Weston-Super-Mare in watercolour
PUBLISHED: 15:49 24 June 2016 | UPDATED: 15:49 24 June 2016
Local authors Rosie and Howard Smith paint an affectionate portrait of their hometown after an extraordinary 2015
We’ve never known a summer like it. Last year was one that few in Weston will ever forget. The sudden arrival of Banksy’s Dismaland exhibtion on the seafront sparked a kind of mass hysteria with the town creaking under the weight of visitors, film crews and tourists.
Weston, like many seaside towns, sometimes struggles to feel relevant in 21st century Britain. Last year all that changed - a powerful reminder of how much it has to offer.
It turned out to be the perfect time to revisit our hometown - a place we first wrote and painted about back in 2001 in a book we titled Weston-super-Mare in Watercolours. This second volume - Revisited - was an opportunity to reflect on what 14 years has done for this precious resort perched on the Bristol Channel.
The first thing that struck us both was how much was different. In fact, so much that we decided to change almost every watercolour in the book - more than 120 of them! So just what has altered?
The first might go almost unnoticed to the average visitor - but it is profound: the restructuring of Weston seafront (‘the promenade’) between 2007 and 2010. This was a £30million project that every seaside town in the world, let alone the UK, would die for and it’s a miracle it happened at the height of the recession.
And what a rebuild it is. Led by renowned Bristol sculptor, John Maine RA, the primary aim was to enhance and strengthen the town’s flood defences with a protective apron below the Victorian seawall. It does so much more, giving Weston a family-friendly seafront that welcomes walkers, wheelchairs and scooters alike. Soft grey and terracotta granite paving emphasises the width of the esplanade, with huge chunks of Mendip limestone pressed against the secondary flood protection seawall. A granite arch (John Maine calls it ‘the Weston Arch’) rises eight metres (26ft) from the paving - and all this forms a safe, wide, defended promenade that looks beautiful. It’s worth reflecting on the fact that Dismaland and the new seafront were both artist inspired.
It’s not the only part of the seafront that has changed dramatically. The devastating fire in 2008 that destroyed Weston’s much loved Art-Deco Grand Pier is etched on the town’s consciousness. It’s one of the most charged pictures in the book and even eight years on evokes a strong emotional reaction. Thankfully, within two years, a superb replacement was in place. The new pier has retained the signature corner towers of the former but is substantially larger with a wide swooping roof forming an image of a breaking wave. Any seaside town would kill for a modern pier like this at the heart of its seafront.
The town itself continues to change in many ways - and not always for the better. Like many of its ilk, small shops are struggling to survive and, since 2001, many fondly-regarded local businesses have disappeared. National chains are also finding life difficult - Weston High Street without its Woolworths still feels diminished. More positively, enterprising Weston College has now gained university centre status and, despite some opposition, is taking over the town’s Winter Gardens pavilion and conference centre. It’ll be good to have the buzz of more students in our midst.
Thankfully, much else remains as we found it in 2001: the Victorian town built from its own light grey limestone, the wooded hillside, parks and the people, the enfolding promontories of Worlebury and Brean Down. You may just discover yourself popping up in one of the paintings: reading on the seafront, crabbing, kite surfing, drinking coffee, catching the ‘Torbay Express’ at Weston station, fishing at Middle Hope, sledging at Ashcombe Park . . .
This has been a familiar experience as we’ve traced our way along the Somerset coast over the past 14 years - from Hotwells in Bristol to the Devon border and up into the county’s hills. Walking, sailing, cycling; attempting to capture the right seasonal light and atmosphere to paint. Researching, gleaning local information, meeting and making friends on our journeys. And there have been dramas too: a computer crashing and losing six months work (we thought we had backed up), a lightning strike at our printers wrecking their scanner, books delivered the day before publication - a close one that! But altogether wonderfully rewarding - there is nothing quite like the excitement of holding a book you have planned and dreamed about for years.
Book prices are: paperback £14.99, hardback £18.99.
Places to visit
- The Old Town Quarry with artists’ workshops, exhibitions, a working forge and the Rowan Tearoom
- Grove Park: music in the restored Victorian Bandstand, visit Jill’s Garden created by Ground Force.
- Iron Age Hill-fort: walk up through the woods and visit the fallen walls, defence ditches and storage pits
- Take an open bus top ride through the woods to Kewstoke and Sand Bay. Walk from Sand Point to Woodspring Priory.
- Walk the seafront from Prince Consort Gardens with views out across the Bristol Channel, dropping down to the high cliffs at Birnbeck and along the promenade to the Grand Pier
- Take a boat to Steep Holm Island for the day