I was preparing a welcome lesson for the French Assistante at the end of September with my year 7 group. As they were new language learners, a lot of the conversation was in English. There had been a fire on the Weston-super-Mare Pier in July, and the Assistante arrived in mid-September. During the lesson, one of the boys asked me if he should tell her about the fire and as he started to tell the story, he became tearful. There was total silence in the room; no one laughed. It was very moving.

As I write this, it reminds me of all the wonderful memories that were shared about Clevedon Pier in 2019 at the time of the 150th anniversary. One of those teenage rock and rollers who used to love the covered dancehall is a family friend.

Can you grieve for a pier?  Yes, if you are ambitious and care about the next generation and the legacy that you leave. Ramsey, Clevedon and Weston are communities that care deeply about the next generation. Tom and his team believe that restoration of the pier will encourage revival in the north of the island and refuse to let it be demolished.

Can you grieve for a pier? Yes, if you see it as a symbol of a happier bygone era and a loss of history and heritage.

For those unfamiliar with the history of the Queen’s Pier, the designer was Sir John Coode, who was knighted for his work as chief engineer for the building of Portland deep water harbour in Dorset for the Royal Navy. He went on to design many harbours around the world, such as Brisbane and Sydney harbours. He later became president of The Royal Society of Civil Engineers, and one of his achievements was to design Ramsey Pier. He has been described as probably the most distinguished harbour engineer of the nineteenth century and is largely responsible for opening up trade routes between England, Europe and many other countries.

The Pier was built in the great age of pier building in seaside resorts, which saw approximately a hundred piers eventually built.  By the time it was finished in 1885, about fifty piers had already been put up on the English coast, including our own Clevedon Pier, which was officially opened on Easter Monday, 29th March 1869.

It was built for the Isle of Man Harbour Board at the cost of £40,752 (about £4.3m in today’s terms) and was officially opened on 22nd July 1886, although it had already been in use for about one year whilst being finished.  Its primary purpose was as a low-water landing stage where ships could stop to let people get on and off or to load or unload goods.

The Pier was shut in 1990 after a massive fall in the number of people using it, increasing maintenance costs and safety concerns, notably wear on the wooden parts of the structure and corrosion in its girders. The Isle of Man government deliberated on repair options and costs, the pier was nearly demolished altogether had it not been for one vote in the Manx House of Keys, and yet still nothing was done for 25 years – until Tom posed the idea:

“We should start to do a bit of it!”’ and the Queen’s Pier Restoration Trust was set up to restore Ramsey’s Pier, to preserve its heritage and make it once again open to the public.

A very generous donation was made from the Friends of the Queen’s Pier, started by Michele Tramontana, who had carried out campaign work for many years before the establishment of the Trust.

This wonderful photo featuring Tom and Ramsey teenager Alfie holding up the padlock was taken on Sunday, May 1st 2016 when they unlocked the gates. It was an inspiration to Reuben, who recognised it as something special and decided to make the film.

He pitched the idea in a number of places but decided eventually that the best idea was to get over there,  and in 2018, Reuben, Jamie and Jim, the soundman, spent nine days on the island with the original idea of a short fifteen-minute film.

Captain Stuart McKenzie was appointed as the Project Manager and Chairman of the Trust, and the donated portacabin has been his home-from-home for the last six years.

What a project! A 135-year-old iron pier, one of the oldest in Europe, the sixth-longest in Britain at 0.4 miles (0.6km), featuring sixty bays each forty feet long, all needing repairs. It sounds daunting, and it is, but not to Tom and his fellow volunteers who have ignored the nay-sayers, galvanised their community and are currently working on bay number eight.

Reuben was overwhelmed by the grit and determination of Tom and his friends and was very keen to capture this in the film, ‘…….particularly because, I think, the older generations on film and TV aren’t necessarily always represented as being active and ambitious and taking risks, and these guys are completely challenging those stereotypes.’

Remember that everyone involved has been local volunteers, everyone from the fundraisers to the heavy crew who have worked free of charge. The heavy crane driver, the largest on the Isle of Man, comes to work on a Saturday on his day off! At the start of the work, they had neither electricity nor water. They had to build the construction site before they started work on the pier. I could hear the admiration in Reuben’s voice as he recounts the story.

