Weston-super-Mare: Somerset by the Sea. Discover why it has attracted so many visitors over the year

PUBLISHED: 12:10 26 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:08 20 February 2013

Panorama of Knightstone and Worlebury Hill across Weston Bay

Panorama of Knightstone and Worlebury Hill across Weston Bay

Discover why Weston-super-Mare has attracted so many visitors over the years.

Discover why Weston-super-Mare has attracted so many visitors over the years.

According to one of its greatest fans, Weston has spent the last 50 years trying to decide whether it is a seaside resort or a town that just happens to be by the sea. Local historian and former mayor, John Crockford-Hawley, loves the place enough to venture the odd criticism and even poke a little fun at his home town. He describes what he likes best regarding Weston-super-Mare: "There's something about the air, the ozone, it produces a wonderful sense of lethargy, which keeps people ticking on for so many years that they forget to die. People just go on and on in this town."

After meeting up at his house we wander into the centre, arriving first at the North Somerset Museum based in old gas workshops on Burlington Street, a building that has a wonderful airy courtyard that doubles up as a cafe. Some people might think that Weston-super-Mare was just an invention of the Victorians, but although there was a meteoric rise during that era, particularly with the coming of the railway, the Latinised name was first documented back in 1348. There is evidence of at least a small Roman presence and before that enough has been found to suggest a large Iron Age settlement up on Worlebury Hill. The most alarming artefact in the museum, however, is a video of the town's pier burning down last year.

Emerging, we encounter the listed Odeon building, designed in the 1930s by the grand master of Art Deco cinema architects, Cecil Thomas Howitt, which has a classic tower and is tiled in a striking cream faience. Perhaps most significant is that it is one of only two in the country that retains its original organ that still rises from its pit to be played. Further along you can see the town hall, which John describes as small but typical with an obligatory clock tower and really quite a handsome building.

At Big Lamp Corner, the old village green, tables and chairs are laid out, which on this pleasant day gives the impression of a healthy cafe culture. The space is dominated by a curious piece of public art known as Silica. The odd-shaped structure, which houses a small kiosk and a bus shelter, was installed in 2006 and has generated some controversy, but it is meant to symbolise man's harmony with the sea and apparently looks most impressive when lit up at night.

The High Street, linking with the Sovereign Shopping Centre, provides most of the town's branded retail outlets, but we amble down Regent Street, which is host to the nitty-gritty of an English seaside resort - the amusement arcades. Off to the left is St James Street where you can find a diverse range of eateries including Greek, Japanese and Turkish as well as the inevitable fish and chips.

With work taking place on both the sea defences and the reconstruction of the Grand Pier following the fire, the promenade, officially the Royal Parade, is busy at the moment. The long seafront including the Beach Lawns was constructed in the 1880s, taking the place of huge sand dunes that previously protected the town. Looking to the left you find the new, popular and not unattractive Weston Eye, the SeaQuarium with its underwater tunnel and pretty seahorses, and the Tropicana swimming pool built during the 1930s during a period of extreme optimism. John tells me: "The big sore on the seafront is not the pier because that is being rebuilt, not Knightstone because that has been redeveloped, it's not Birnbeck pier because that's tucked around and is almost a romantic ruin, but the big problem is the Tropicana. There is a scheme but it's hugely controversial and the town is divided between those who think it's good and those who think it's an abomination on the beach." I ask him when it's due to be done and he laughs. "It's no exaggeration that this is the one issue in Weston that is so controversial and unresolved."

We stroll on to the right, towards the Winter Gardens. Opened in 1927, it was designed as a venue to provide entertainment all year round and it has done precisely that - many will perhaps remember top pop acts like Fleetwood Mac, Marmalade and the Tremeloes appearing in the '60s, as well as it being a popular location for the original Come Dancing series. Balls and tea dances still take place but these days it also aims for the conference market. A little further on you reach the Royal Hotel, Weston's very first of such hostelries. Looking up into the wooded hillside, you see probably the town's finest architecture, Victorian limestone mansions and terraces, vaguely gothic or Italianate in style, constituting an area known as the Shrubbery. At the end of the promenade is the Thatched Cottage restaurant, one of Weston's oldest buildings.

The Knightstone Island is one of Weston's success stories. Formerly a theatre, swimming pool and Dr Fox's bath-house, its award-winning redevelopment into apartments by Redrow Homes was opened last year by the Queen. Dr Fox was an eminent physician from Brislington who believed that regular bathing was an essential facet of good health. As John explains, not all his ideas were so good: "He encouraged people to come to Weston to take the waters, which meant drinking a pint and a half of seawater on a daily basis. It made people sick of course, but they thought they were bringing up all the badness, and therefore it was good for them."

On the other side of Knightstone is the seriously dilapidated Birnbeck Pier. It was here that the paddle steamers used to come bearing coalminers and steelworkers from Wales for an English pint on what would otherwise be a 'dry' Sunday. "The death knell was sounded for Birnbeck when the Severn Bridge was built. I think the time is going to come with a bad winter storm and the poor old girl will start to slip into the sea," John laments.
Before we leave the seafront I have to say something about the sometimes derided beach. OK, it can be a tad muddy when the tide is out but it is a huge and wonderful site for pleasure and relaxation, whether it be donkey rides, T4's Party on the Beach, Enduro bike racing or just for taking a nap.

Heading inland to Grove Park we pass the Royal Crescent, Weston's answer to Bath; the college, designed like many of the town's better buildings by Hans Fowler Price; St John the Baptist Church; and Glebe House where the Royalist rector used to try to imprison the local Parliamentarian villagers. The much-used park, complete with bandstand and open-air cafe, includes a memorial garden to Jill Dando. The Ground Force team arrived in 2001 to put together this little gem, focusing on the TV presenter's favourite colour - blue. Other famous residents include Bob Hope (albeit briefly as a baby), John Cleese, Jeffrey Archer and Alfred Leete who designed the WWI poster 'Kitchener needs YOU'.

Admit it: Weston needs you and you need Weston.

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