Louise Slocombe lives in Wellington, New Zealand, city of shaky ground, challenging topography and amazing views. She has been known to write fiction and has had work published in The Yellow Room and Takahē Magazine, but these days she writes mostly non-fiction about nature, places and journeys and how we experience them. She is currently writing about birds, both living and extinct.
You come to a pier.
Let’s say you’ve been strolling along a beachfront, somewhere you’ve not been before. You’ve seen it from a distance, an indistinct line over shifting water, and it has caught your attention. Your step may have quickened ever so slightly as you got nearer. Without consciously realising it, you’ve made the pier into something to aim for. At the pier you will be able to make a decision of some kind—a decision about your stroll, or the rest of your day, or—who knows?—even the rest of your life. But this thought has not quite crystallised in your mind. It does not need to, not until you reach the pier.
And now you are here. The pier is long and straight, a timber boardwalk, the boards bleached grey by sun and salt. It extends out over the water, narrowing into the distance, its length regularly punctuated by lampposts.
You walk along it. Of course you do. You have to.
You step from the footpath onto the boards. At first, the pier runs across the beach. As you walk, you can look down over the railings onto the sand. But soon enough you reach the beginning of the sea, where the waves break onto the shore. There are scattered shells, and tangled clumps of seaweed caught up in the constant surge and pull of the foaming water. And there are gulls standing motionless, watching, on the smooth wet sand that in patches reflects the blue of the sky. And then you are walking out over the sea. You are aware of it swirling giddily beneath your feet through the gaps between the timbers. There might even be holes where the timber has rotted and you can glimpse the barnacle-encrusted piles down below, and you wonder—but only very briefly because it won’t stop you going to the end—just how safe this pier is.
As you progress along the length of the pier, you can look back towards the land that you are leaving behind, or across the water at the boats, if indeed there are any boats out there. But most of the time you are looking ahead to where you are going, fixated on that sensation of heading towards an end point, that might even become a sensation of watching your destination move towards you, becoming ever closer and ever clearer, as if you are a participant in a movie of your own life.
And so we are drawn to the end.
For a while I lived in Melbourne. On sunny weekends, I often went out to the beach-side suburb of Altona, in Melbourne’s west. Unlike most of Melbourne’s beach-side suburbs, Altona is not hip or flash, and I liked it there. I’d get fish and chips and eat them on the beach. At Altona, you can walk along the beachfront in either direction for as long as you like, passing in and out of the long shadows of the Norfolk Island pines that line the Esplanade, looking out over the beach where children play. If it is windy enough, there will be kitesurfers rising and falling above the waves and there are mudflats where oystercatchers loiter. But everyone walks along the pier. I never went to Altona when the pier wasn’t crowded with locals taking a stroll.
There are a lot of piers in Melbourne. The pier at St Kilda has penguins and an appealing little wooden café with big glass windows. This pier is always busy as well, but mostly with tourists, especially at dusk when the penguins appear. As piers go, it is not quite right. At the end of the pier is a curved rocky breakwater which is where the penguins live, but the end of the breakwater is blocked off with a metal fence. And so you turn back, thwarted, and rejoin the tourist throng looking for penguins among the rocks.
Port Melbourne, just up from St Kilda, has more piers. There’s Lagoon Pier, a narrow boardwalk with elegant lampposts, which fishhooks around at the end. Just up from Lagoon Pier there used to be Railway Pier, but that is lost and gone forever, demolished to make way for the busy Station Pier (the largest timber-piled structure in Australia, no less), used by cruise ships and the Spirit of Tasmania ferry. You can mooch around at the end of Station Pier and check out the information boards that tell you about the history of the pier and the restored wharf crane, but I don’t think you can walk along the pier unless you have some business beyond getting to the end, like getting to Tasmania, for example. I wanted to try, and so I’d watch other people on foot to see if they waved ID cards on lanyards on the way in, or produced tickets, but my nerve would always fail me and I would move on, past Station Pier to the once busy but now redundant Princes Pier.
