Weston-super-Mare: My Roots in the Sand
I am sometimes concerned that I get dangerously close to cultural appropriation when exploring and developing some of my interests. In mitigation, I like to think that my Connected Cultures brief is extensive and welcoming to all. I will forever seek to learn, to engage with others and to go beyond my own immediate environment in all sorts of ways.
Sometimes, usually around springtime, I revert inwards a little and explore myself, who I am, where I come from, and how I relate to my own culture, whatever that might be. So here I bring you something from my upbringing and my sense of place.
Home again, April 2016
Weston-super-Mare is a pleasant seaside town adjoining the Bristol Channel. More estuary than seaside, perhaps, but a desirable place for many. Think of Le Touquet Paris Plage in the Pas de Calais region of France, or Burck-sur-Mer, but imagine somewhere classier. There’s really no need to go across the Channel. We have far more attractive resorts.
Weston-super-Mare is also where I was born. Part of me still belongs there, and I like to return at least once a year. To hear the seagulls, to inhale the bracing air, to walk along the sand, and to simply re-establish my presence in a place that seems to call me back again and again. A place that always sends me back in time. To quote Shing Yoong, the brilliant travel writer and guardian of The Culture Map, this is one of my “happy places”.
So, time for some culture. Starting with…
Weston-super-Mare beach, looking out towards Flat Holm Island
WSM is the premier beach resort in the West Country. Lol. A vast expanse of sand that quickly becomes increasingly compact and muddy as you go down to where you might expect the water to be. It pains me to talk about mud here, but if you ever dare to go into the water, if you ever even reach it, you will come out covered in silt and looking quite disgusting. This is not a swimmer’s paradise.
An unfortunate feature
I love this beach all the same. It offers numerous attractions and something for all ages. I see plenty of people having fun flying kites, riding donkeys, enjoying the swingboats, jumping up and down on tramapolines (I dare you to challenge my spelling on that one) and collecting shells. There is always a stiff breeze and a feeling of exposure; there are no cliffs or sand dunes to offer any protection, but the town centre is easily accessible.
Traditional fun, but maybe still a bit scary, higher up the beach
Just watch out for the cars parking on the beach; this can be quite annoying. An odd juxtaposition of a natural fresh air experience and a facility for man-made, noisy metal contraptions chucking out nasty particulates into the atmosphere.
If you want something formal and artistic there is an annual sandcastle exhibition; this year the theme is “When I grow up”. I’m not sure how imaginative the sculptors have been. What I glimpsed over the hoarding was all a bit safe and uninspiring, and several of the exhibits were only half built. I want things to be better than that when I grow up.
Last year, Banksy set up his Dismaland on the site of the old Tropicana. This attracted hundreds and thousands of visitors looking for a bit of contemporary dismay. There seems to be a bit of a theme going on here. Also along the sea front we find an outdoor paddling pool (for those who don’t trust the sea), Seaquarium (if you wish to walk beneath the fish), Skyview (the Weston Wheel), and then we have the main attraction...the Grand Pier.
Skyview, the Weston Wheel, from a carriage
The Grand Pier
This presents a microcosm of British culture, both old and new. The current Grand Pier is only a few years old. The original, a magnificent Edwardian structure, was destroyed by fire in 2008, in a catastrophic ‘end of the pier show’. Faulty electrical equipment threw out sparks which turned into a blaze and everything came crashing down. There were hopes for something wonderful as a replacement, but what we got in the end was a slightly more modern version of the previous design. And now you have to pay to walk along.
The Grand Pier in 2014, just a little grander than the old one
First, you have to get past the candyfloss, doughnuts, fudge, Mr Whippy ice-cream, hot dogs and burgers. Then, dodge the gift shops which sell a few genuine souvenirs and a lot of cheap and tacky bric-a-brac. But why not indulge? You really have to sample at least one of these culinary delights or buy a keyring or a bucket and spade to be able to say you’ve had the full seaside experience and supported the local economy.