The restoration team have adopted a modular approach, and Phase 1, the restoration of the first three bays, was completed in July 2021 and represented the work of around twenty volunteers and more than 15,000 hours of work. A BBC reporter at the ceremony to celebrate the completion of Phase 1 interviewed Mary Simkiss, who was secretary of the original Friends of Queen’s Pier Society for 20 years.  She said: “It’s just absolutely, emotionally fantastic. It now looks like part of the community again.”

COVID shut them down temporarily in 2020 and 2021, but happily, they got through it and raring to go, completed Phase 1 a year earlier than the government required!

Money from the government’s Dormant Assets Fund, which is managed by the Manx Lottery Trust, enabled the volunteers to buy the materials to complete bay four, which was the start of Phase 2. Additional funding for the next two bays was raised through sponsorships of planks and stanchions on each part of the pier and donations from private and corporate supporters. Phase 2 will not take as long as it is essentially a repeat of Phase 1, and the team have got faster.

The film follows Tom from his house near Ramsey, where he looks at old photos of the pier as well as detailed sketches and blueprints he’s collected, to him walking on to the first bays of the pier.

Reuben explained the structure of the film, which introduces us to a number of very interesting characters, such as painter and campaigner Michele Tramontana, who came to the island as a nineteen-year-old from Sicily who fell in love with a Manx girl and eventually took over the running of the Queen’s Pier Hotel in Ramsey. Michele contrasts the Ramsey he knew then and the Ramsey of today, and in terms of tourism, the two bear no resemblance.

Stuart, an experienced marine engineer and one of the project’s driving forces, figures largely among these characters. Stuart was appointed MBE for his “outstanding contribution to the Isle of Man community,’ which refers not only to his work on the pier restoration but his support of the government and local firms in developing the application of computers, before establishing the McKenzie Trust to help entrepreneurs.

Reuben also includes the fundraising team, a wonderful group of women who have raised the money to allow it to happen, which is no mean feat in the current economic climate with the soaring cost of raw materials, particularly iron!

The school in the film, Ramsey Grammar School, is the local secondary school and sixth form. Tom had been in previously to speak to sixth formers at the start of the pier restoration project and had run a workshop with them.

Reuben explained that he wanted to get across the idea of leaving something for future generations, which was so important to Tom and the team, and so he was keen to include a school workshop.

His uncle Nick Durrant, Tom’s son, ran a brilliant workshop session for 32 of the children, divided into 8 teams of 4. He framed the pier as this giant probe/access point/pathway to allow them to access “the life of the sea” in one direction and then look back and reflect on “the life of the town” in the other direction. They played them a taster of the film and then let them get creative with glue sticks, bricks, cocktail umbrellas, straws, Sellotape, Blu-Tack, etc! Reuben described it as an incredibly high-energy session and still one of his favourite moments of the film, filled with hope and possibilities. It was an inspirational response for Tom and his team.

I believe anything we can do as a community to bridge the generation gap is to be nurtured. It makes for a more inclusive, harmonious society that values diversity, promotes mutual respect, and can lead to greater innovation and creativity.

Grandad and the Pier is the story of one generation inspiring another. It’s the story of a strong, ambitious community deeply concerned for the youngest generation, and the restoration of the pier is tangible evidence of that concern.

For Reuben, the film has been: ‘……………a true labour of love and an emotional journey. An ode to my Grandad and his defiant community who refuse to be forgotten. I hope it connects with viewers on a human level around the world as this story is all about love, life, time, place and what we leave behind us when we’re gone.’

I can’t wait to see Grandad and the Pier, and having this extra information which you now have, should make it even more enjoyable and will hopefully encourage others to come along on Sunday. If you’re reading this from afar, these are the other screenings I know of:  2nd November – Club Scannán, Galway; 11th November – The Poly, Falmouth, Cornwall; 20th January 2024 – Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham; 21st January 2024 – Saltburn Arts, North Yorkshire.

Most screenings will have a Q&A with Director Reuben Armstrong to give an insight into the making of the film and the ongoing restoration project itself — and as Reuben lives nearby in Bristol, he said he was never going to miss Clevedon on 8th October!

Here’s the link to book:

About Curzon Cinema & Arts

Curzon Cinema & Arts has been at the centre of life in Clevedon, North Somerset, since 1912.

A charity run with support from volunteers, it is one of the UK’s few traditional, independent cinemas showing mainstream and art house films. The Grade 2 listed cinema has tremendous heritage value, locally, nationally and internationally.

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