diamond geezer

 Saturday, February 10, 2018


Weston, as the locals have it, is a seaside resort in North Somerset at the mouth of the River Severn. The Super-Mare bit is a posh way of saying On-Sea, which for a significant proportion of the day is really On-Mud thanks to the Bristol Channel's massive tidal range. To get your bearings, the sea is to the west, the M5 is to the east, and a high ridge of land called Worlebury Hill blocks development immediately to the north. As usual, the town's Victorian growth spurt was entirely thanks to the railways. About 75000 people live here, and an ABCD of people who grew up in the town would include Jeffrey Archer, Richie Blackmore, John Cleese and Jill Dando. The best time to visit Weston-Super-Mare is never a grey weekday morning in February.

Weston has three piers, the most significant of which is the Grand Pier. Originally Edwardian, it's burned down twice, most recently in 2008 (after the fire alarm company failed to ring the fire brigade). The pier's private owners took advantage of £30m compensation to rebuild the pavilion, thereby restoring the town's main attraction. The initial funnel of chips'n'candyfloss merchants is freely accessible, but to get any further requires £1 in a turnstile (or an annual pass). The boardwalk spans a couple of hundred metres of sea, or more likely beach, and has a central covered tunnel in case the weather's foul. I obviously preferred the exterior view, along with helpful labels on the railings pointing out what I might be able to see. Four churches in town, yes. Cardiff's Millennium Stadium, unsurprisingly no.

I hoped to walk right down to the far end, but this was blocked, I suspect for seasonal maintenance. Scores of empty tables, each labelled 'This furniture is provided for our food and beverage customers only', awaited summer's beers'n'burgers crowd. Instead the only sensible option was to enter the main pavilion, essentially a two-storey amusement arcade - a giant palace of paid-for fun. All the usual soft-toy grabs and slots proliferate, plus sit-on rides, an indoor go-kart track and Britain's smallest (track-free) rollercoaster. Top marks for over-excitable branding goes to The Crystal Maze, in reality one of those swingdoor mirrored labyrinths, and not a full-on four-zone challenge. Two Weston families were enjoying the low season's entertainment options, and I walked swiftly round.

Weston's first pier is now a crumbling wreck at the top of the bay, and the only pier in Britain to link to an offshore island. Birnbeck Pier was built to entertain Victorians arriving by ferry, but hasn't seen a daytripper since 1994, nor a lifeboat launch since 2015, and English Heritage aren't the only people worried about it. The third pier seems barely worthy of the name (although I didn't see it when the tide was fully in), and links to the Seaquarium (all the usual marine stuff in a lot of big tanks). Meanwhile Knightstone Island is linked to the shore by a short causeway, and now houses a compact luxury housing development, at prices which in any part of London would count as "genuinely affordable".

Other than distant Wales, the most intriguing sight on the horizon is Steep Holm, one of the larger islands in the Bristol Channel. This limestone lump rises from the waves like the top of an enormous head, and trebles in area between low and high tides. Historically considered part of Somerset, and once home to naval defences, today only birds make their home here (although it's possible to take a day trip in the summer). The other geological peculiarity is Brean Down, a long ridged promontory on the southern shoreline, nicely balancing Worlebury Hill to the north. Although it looks easy to reach, in reality it lies on the far side of the estuary of the River Axe via a considerable marshy detour.

Weston-super-Mare hit the headlines in 2015 when Bansky turned up with his Dismaland theme park. His chosen site was the Tropicana, a former lido gone to seed, whose outdoor pool made a suitably downbeat backdrop for disturbing art. Since then the venue has sprung back to life in a variety of forms - a funfair in the summer and ice skating in the winter, which I watched through the glass being switched over to a half-term skatepark. In February the site feels somewhat out on a limb, its beachfront cafe and tourist information centre generally unbothered, and the neighbouring beachfront shelter packed out with sleeping bags and the bagged possessions of a few of the town's rough sleepers.

The town centre is the usual mix of tiny streets, pedestrianised shopping precincts and one grand manicured boulevard. At the top of the latter is Weston's floral clock, which alas no longer tells the time, but is still planted up every year to celebrate whichever anniversary the Lions Club selects. This flowerbed marks the site of the town's first station, a terminus inserted by Brunel in 1841, but later replaced by a more convenient loop slightly further out. The Town Hall adds gravitas by the mini-roundabout, but a large area between here and the seafront has been reimagined in questionable 21st century format, and a further zone will follow if anyone ever manages to fund more than bleak demolition.

Weston is blessed with several museums, one focusing on Lambrettas (alas "currently in the process of shutting down") and another on helicopters (the world's largest, apparently, with 80 specimens on view almost daily). I only had time for Weston Museum, the official culture repository, inside the former Gaslight Company Workshops. Most weekday visitors come for the cafe, it seems, but I enjoyed the permanent display round the upper floor and a splendid temporary exhibition downstairs - The Art Of Self Expression; Facial Hair and Tattoos Through The Ages. This proved an excellent excuse to pair whiskery Victorian portraits with specially commissioned 2017 photography, and if any Shoreditch gallery were to attempt a similar exposition of hirsute history I'm sure they'd have a hit on their hands.

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