On Princes Pier, I traverse the bright expanse of smooth new concrete re-laid with the old railway tracks, heading towards the restored wooden gatehouse that guards the pier. The gatehouse, painted tasteful shades of green, is perfectly symmetrical. Two gated portals lead to the pier beyond. On the other side, a rollerblader arcs in graceful circles. Not far beyond, the pier comes to an abrupt halt, or at least the concrete surface does, but the piles beyond have been left, rows and rows of them stretching out into the waters of Port Phillip. The piles are mesmerising in their strangeness, like a forest, a fossilised forest that has been found below the sea. Which in a way it is: 5,000 bleached white tree trunks (turpentine trees, chosen for their resistance against wood boring beetles) were used to build this pier. Some of the piles are a little loose and wave gently with the action of the water, like living trees in the wind. I walk along the truncated end, looking at the rows of piles from different angles and then I stop and stare. Along with everyone else. Everyone stops at this point from where they can go no further, to look at the rows of piles in the golden afternoon light: cyclists, families out walking, tourists, even the rollerblader has stopped to look.
The forest of piles is beautiful, but its beauty is a consolation. What we really want, all of us, is to walk to the very end. And so we stand and stare, entranced by longing.
What is it that draws us on? Usually, if you make it to the end of the pier, there is nothing there. In fact, there are often people fishing who look like they don’t want you around, and the timbers are splattered with fish guts and seagull droppings, and scattered with fishing paraphernalia. You stand around for a bit, trying to find a clean bit of railing to lean on, but not too long because you feel a bit self-conscious.
But even if there are no people fishing, you don’t linger for long. After all, the sea is much the same as it looked from the seafront. Grey meets grey, or blue meets blue, along the line of the horizon. What else is there to say? And the wind tugs at your hair and clothes, and now you’re starting to feel chilled. When you turn back and the land grows ever closer you might start to feel a sense of relief and think about going somewhere warm for coffee.
Not all piers draw you to the end. I grew up in Britain, where piers were built for pleasure, cluttered with amusement arcades and tacky gift shops, where the sweet greasy smell of frying doughnuts mingles with the smell of sea salt. Piers like this are ends in themselves, and there is no particular reason to go round the back of the fun fair, or the run-down theatre featuring shows from has-been celebrities, and look out at the wind-chopped sea, spray stinging your face, when you could be inside in the overpriced and overheated café drinking strong tea and eating undercooked chips. In Britain, the end of the pier carries connotations of smutty humour—the slap and tickle of seaside sauciness—from a time when those theatre shows might venture into territory that was not quite acceptable on solid ground.
As a child, I was never taken to these types of piers. I had a sense that they were disapproved of, maybe because of those end-of-the-pier shows and the low-level gambling in the amusement arcades, but it was probably more that they involved spending money on expensive treats. I remember instead walking along harbour walls with my brothers, buffeted by the wind, our eyes streaming from the cold, but still we were desperate to walk to the end. These harbour walls were solid, immoveable, built as protection against the constant ravages of the sea. In fact, the seaside places of my childhood were all heavily defended against the elements and other invaders: cliffs shored up by concrete sea walls, long shingle dykes, abandoned pillbox forts. Only the harbour walls, though, took you out to meet the sea in all its fury. The pounding waves down below would fling drifts of spray that spattered onto the flagstones, but it was never quite enough. I wanted the waves to be bigger, to feel dangerous, without really believing in their threat. And the harbour walls were nearly always frustratingly, mercifully, short.
When I think of those harbour walls, I also think of waiting, of sentimental Victorian paintings of fishermen’s wives bundled up in shawls, anxiously scanning the churning waves for the returning boats of their missing menfolk, while down on the beach, men with lanterns ready the lifeboat. The harbour wall is as far out to sea as landlubbers can get, as far as they can venture into that unfriendly element where all hands can be lost.
I try to remember particular harbour walls that I might have walked along, braced into the wind, but they are lost in a generic drift of childhood holiday memories. North Yorkshire, Northumberland, Dorset, Wales. On the other hand, when I think of pleasure piers, I think of Brighton. But then there is the other pier in Brighton, severed from the shore after storm damage, left stranded and painfully alone, forever unattainable.
Australia has the best piers. They were built not for pleasure but for loading and unloading goods, importing civilisation’s trappings and exporting its raw materials. People were unloaded too, new migrants stepping off the gangway, their possessions piled up around them, squinting uncertainly towards their new home on the shore. These days, goods are transported via container ships and supertankers, and migrants who arrive by boat are no longer welcome. Those long wooden piers have been superseded by much larger structures in deeper waters. They have been left behind as heritage artefacts, as places to fish from, and, most importantly, as places to walk. In my walks along the redundant piers of Australia I have developed a sense of what a pier should be. I have a platonic ideal of pier-ness for which I am always searching.
