After 6 months in a 5th floor gym, it's novel to be down not only at street level but also at sea level (my last gym was at 2625m, before you even hiked the stairs up to the fitness suite). My new gym has something else going for it too - an uninterrupted view of the beach and St Annes Pier. And on a sunny September day, there can't be many places in the UK that boast a better sight.
St Annes Pier was opened in the 1880s, some 100 years before I moved to the town. It originally jutted 277m out to sea, though the way St Annes is built, the water is only near the shore for two short periods a day, and the rest of the time the Pier is over the sand. The Pier still boasts some of the original Victorian wrought iron work and from a distance it looks quite attractive - recent first-time visitors I took out for a day cooed and gushed over it as soon as it came into sight. Currently painted in green and white it stands out against the backdrop of the sand and sky, and it's only as you approach that you notice something slightly amiss. The pier ends, there's a stretch of empty sand and then there's another derelict structure at a right angle to the main pier. This used to be part of it - back in the days when the Pier had the theatre that there seems to be an unwritten rule that all piers are required to have - but in the 70s and then again in the 80s two major fires destroyed the theatre and a good chunk of the boardwalk, meaning the remaining Pier still there today ends almost 100m shorter than it once did. I was explaining this to our visitors when a couple on the Pier overhead me and asked if it were true. Indeed, I said, not adding that I had a Brownie Local History badge that evidenced my knowledge of such matters...
When we say we're going to the Pier now, we mean we're off to the amusement arcade. Though the ones on Blackpool seafront are hideously noisy, hideously bright and often packed with hideous people, there's something a little different about the one on the Pier. Perhaps it's its location, not really on dry land, that makes it a little special. Perhaps it's the fact they've not sold out and installed only 20p and 50p machines. With free entrance it's a remarkably affordable excursion and we regularly went as children, saving up our 2 pence pieces in a special pot, ready for the next trip (because to collect 2ps is much more special than simply to get change on the Pier). If you don't live here or as not as prepared, there are both manned change kiosks and change machines available, giving 2ps and 10ps as these are the coins most commonly needed. Playing 2ps is ace, not only because you get 5 times the number of goes for your money as playing with 10ps, but because the odds are the same. There are some games that have both 2p and 10p versions (like penny drops) but also many that only come in a 2p option, like the horse racing (go with the red or blue....NEVER the white), the roulette (ditto), a skittles game and a 'get 'em between the lines' roll. Sadly my favourite game, sort of animal heads-bodies-and-legs, is no longer there, but they still have a surprising number of 2p games. Get £1 worth and that's 50 goes, even if you then save your winnings (slightly discouraged on the Pier which doesn't offer free plastic coin pots like the Pleasure Beach does, you can get round this by allocating one pocket so spend, and one to save). We went this past Sunday and spent maybe half an hour trying to spend £1 between two of us - and towards the end I just kept winning no matter how hard I tried not to, no matter how hard I tried to 'use up' my coins. There's not much you can get anywhere, and especially not in St Annes, that costs only £1 an hour, and if you restrain yourself (or your children) it can be a cheap and fun trip out.
They have bigger machines too, of course, but never being allowed to touch them as a kid, they don't appeal to me now. The day before I went to Sierra Leone, we went for a walk as it was sunny and ended up at the Pier, trying one of those sit-in simulator rides for the first time. Fittingly, it was about being in an African jungle and shooting bad guys, but given my lack of skill it only lasted a few seconds, so that was a £1 perhaps less well spent.
There is a new (to me) Over 18s area for the hardcore, and most machines have little stickers on talking about Gambling Addiction, but that's not something I would personally associate with the Pier. I always knew that when the money was gone, it was gone, and when I was old enough to go to pubs I never glanced twice at the fruit machines stuck in the corner. I like the machines you can sort of work out a little - no matter how fun, the 2p animal match up was still random, but the horse races can be predicted to a certain extent, and I play the penny drops with the skilled hand of someone who grew up here. You can always spot the tourists - they just stick in the coins all willy-nilly without any attempt to catch the sliding plates at the right time...
