Weston-super-Mare beach from the Grand Pier
Weston-super-Mare is a seaside resort town in Somerset. It stands on the shore of the Bristol Channel, 18 miles south-west of Bristol, spanning the coast between the bounding high ground of Worlebury Hill and Bleadon Hill. It includes the suburbs of Oldmixon, West Wick and Worle.
Weston was still a small village until the 19th century when the railways came and the town blossomed into a seaside resort; growth which continued until the decline in seaside holidays in the latter half of the 20th century.
Owing to the large tidal range in the Bristol Channel, the low tide mark in Weston Bay is about a mile from the seafront. Although the beach itself is sandy, low tide uncovers areas of thick mud, hence the colloquial name, Weston-super-Mud. These mudflats are very dangerous to walk in and are crossed by the mouth of the River Axe. Just to the north of the town is Sand Point, which is used to denote the lower limit of the Severn Estuary and the start of the Bristol Channel. It is also the site of the Middle Hope biological and geological Site of Special Scientific Interest. In the centre of the town is Ellenborough Park, another Site of Special Scientific Interest due to the range of plant species found there.
Weston is part of the Winterstoke Hundred.
Name of the town
Weston is the Old English west tun; "west village", while the suffix super Mare is Latin for "upon sea" and was added to distinguish it from the many other villages named Weston.
Until 1348 the parish was recorded as Weston-Juxta-Mare ("beside the sea"), a name changed by the Bishop of Bath and Wells. Between the 14th and 17th centuries the "super Mare" part of the name was not used, though in 1610 the village was recorded as Weston on the More.
Weston's oldest structure is Worlebury Camp, on Worlebury Hill, dating from the Iron Age. Castle Batch was a castle that once stood overlooking the town. The present site has an earthwork mound of 160 feet in diameter which is believed to be the remains of a motte.
The mediæval church of St John has been rebuilt, but its ancient preaching cross survives. The former rectory is an early 19th century structure with later additions. Though it remains adjacent to the church it has not been a parsonage house since the end of the 19th century. Today it is known as Glebe House and is divided into flats.
Birth of a new town
Early in the 19th century, Weston was a small village of about 30 houses, located behind a line of sand dunes fronting the sea, which had been created as an early sea wall after the Bristol Channel floods of 1607. The Pigott family of Brockley, who were the local Lords of the Manor, had a summer residence at Grove House. Weston owes its growth and prosperity to the Victorian era boom in seaside holidays. Construction of the first hotel in the village started in 1808; it was called "Reeves" (now the Royal Hotel). Along with nearby Burnham-on-Sea, Weston benefited from proximity to Bristol, Bath and the growing towns of Glamorgan. The first attempt at an artificial harbour was made in the late 1820s at the islet of Knightstone and a slipway built from Anchor Head towards Birnbeck Island.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel and his family lived in Weston, at Swiss Villa (eastern corner of Alexandra Parade and Swiss Road), while he was supervising the construction of the Bristol and Exeter Railway in the area. With the opening of the railway in 1841, thousands of visitors came to the town from Bristol, the Midlands and further afield, on works outings and Bank Holidays. Also, mining families came across the Bristol Channel]] from Cardiff by paddle steamer. To cater for them, Birnbeck Pier was completed in 1867, offering in its heyday amusement arcades, tea rooms, funfair rides and a photographic studio. However, it is now in a derelict state and has been added to English Heritage's Buildings at Risk Register, but visitors can still admire its structure from behind barbed wire. It was designed by Eugenius Birch with ironwork by the Isia Foundry of Newport, Monmouthshire. It is a Grade-II* listed building.
Large areas of land were released for development from the 1850s onwards. Large detached villas, for the middle classes, were built on the southern slopes of Worlebury Hill. Semi-detached and terraced housing was built on the low "moorland" behind the sea front in an area known as South Ward. Many of these houses have now been converted into bedsits. Most of the houses built in the Victorian era are built from stone and feature details made from Bath Stone, influenced by local architect Hans Price.