Length is everything. The further the walk to the distant end, the better. I left Melbourne—it was only ever a temporary affair—and headed, with my partner, for the open spaces and emptiness of Western Australia. Busselton Jetty in Geographe Bay, a couple of hours’ drive south of Perth, is 1.8 kilometres long, the longest timber-piled pier in the whole of the Southern Hemisphere. I was very excited about walking along Busselton Jetty. It turned out though that most people took a miniature train to the end. Why would you do that, I wondered, when you could walk? But then the train trundled slowly past us as we walked and undermined my confidence in my mission. Did we look perverse, walking instead of taking the train, too tight-fisted to pay the extra three dollars, I wondered? Or maybe we looked like self-righteous exercise freaks making a point. The train passed and I tried to focus on where I was going, but the view of the end was blocked by a building that housed an outrageously expensive underwater observatory. There was artwork along the pier, which was nice enough, but it was all a bit much. The pier was too busy: with people, with experiences, with interpretation. It was a distraction from the end, from the point of the journey.
And then there was One Mile Jetty, at Carnarvon, some 1,100 km further north. One Mile Jetty, is, as you might expect, one mile (or 1.6 km) long, extending out into the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean from an island in the mouth of the Gascoyne River. Carnarvon is a very long way from anywhere else. On the Sunday afternoon that we arrived, everything was closed. We set out to walk to the pier in the heat of the afternoon, taking a path that followed a disused tramway across a saltmarsh. There was no one around, apart from a family pulled up in their car by a disused tram halt, the parents both drinking from a carton of wine. They were friendly enough, but we felt nervous when they piled in the car and started driving towards us. And then we started feeling nervous about snakes, and about how far we were walking across the shadeless marsh and how much further we had to go. We finally reached the other side, where there was a museum (closed) with a large collection of rusting artefacts—train wagons, trucks, and things of uncertain identity. There was a café but needless to say, it was closed. And then there was the pier. As with Busselton, there was a miniature train that ran to the end, although it looked a little more decrepit, and of course, it was not running and so we walked. The pier started off over mangroves and ridged mudflats where a heron stalked, and then out over the sparkling ocean. Our progress was marked by numbered railing posts (all the way to number 217). The rusted tramlines warped their way over the uneven timbers, which were all different lengths, extending out to the sides in a ragged line. We could see rather more of the sea than we might have liked, in the uneven gaps between boards, and through strange square cut-out holes. Everything was shifting and distorting, the bright restless ocean beneath our feet, the end of the pier dancing in the heat haze, and our own perceptions, pulled out of shape by the merciless sun.
The pier, straight in fact but not in appearance, and that distance that could not hold our gaze without fragmenting into uncertainty, made me think of our long road trip along the length of Western Australia, always that straight empty road ahead which dissolved and reformed and dissolved again as we drove through a flat, seemingly empty landscape, where our air-conditioned campervan was no match for the grinding heat of the sun. Were we simply recreating our journey here in miniature, a journey within a journey? And if so, what would we find at the end?
But there was no end to One Mile Jetty. Or rather, the very last few metres were closed off by railings where unsmiling fishermen lurked. We could perhaps have shimmied round the railings if we had been really determined. But by then we were glad to turn and go back, where the closed café building at least provided the respite of shade.
But what to make of these unsatisfactory endings? We are supposed to focus on the journey, rather than the destination, or so we are told on Facebook by inspirational quotes that depict mountains and sunsets. And roads. The lure of the road, running straight across the endless sun-baked scrub is not so much the end of the journey but what you might find along the way, the promise of what the shimmering horizon might resolve itself into. Once, I climbed a mountain in the Pyrenees, a four-hour uphill slog to the top. From there, there were mountains and more mountains, nothing but mountains as far I could see. I wanted to go on forever, to lose myself in the haze of distance.
But no pier, no matter how long, can take us to the horizon. We know that even before we first set foot on the boards. We can see all there is to see from the shore. But still we go.