Now. Brace yourselves. The new pavilion, just like the old one, has a horrendous, cacophonous arcade of fruit machines and other mindless diversions. Maybe just one more coin and the rest will drop over the edge. Yeah, right. Try to escape and you find that the end of the pier is blocked off, so you can’t do a complete tour and you have to retrace your steps; always a shade unsatisfying. Take the land train back if you must. You can ride it all day for £15. Goodness me!
The Sea Front, a genuine tourist attraction, seen in April 2014
Still, it’s not all bad. The pier stands proud, dominating the seafront, as it should. From the pier you can look back and admire the town. Then there’s the romance. This is the spot where Mr Stevens almost went on a date with Miss Kenton in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, filmed in 1992. This is Weston-super-Mare, and it would be far less super without the pier. It’s not as exciting as Brighton, but more exciting than Clevedon. And, it’s a considerably more happening place than Burnham-on-Sea, which doesn’t even have a pier.
Back in the town itself, and I’m getting hungry. Time to visit Winstons, a Jamaican-sounding but otherwise classically British fish parlour. Take-away or eat-in, wonderfully delicious, clean, crisp, clean tasting food. For me, it’s cod and chips every time. With a side dish of mushy peas. They even hold the salad if you ask them nicely, allowing space for just a few more chips. They also offer a massive Winstons Challenge, but you really can have too much of a good thing and I’m not like Homer Simpson in every respect. Still, I am a creature of habit, and I’ve been there every year since it was established in 2005.
Winstons, a wonderful place to dine, taken from the Weston Wheel
The Winstons crest. 11 years on and going strong
Walking off a fine repast. Another land train chugging along. Lots of day-trippers to avoid. I like my space. Now approaching the resplendent Winter Gardens, where my former neighbours the Jackleys used to go for polite, old-fashioned tea dances. Surely this property was worth more than the £1 it was sold for in 2015. Next, to the mini causeway across Marine Lake, and then on to Knightstone Island and Birnbeck, Weston’s older and darker pier. The original and more mysterious pier, built in Victorian times. Sadly it has been closed for many years. This is a charming and much quieter stretch of Weston than its commercial zone. I like the opportunity to get away from the hustle and bustle.
The Winder Gardens, sold for £1 in 2015
Set back from the seafront, we come across another wonderful venue. Split into two halves, the top half of the park was once home to Somerset County Cricket Club at festival time. Across the road we find swings, a bowling lawn, a goldfish pond, a fountain, areas of grass for picnics and playing French cricket. This is where my mother once accidentally hit me on the head with a tennis ball and, worse still, made good on a boast that she could still pick me up and turn me upside down. Much to my disbelief she could and she did. Many years later I still have to listen to this embarrassing tale.
Still, Clarence Park is a fine place to just sit and think, or to just sit. Or to have a cup of coffee out of a thermos flask. And a cucumber sandwich. Who doesn’t like cucumber sandwiches, honestly? This is all rather pleasant. You can forget that life is going on, sometimes frantically, beyond the stone perimeter walls of the park. It doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing. This is an opportunity to be peaceful and to reflect. I tend to sway here between wistfulness and happiness.
Clarence Park, a step back in time. Photo via delcampe.net
So, for relaxation and a bit of fun, Weston-super-Mare just could be for you. Come expecting golden sand and crystal clear water and you’ll be sorely disappointed. But if you're looking for charm, quaintness and seagulls, you’ll be in for a treat. And remember, British seaside culture does not depend on the sun shining.
Be prepared to overlook the town’s ordinariness at times, as well as to revel in its splendour. Make the most of what’s there, rather than bemoaning what’s not. And don’t be surprised if you find yourself transported back in time to when expectations were lower, pleasures were simpler, and life seemed an awful lot less demanding.
"Brought not by a stork, but by a seagull"
Weston-super-Mare is where I feel comfortable, for many reasons. Here I can be myself. And remember who I once was. But the town also shows me how much life has changed, and suggests where I belong now. Far from limiting me in my cultural make-up and aspirations, the town inspires me to travel far beyond and connect with new, different feelings, people and experiences. At heart, wherever I find myself, I am called by the sea. It can be half a mile out in the Bristol Channel or thousands of miles away.
© Eddie Hewitt 2016