In 1885, the first transatlantic telegraph cable of the Commercial Cable Company was brought ashore and the company started a long association with the town, ending in 1962.
Marconi, the inventor of wireless telegraphy, successfully transmitted radio signals across the Bristol Channel in the spring of 1897, from Penarth (near Cardiff) to Brean Down (just south west of Weston, on the other side of the River Axe).
A second railway, the Weston, Clevedon and Portishead Railway, opened on 1 December 1897, connecting Weston to Clevedon. The terminus station was at Ashcombe Road. The railway was extended to Portishead on 7 August 1907 but was closed in 1940.
Building the town
Much of the character of the buildings in the town derives from the use of local stone, much of it from the Town Quarry. Notable among the architects working in the 19th century was Hans Price (1835–1912). Many examples of his work are still to be seen: the Town Hall, the Mercury Office, the Constitutional Club (originally the Lodge of St Kew), villas and numerous other domestic dwellings. The Odeon Cinema is notable for fully retaining its Art Deco features both internally and externally, and retaining its original theatre organ, a Compton from 1935.
Local traders, unhappy that visitors were not coming as far as the centre of the town, built a new pier closer to the main streets. Opened in 1904, and known as the Grand Pier, it was originally planned to be 1½ miles long. Further development occurred after First World War, with the Winter Gardens and Pavilion in 1927, the open air pool, with its arched concrete diving board, and an airfield dating from the inter-war period. Art Deco influences can be seen in much of the town's architecture from this period.
During Second World War evacuees were accommodated in the town; however the area was also home to war industries, such as aircraft and pump manufacture, and a Royal Air Force station at RAF Locking. The town was also on the return route of bombers targeting Bristol and was itself bombed by the Luftwaffe. The first bombs fell in June 1940, but the worst attacks were in January 1941 and in June 1942. Large areas of the town were destroyed, particularly Orchard Street and the Boulevard. On 3 and 4 January 1941, 17,000 incendiary bombs fell on the town. The Air Ministry set up a "Q-station" decoy at Bleadon in an attempt to divert the bombers to an unpopulated area. In the later part of the war, US Army troops were billeted in the area, but they were relocated in the run-up to the Normandy landings.
RAF Weston-super-Mare was opened in 1936 by No. 24 Group, with a single tarmac runway. It served as a flying candidates selection and initial training facility, and as a relief airport during Second World War, latterly as the Polish Air Force Staff College from April 1944 to April 1946. After the war it served as a logistics supply station, with helicopter makers Westland Helicopters on site until closure in 1987. Today there is an operational heliport on site used occasionally by the RAF Search and Rescue service. The former Westland site, which closed in 2002, houses the Helicopter Museum featuring examples of Westland aircraft. Pride of place is given to an immaculate Westland Wessex HCC Mk.4, formerly of the Queen's Flight.
Residential areas outside the town centre include the Oldmixon, Coronation, and Bournville housing estates, built in the mid to late 20th century. Newer housing has since been built towards the east of the town in North Worle and Locking Castle, nearer to the M5 motorway.
Weston-super-Mare has expanded to include the established villages of Milton, Worle, Uphill, Oldmixon, West Wick and Wick St Lawrence, as well as new areas such as St Georges and Locking Castle.
In 1986, Weston General Hospital was opened on the edge of Uphill village, replacing the Queen Alexandra Memorial Hospital on The Boulevard, which was opened in 1928.
On 28 July 2008, the pavilion at the end of the Grand Pier was completely destroyed by a fire. Eleven fire engines and 80 fire-fighters were unable to contain the blaze which is believed to have started in the north-east tower of the Pavilion. A competition was held to design a new pavilion, begun in 2009, the opening delayed until 23 October 2010, with massive cost overruns. During the same period, a £34 million redevelopment of the promenade was carried out.
