Pier pressure

AS A Scottish east coast resort named after an 18th-century sea battle in the West Indies, perhaps there was always something of the invented about Portobello. Edinburgh's maritime suburb may be long past its glory days as a hugely popular seaside resort, but it is making an imaginative bid to reinvent itself yet again by rebuilding its once famous and long-defunct pier - or rather, to enlist Lottery funding to create a state-of-the-art pier for the 21st century.

If it comes to pass - and it's a big "if", the pier, unlike its Victorian predecessor, demolished in 1917, won't be so much a seaside-postcard assembly of what-the-butler-saw-machines and brass bands, as an uncompromisingly contemporary structure which would not only act as a catalyst in the regeneration of an already changing community, but would provide a high-tech interpretive centre and iconic "gateway" to the natural environment of the Firth of Forth.

Earlier this month, Portobello's community-based arts trust, Big Things on the Beach (BTOTB), submitted an application to the Lottery's Living Landmarks fund, which offers major grants to encourage the transformation and revitalisation of communities. The application envisages construction of "an iconic, multi-purpose structure which will act as a major signifier of the Forth estuary region, as a gateway to a significant part of Scotland's marine environment for residents and visitors to Edinburgh and as a focus of regeneration for the coastal township of Portobello". Much more than a leisure attraction, the pier would feasibly house agencies concerned with the sustainable development - social, economic and environmental - of the Firth of Forth, as well as educational facilities relating to the surrounding underwater and shoreline environment. It could also be an embarkation point for waterborne tours, and a focus for related artistic and other cultural activity.

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Such an expansive vision would involve massive capital expenditure, says Damien Killeen OBE, chairman of BTOTB, which has estimated the project costs at almost 24 million, covering design to completion, plus three years' operational costs. "The Living Landmarks programme offers grants of between 10 million and 25 million, representing 75 per cent of the capital costs of a proposed project; so the smallest project they will consider will cost 12.5m and the largest 31.25m. We decided to put in a proposal somewhere between these two figures because we are only estimating at this stage and want to leave room for a potential increase in costs if we win the opportunity of submitting a full application in the second stage of the process. Whatever the final capital cost, we will have to find 25 per cent from sources other than the Lottery."

That would still leaves a tidy five or six million pounds for BTOTB to raise from public and private or corporate bodies and from the public, part of it, feasibly, through public subscription, which, Killeen agrees is "a pretty tall order", but not impossible. Killeen and co have christened the project Re-a-Pier - one of the few dissenting voices insisted on calling it "disappear", he laughs. But the last thing he and BTOTB want is to create a multi-million pound white elephant. He believes the plan has much grassroots support, as well as that of local politicians, who attended a weekend of public meetings entitled "Imagine Portobello", held by BTOTB last autumn.

In a way, the idea of a recreated pier had been in the air, albeit in a nebulous form, for many years, either as a lingering "ghost" of the old one, or an unlikely possibility for the future. Coincidentally, for last year's 6,000 Miles coastline-orientated exhibition in Glasgow's Lighthouse design centre, the Musselburgh architectural practice of Wiszniewski Thomson produced a speculative design for a new pier off the neglected west end of the beach as a starting point for regeneration. "As part of a notional master plan for lighting and gardens for Portobello, it was quite abstract," says Honor Thomson, a partner in the practice. "But it envisaged an elegant structure with the latest lighting technology and possibly a winter garden, and maybe incorporating pontoons where small boats and canoes could be moored."

When the general idea of a pier was raised at the public meeting, recalls Killeen, "we found we'd tapped into very strong feelings. After all, the idea of a pier is iconic for this area. There are quite a number of people who'd be happy if the old Victorian one just re-appeared. But we felt that wasn't consistent with either the kind of public art involvement we have or with the terms of the Lottery programme, which is looking for contemporary, cutting-edge design."

We're talking in the front room of Killeen's home on Portobello Promenade, the windows of which give an expansive view across the metallic glimmer of the Firth and to Fife. Flying colourfully from a nearby groyne on the beach is one of a series of "windsocks" erected by artists Euan Harvey and Malcolm Hosie along the shore, in a BTOTB initiative.