The amusement arcade is the first thing you arrive in on the Pier - no doubt someone realised that making you walk through it to get to the other end will convince 4 out of 5 visitors to try their luck with even just 2p or 4p. Beyond the slots there is an open area that currently has children's dodgems. There are lots of rides for children just beyond this - the sort you find, or found, outside supermarkets and in shopping centres. The attractions change a little from season to season - they had 10 pin bowling for a few summers when I was a teen, and used to have ride-on egg machines too (a ride AND an egg? What's not to love?!)
Along the sides of the Pier from just a few meters past the entrance, there are quasi-balconies that you can get out onto (weather permitting) and on Sunday when it was super hot several were occupied by people who had found, or brought along, chairs and who were enjoying views of the beach. They're not very big though they do give nice views, but our aim is always the far bit of the Pier. This is an open air boardwalk that heads out to the (current) end of the Pier and has lots of benches to sit down and enjoy the sea breezes, as there's no shelter here at all. The slats you walk over are quite close together but still have those delicious gaps to look down, especially nice when the sea is in and the water laps underneath. At the end you have a good view of the burnt bit, some meters away, but you can't get down from the Pier at this end (unless you hurled yourself off it) so if you want to explore the base of the wrecked bit - perfectly safe at low tide - you need to go back to the entrance and down the steps onto the beach.
The Pier has had a cafe for as long as I can remember, though this has changed name and menu over the years. It currently looks, for want of a better word, rather British and has a menu to match (not overly expensive....not overly vegetarian either). This has entrances from inside and outside the Pier, and is to the right as you enter. To the left before you enter there is a decent shop that sells souvenirs and beach toys and snacks and drinks including Rock (this is Blackpool-adjacent). I took our visitors and what they bought for 99p we saw for £1.99 (exactly the same item) in the Lake District the following day). To the left of this shop is an ice cream place that does both flavoured scoops (not that common for here) and Whippy 99s, including those with sauce blended in. Seeing as 99s no longer cost 99p, I'm going to need extras like that to keep me satisfied.
Inside the Pier, about halfway along (after the slots, before the dodgems) there are two shops that have been there forever. Or rather, two shop fronts. One is currently a tarot card reader, though he's rarely there (perhaps he read his cards and they told him to get a proper job Monday to Friday, and just con gullible tourists on the weekends). The other looks like a shop at the moment but is also never open, so I'm not sure how you'd go about getting one of those Meercats they're displaying oh so proudly in the window.
St Annes Pier is located one street over from the Square (which isn't square, but just the main high street). Its land base is the promenade, of course, and it's near all the local attractions like the little train and trampolines, and the swimming pool and promenade gardens. You get different views depending on how you approach - from the Square you first see the red mock-Tudor entrance, the large sign the only hint of what stretches out behind it. Inside, the Pier is bright from both the windows and the illuminated machines. It is a place of remarkable contrasts, with the games areas loud (buzzing punters, pinging machines) but the outside end peaceful and often quite empty (since it's closed during bad weather, I think some people assume it is closed more often than it is, so don't bother seeing if the doors are open). It is quieter out of season, but isn't open as much then, though weekends are a safe bet. There have always been signs inside saying that children aren't permitted mid-week during term time unless they can provide evidence that they are not supposed to be in school, though not having gone to the kind of school where people skived, I can't comment on how well this is enforced.
My opinion would be that the Pier is a fun way to enjoy the beach without the risk of getting sandy. For somewhere with no entrance fee, there are quite a few things on offer, but if you're visiting the Fylde for the first time and fancy stopping here with young children, do be aware that the first thing that will hit you are the slots, and you have to walk through an awful lot of them to get to the other things on offer. That said, it is a much more family set-up that the 3 Piers in Blackpool, and simpler too - I like that you win money rather than tokens you need to faff around changing, and I honestly don't miss having a theatre given the rubbish that is put on in the ones in Blackpool.
Opening times vary depending on the time of year - it shuts at 4pm in winter, but is open until 10pm in July and August, though I'd say all my visits have been between 1pm and 4pm over the last 25+ years. We have been known to go on weekends in mid summer, and on bank holidays, and though the visitor numbers swell a little, it's never outrageously, unbearably packed.
Facilities included toilets and car and coach parking. Most of the Pier is suitable for those with limited mobility.