I remember learning to draw linear perspective in art classes at school. We drew a horizon line across the page, with a single dot—the vanishing point. Then we drew a street that grew narrower into the distance, converging on the vanishing point. The teacher showed us how to draw a line of buildings on either side of the street, the horizontal lines—the rooflines, the window ledges and lintels—all converging towards that single dot on the horizon. It was a revelation, drawing that street, the long lines of buildings receding into the page. I had created magic with my pencil and ruler. The pier is an exercise in perspective with those parallel lines—the edges of the boardwalk and the railings—growing narrower with distance and drawing together towards the end.
I think too of long avenues in classically-styled gardens—the bright mown grass bordered on both sides with clipped yew hedges, leading to a distant statue or a little temple, gleaming white against the dark foliage. Maybe it is this, the simplicity of perspective, the desirability of clean lines that cut out other possibilities, that free us from the untidiness of doubts or decisions or distractions, following a pathway that has been laid out for us. There is nothing that you have to think about until you arrive, just the constant certainty of the unfurling present of that soft, smooth grass, or those weatherworn boards beneath your feet.
The garden avenues have something at the end and so we go on, even though the statue is not all that interesting, and the temple is empty apart from a broken chair and a pile of dead leaves in the corner. With a pier, there is nothing at the end, but that nothing is our lure. The pier is a pathway that leads us to the end; the end is everything and yet it is nothing.
The most pleasing pier I have walked along, the one that has come closest to my ideal, is on the other side of Australia: Urangan Pier at Hervey Bay in Queensland. We were there out of season and no one was around. We walked from our motel along the deserted seafront, past Vic Hislop’s Shark Show, with its huge model shark on the roof, and then we came to the pier, empty and straight and very long. The sky was overcast, and the sea was grey and completely still. We walked and walked, past benches where no one sat, past lamp posts where pelicans perched hugely, looking down their long beaks at us with their weird cartoon eyes. On one lamp post, an osprey stared out to sea with fierce intensity. And on we walked, and on, until we reached the end. It was more than the aesthetic pleasure of perspective. It felt almost mystical.
Maybe it was the weather—that motionless grey of the sea and the sky, and the listlessness of the out-of-season resort, that sense that life is being lived elsewhere. But there is also an inherent strangeness in that feeling of walking a flimsy platform out over the sea.
There is always another horizon, and the haze of distance resolves itself into the solidity of objects as you move towards them. But the end of the pier is the end. It really is a point where you can vanish. You can go no further without leaving your own element and entering either water or air. It is the end of earth, a very last fragile extension of the ground beneath our feet.
The type of linear perspective evoked by piers is an illusion, a trick from a western artistic tradition to convey a sense of depth. Other cultures use, or have used, different ways to do this, or do not do this at all. Walking towards the end of the pier is like being in a painting that uses this trick—it’s an illusion of an illusion. It is as if we are stepping into the world of a painting, immersing ourselves in a realistically unreal experience, disappearing through the looking glass to find out what is on the other side.
The journey along a pier is a journey into the unknown, away from the land, into a state of suspension between the swirling waters below and the arcing sky overhead. In Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe, the painter, imagines walking along a narrow plank over water and throwing herself into the abyss, as she immerses herself in her painting. The pier is a metaphor for that stepping into the unknown of the creative act—leaving behind our worries and doubts, the daily obligations that tether us, all that terrestrial heaviness that obscures our vision in all its brilliance.
Whatever it is, when we willingly walk the plank of the pier, we are looking for something, responding to a yearning for a barely-formed idea that lies beyond the certainty of land. It calls to us softly, only just heard over the sound of our footsteps. When we reach the end, we could so easily step off, surrender ourselves to whatever it is, let ourselves be submerged, taken. But the railings at the end, the presence of the fishermen, the unfriendly chop and slap of the sea against the piles, all these things pull us up short and the voice falls silent.
The ultimate unknown, the final endpoint, is of course death. My home these days is in New Zealand, and I think of the Māori journey of the spirits of the dead, Te Ara Wairua, up through the North Island of New Zealand, along the long peninsula of Northland to its northernmost tip at Te Rerenga Wairua, where they finally depart from the land, heading for the world of darkness. And there’s Charon too in his boat, moored by the steps at the end of the pier, patiently waiting to ferry us across to the underworld. And maybe that is why we do not linger here, why we turn away feeling slightly puzzled about what we thought we were expecting, because we are not ready, it is not yet our time. The pier has allowed us to travel a little way into another realm without truly entering it, and now we must return to the land of the living.