Weston is a busy holiday resort, though declined from the days before cheap foreign travel. The town had become a centre of heavy industry too; helicopters were built here at the GKN Westland factory until its closure in 2002, however the company still retains a design office under the name GKN Aerospace Engineering Services at the Winterstoke Road site.
Road transport links were improved with the M5 motorway running close by, and the town now supports light industries and distribution depots, including Lidl's distribution centre for its southern based stores, and is also a commuter town for Bristol.
Weston-super-Mare is still a popular tourist destination, with attractions such as the long sandy beach, the Helicopter Museum, Weston-super-Mare Museum, the Grand Pier, the SeaQuarium aquarium and the seasonal Wheel of Weston.
In 2009 a survey by Visit England placed the pier at Weston amongst the top ten free attractions in the country. On the Beach Lawns is a miniature railway operated by steam and diesel locomotives, and a putting green.
The Art Deco Tropicana, once a very popular lido on the beach, has suffered years of neglect. It closed to the public in 2000, and despite a number of attempts to reopen it, its future lies in the balance.
'International HeliDays', in association with the Helicopter Museum, are staged at the beach lawns over a long weekend around the end of July, when up to 75 helicopters from Europe fly in for a static display. There are frequent Helicopter Air Experience flights from the Museum heliport. There is also an annual display by the Red Arrows.
Since the 1970s the number of visitors staying in the town has decreased. In 1995 there were 4 million visitors but by 2005 this had risen to 5.3 million. Surveys showed that the largest percentage of visitors (22%) were from Birmingham and the Black Country. Weston was found to attract two distinct groups: "grey tourists" over the age of 60 and families with young children.
Sights of the town
The Grand Pier is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the town. It previously housed funfair style attractions, a go-kart track, cafes, a fudge factory, and a host of arcade games, underwent a £34 million re-development after a fire in 2008 destroyed the main pavilion. After a harsh winter which delayed progress, the new pier pavilion reopened on 23 October 2010.
Weston's first pier, Birnbeck Pier, standing on a small island to the north of the bay is currently closed to the public. The current owners, Manchester-based company Urban Splash bought the pier in 2006 but to date no firm plans are in place for developmen, and the Pier's future is uncertain. The pier houses Weston-super-Mare lifeboat station.
Knightstone Island historically housed a theatre, swimming pool and sauna. After years of disrepair and dereliction, the area has been redeveloped: during 2006/2007, luxury apartments and commercial outlets have been built on the site. Consideration has been taken due to the listed building status of much of the site. Boat trips from here include the Waverley and Balmoral and trips to Steep Holm and Flat Holm islands as well as short trips around Weston Bay.
The outdoor swimming pool that is located on the southern section of the sea front has not been occupied since 2000. A private developer, Henry Boot, was selected to re-develop the site with a new Life Station leisure complex, which was planned to include a six lane, 27-yard swimming pool, water park, 96-bed hotel, restaurant, eight-screen cinema, 14 retail units, and a 20-lane bowling alley. The redevelopment was beset by delays and controversy. A group of local residents challenged the council over its decision to appoint Henry Boot, asking to put forward their own proposals for the site. In November 2009, the plans were finally abandoned, leaving the future of the site uncertain. In 2010 the council invited submissions from developers for a new, less ambitious, scheme to redevelop the site with a swimming pool at its heart. A decision on a new scheme is expected towards the end of 2010. The local authority announced on 23 August 2011 that it was giving developers six months to propose plans for a smaller development otherwise they will arrange to demolish the Tropicana.
Most of the town's churches and chapels are neo-Gothic 19th century structures. The Mediæval village church of St John the Baptist was completely demolished in 1824 to make way for a new and larger place of worship.
All Saints Church was built between 1898 and 1902 to a design by George Frederick Bodley and completed by his pupil F.C. Eden in the 14th century style so favoured by Bodley. It is a Grade II* listed building.
There is a Greek Orthodox Church of St Andrew the Apostle in Grove Road, Milton, serving the town's large Greek-Cypriot population.
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