48 Hours in… Weston-super-Mare
PUBLISHED: 17:04 11 July 2008 | UPDATED: 15:18 20 February 2013
Weston-super-Mare lounges along the sandy, south-western side of the Severn Estuary, like a quiet Sunday, indulging visitors in the seaside comforts of a traditional English seaside resort. Cod and chips, vanilla ice cream, chocolate flake, perm-p...
Contrary to popular opinion, the 'super' part is medieval Latin for 'on' or 'above', rather than a superlative added by the Victorians to capture the joy of wearing crinoline at the seaside. 'Mare' is also Latin, meaning 'sea', while 'Weston' is Saxon. Put together, they form 'western settlement on the sea'.
Since Reeves Hotel on South Parade, now The Royal, opened as the resort's first hotel in 1808, Weston-super-Mare has drawn millions to wander along The Esplanade, which faces out towards the islands of Steep and Flat Holm and the South Wales coast beyond.
Holidaying mining families came across the Bristol Channel from South Wales by paddle steamer. Today, the MV Balmoral offers day sea trips from Knightstone Island to various destinations, including Steep Holm Nature Reserve.
But Weston-super-Mare certainly isn't wallowing in the Victorian era. The arrival of several high-profile restaurants offers much to tempt the visitor and, on sunny days in particular, the town has the look and feel of the Somerset Riviera.
Hit the downtown
No visit to Weston would be complete without a leisurely stroll along the seafront. The beach is a hive of activity, offering all the trimmings of the ultimate British seaside experience, not least Weston's famous donkeys, which were originally used to bring in the nets from the fishing boats.
To the north, the seafront bears left to Knightstone Island and Marine Lake, overlooked by Victorian villas that rise in orderly rows up Worlebury Hill.
Weston-super-Mare has a total of three piers. The oldest, Birnbeck Pier, once offered visitors amusement arcades, tea rooms, funfair rides and a photographic studio. Today, it languishes on English Heritage's list of endangered buildings, though a luxury hotel and apartment complex proposed by a wealthy Manchester developer, with fond memories of childhood holidays in Weston-super-Mare, may revive its fortunes.
Opened in 1867, Birnbeck is the only land-to-rock pier in the country - the others go out to sea - and it has the steepest lifeboat slipway in the country.
The idea for a Grand Pier at Weston was originally discussed because day trippers who came by train did not venture as far as Birnbeck Pier, as it was considered to be too far from the town centre.
Instead, the visitors went to the nearest beach, which was off the end of Regent Street. Work started to build a one-and-a-half-mile-long pier in November 1903. The length was determined by the owner's desire to have 'permanent water' for ferries at the pier's end, with entertainment at the shore end.
Once built, they realised that the currents at the end of the pier were such that it prohibited docking by the very ferries they tried to attract in the first place, and the long extension proved to be useless. The pier had a theatre pavilion, which hosted concerts, ballet performances, opera and even boxing matches.
The whole structure was destroyed by fire in 1930 and rebuilt, without the ferry 'extension', finally re-opening in 1933.
Weston's final pier opened in 1995 and was the first pier to be completed in Britain for 85 years. It houses the SeaQuarium and features an underwater tunnel, where you can get up close and personal with creatures of the deep.
Eating and sleeping
Eating out in Weston-super-Mare has never been better, or more varied. The Cove Bar & Restaurant sees head chef Keiran Lenihan (pictured above right) back in his home town after a stint at Coombe Lodge, Blagdon. This season, the restaurant serves tapas on the terrace from 3pm-9pm, overlooking Marine Lake and Knightstone Island.
Another great place to try is Reflections, which is run by an ex-head chef of Browns and a former manager of Rick Stein's Padstow empire.
Oak and Glass continues to win rave reviews for its food, rooms and flowers. Run by the Hunt Family, head chef Amy Hunt worked with Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons before setting up her own restaurant. Her parents, David and Lesley (also a florist), run a B&B from the property. Dine in an oak-panelled room with two open fires, stay in a fabulous room and order a bespoke flower arrangement.
For pub meals, Captain's Cabin, Birnbeck Road, offers restaurant views across Weston Bay and pub hospitality that dates back to 1852. Lovers of fish and chips should head to Papas, Waterloo Street, or The Atlantic Fish Bar, Meadow Street.
In pretty Uphill, to the south of the main beachfront, Demetris Bistro serves authentic Greek cuisine on a sun terrace, with the option of staying in contemporary en-suite rooms.
The Nut Tree Inn, Ebdon Road, Worle, serves a good pint, while The Back Bar Live on the High Street, hosts live bands on Sundays and acoustic open-mike sessions on Thursdays.
Other venues worth searching out for seaside entertainment include the Playhouse Theatre, High Street, and the Winter Gardens, Royal Parade.
Weston-super-Mare is full of hotels but Harmony Poynt Hotel catches the eye with only nine rooms and glowing tributes from former guests.
Those who want a country house by the sea should try Uphill Manor with snooker room, Pugin wallpaper, octagonal hall and 17 acres.
To the north of Weston-super-Mare, overlooking Sand Bay, Church House, 27 Kewstoke Road, Kewstoke, offers five stylish rooms, big pillows, goose-down duvets and sea views.
Things to take home
A trip to the seaside feels incomplete without buying a stick of rock with Weston-super-Mare running through the middle. As one happy customer remarked, rock removes fillings better than a Harley Street dentist! Most beachside shops along the seafront sell it.
Rock Shop Newsagents, on Victoria Square, opposite the Grand Pier, also sells a range of Weston-super-Mare fridge magnets. The shop owner is said to introduce a new design every holiday season.
Those who like to get wet should visit Performance Kayaks on Uphill Way. Described as 'an Aladdin's cave of paddling gear', the shop stocks more than 40 boats, 120 types of paddle and 50 ways of staying afloat in the event of a capsize.
Explore the area
Make time for a bracing walk across Brean Down, passing a ruined Napoleonic fort, the ancient cliff-top old church of St Nicholas at Uphill and a nature reserve full of wheeling marine birds.
Wander in the Georgian terraced gardens at Clevedon Court, Tickenham Road, Clevedon, laid out in the 18th century by wealthy slave merchant Abraham Elton. His ancestors still live in the house, which dates back to the 14th century.
From April to October, Steep Holm Nature Reserve ( tel 01934 632307) runs trips to the island to see gulls, cormorants and Muntjac deer amid the ruins of Second World War defences and Victorian cannons. Leaving Knightstone Island, the five-mile boat trip, which lasts about an hour, lands visitors on a pebble beach. A zigzag ascent through sycamore woods reaches the island's 50-acre plateau 256ft (76m) above sea level. Archaeological evidence reveals visits from Romans, Vikings, monks, smugglers, soldiers, and even rabbit warreners. Busy and popular like its nearest neighbour, Weston-super-Mare, but worlds apart. BY STEPHEN TATE. PHOTOS BY TONY HOWELL
Weston-super-Mare TIC, tel 01934 888800, www.somersetcoast.com