The view has been pierless, one might say, since 1917, when the Victorian pier was demolished. Some 1,250ft long, with a pavilion at its end, it was built in 1871 by Thomas Bouch, who would later gain notoriety as designer of the ill-starred Tay bridge.

Today, as any estate agent will tell you, "Porty", along with the adjoining suburb of Joppa, is evolving from a faded resort into a desirable residential area, although it seems to be doing so without the overt polarisation of the community seen in the "yuppification" of Leith, just along the coast. Some local professionals, says Killeen, are taking an interest in BTOTB's proposals, "so some of the people who have begun to shape this vision are also people who have an understanding of the practical realities needed to achieve it.

"So, starting from a community base, we've made a proposal that we think could possibly stand up, although we can't yet fill in the boxes on the form saying where the additional millions are going to come from. But, we're working on the principle that 'without vision, the people perish,' " he chuckles.

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The shoreline beyond Killeen's window has seen innumerable changes since the 1740s, when, the story goes, a sailor named George Hamilton built a cottage roughly where Portobello's imposing Edwardian town hall now stands. He had fought in the Battle of Puerto Bello, off the coast of Panama, during the British-Spanish conflict known as the War of Jenkins' Ear and, accordingly, named his new home after the battle. Before that, the area was known as the Figgate Whins, a desolate heath of bad reputation, with the nearest buildings those of the salt pans and coal mines at Joppa. Portobello Hut became a coach staging post, and Hamilton held horseraces there.

The discovery of rich clay seams meant that by the end of the 18th century a vigorous pottery and glass industry had developed, while the expansion of Leith docks prompted the newly fashionable pastime of sea bathing to move eastwards to Portobello's expansive beach, already popular for military reviews as well as horse racing (Sir Walter Scott galloped on the sands while exercising with the Edinburgh Light Horse in anticipation of a possible Napoleonic invasion).

By the early 19th century, apart from its industrial population, the town had become popular with retiring and holidaying gentry and the officer classes. By the turn of the 20th century, the flourishing burgh had amalgamated with Edinburgh, and sprouted its famous pier, the Marine Gardens and funfair. Postcards reeking with sepia-tinged nostalgia portray populous summer beaches, while in 1936 the town's famous open-air pool - Europe's first to boast a wave-making machine - was opened by a Lord Provost who was, for his pains, soaked by the celebrated wave generator.

Following the advent of the package holiday, however, Portobello went the way of its Clyde counterparts, while an increasingly sewage-polluted Firth of Forth gave rise to off-colour jokes - "is that man swimming or is he just going through the motions?"

Today, more sophisticated sewage-treatment measures and water purification legislation has resulted in the shore meeting European Union water cleanliness standards, although the pier, the Marine Gardens and the crowds have passed into local history.

The BTOTB's lottery submission suggests that, historically, the Firth of Forth and many communities fringing it have become "a marine backyard, mainly ignored in relation to investment in the urban hinterland, used for dumping waste of all kinds and largely unrecognised for its great natural beauty". In recent years, says Killeen, this has started to change. He points to the "Waterfront Vision" being promoted by the City of Edinburgh, as well as the ten-mile "Boardwalk" which the city council plans to run from Cramond in the west to the easterly fringes of Portobello and Joppa. And he cites a study by Forward Scotland, the charity which promotes sustainable development, which described the beach as "Portobello's greatest and least-developed asset".

Says Killeen, recalling the heady days of that wave-making pool and the Marine Gardens, "we should think of Portobello as a place where exciting things have happened in the past, and where exciting things could happen again". In the 1820s, Christopher North's Noctes Ambrosianae described an episode in which his (partly) fictional cronies, the Shepherd and Tickler, take a post-chaise to the newly fashionable resort of "Portobelly" and go skinny-dipping, scandalising a pleasure boat "full o' ladies". Tickler remarks: "This Portobello is really a wonderful place!"

Those anxious for Portobello's once famous landmark to "Re-a-Pier" clearly think so too. But will the Lottery agree with them?

For further details, visit www.bigthingsonthebeach.org.uk