How flat whites are replacing tattoo parlors in the ‘Margate of the South West’

All summer long we will be keeping an eye on the pulse of our most famous traditional seaside resorts, examining the efforts being made to revive them, and assessing whether they are still worth visiting. This week Paul Bloomfield explores Weston-super-Mare.

Maybe it was the epilepsy-triggering neon. Or the auditory anarchy of robot sounds colliding with souped-up ‘hits’ from the 110s. Or the unicorn poop-colored cotton candy I had consumed. How else could I explain why I was staring madly at a sea of ​​2-cent pieces, pumping shrapnel into them, and praying for an avalanche of copper?

Until I visited Weston-super-Mare I hadn’t realized that coin operated machines still existed. (Full disclosure: I also hadn’t realized that 2p pieces still existed.) My inner snob shuddered. My inner nine-year-old gleefully indulged in sugar-rush nostalgia.

The Grand Pier was first opened more than 100 years ago

The Grand Pier was first opened over 100 years ago – John Lawrence

You could say that the Grand Pier represents the unreconstructed face of this most fast-paced resort in Somerset. But it isn’t – unreconstructed, that is. The pavilion opened in 1904 and was burned in 1930, and then again in 2008.

The latest version is in many ways a metaphor for Weston. The ghost train, donut factory and more than 500 games contrast with a £500,000 investment in fully electric go-karts and interpretation boards on birds, war history and architecture. Likewise, chippies, crazy golf and cheap drinkers go hand in hand with craft brewpubs and cutting-edge street art in the city. Weston is an arcade game of two halves.

The excellent museum tells its rags-to-riches-to-rags story in illustrated detail. How Brunel’s railway, completed in 1841, brought a fishing village to a boom and created a honeypot that attracted almost 80,000 visitors on pre-World War II holidays. But budget travel abroad burst the tourism bubble, and a decline ensued. Weston went from great to a…well, you can connect the dots.

Bloomfield got a sweet treat during his all-electric go-kart rideBloomfield got a sweet treat during his all-electric go-kart ride

‘Weston seems like the kind of place where five a day means ice cream, chips and cotton candy, doner and doughnuts,’ writes Bloomfield – John Lawrence

What is it really like?

As you nurse your oat milk flat white and look out over two miles of golden sand from the terrace of Revo Kitchen – formerly an aquarium, later upgraded to pier status – you might believe the Bristol-on-Sea hype. Weston’s property prices are a third lower than those of its larger neighbour, and waves of refugees from the city are driving demand for artisan bakeries and alternatives to traditional entertainment. Witness the Front Room fringe theater and hipster bars of Grove Village.

That image is somewhat tempered by the parade of tattoo parlors, pulsating bars and shops where bright buckets and spades are advertised.

“A few years ago consultants tried to rebrand the town as ‘more Waitrose and less Aldi’,” laughed one local resident. “But the Weston market is not people going glamping in Cornwall. It’s people from Birmingham and Wales coming for a donkey ride and an ice lolly on the beach – and that’s OK.”

There are mutterings that Weston could emulate Margate, a fellow coastal pariah who has fallen on hard times, who has become good through art. Since Banksy installed his ‘entertainment park’ in Dismaland in 2015, street artists have defaced buildings across the city, adding to it every year during Upfest. Follow the Weston Wallz trail and admire more than a dozen new murals.

Mural in the city centerMural in the city center

An annual street art festival graces the city with new murals – John Lawrence

Street art in the city centerStreet art in the city center

An example of such a work in the city center – John Lawrence

Among other regeneration initiatives, tranches of cash – the latter part of £20 million secured from the government’s Leveling Up funds – have breathed new life into shopfronts along Walliscote Road, luring independent retailers including an excellent art gallery, a Thai bistro and a delicious bakery. Opposite is the Plaza cinema – formerly an Odeon – an Art Deco gem from 1935 that still houses the original Compton pipe organ, which is also being renovated.

Stays evolve too. The once tired Commodore on Sand Bay has been transformed into the boutique South Sands Hotel, which exudes the scent of, yes, Cornwall.

What’s not to like about it?

The Telegraph‘s gentrification index ranked Weston as Britain’s third worst seaside resort. It’s not hard to understand why. At 9:30 a.m., I saw a lone gambler shoveling coins into adjacent slot machines amid migraine-inducing beeps. He wouldn’t be alone for long.

Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s emperor from 1930 to 1974, loved the Art Deco lido – once the largest open-air swimming pool in Europe – during his exile in the 1930s, but it is now a gravelly site where occasional events take place . Expansion work to create a venue with a capacity of 8,000 people should start this summer.

The now abandoned Birnbeck PierThe now abandoned Birnbeck Pier

The now abandoned Birnbeck Pier, ready for a facelift and reopening next year – John Lawrence

Even more apocalyptically dilapidated is Birnbeck Pier, the northernmost of three monuments jutting out of the sea, opened in 1867. This Grade II listed ghost, another beneficiary of the Leveling Up investment, should be restored and reopened to the public next year.

You’ll never be short of tattoos or takeaways again. The high street is literally and appropriately sandwiched between two Greggs. The large, well-managed and, when I visited, bustling Fridge of Free Stuff food bank is a reminder of the problems facing Weston. That includes the Knife Angel that currently towers over Italian gardens, made using 100,000 blades confiscated by police or donated during amnesties across the country.

Frankly, few units are vacant. And Weston’s variety keeps it spicy. As Shakespeare, quoted on plaques above the high street’s Grade II listed WHSmith, wrote: “Come and choose from all my library, and so allure your sorrows.” Or, as street artists urge: “Dream Big! To believe! Keep going!”

The Knife AngelThe Knife Angel

The Knife Angel in the Italian Gardens of Weston by John Lawrence

Do this

Make a splash. Weston was way ahead of the wellness trend: as early as the 1830s, Dr. Edward Long Fox promoted the health benefits of sea bathing here. Today, the enclosed Marine Lake provides a clean, free and – I can happily testify, even on a cloudy May morning – a warm place for a safe sunset dip.

Then cool off in the craft beer bars of nearby Grove Village. The best choices are the Fat Head Brewery & Taproom – Lemon Head Pale is a drinkable, reasonably priced cask beer – and Black Cat Micropub. End the evening with a board meeting in The Stable Games Room or swinging to a world music performance at the weekend in the Grove Park bandstand.

Fat Head Brewery & Taproom and The Stable Games RoomFat Head Brewery & Taproom and The Stable Games Room

Fat Head Brewery & Taproom and The Stable Games Room – John Lawrence

Eat this…

At first glance, Weston seems like the kind of place where getting five a day means ice cream, chips and cotton candy, doner and doughnuts. So you might imagine that a menu of gochujang cauliflower and vegan West African peanut stew would raise your eyebrows, if not your neck. Yet Loves Cafe has been delighting locals with delicious meat-free morsels for over a decade. Come for global flavors, stay for live tunes.

Too hipster? Grab a regular (but let’s be honest, very large indeed) portion of real chippy chips from the old-fashioned Winstons Fish Bar on the seafront, and nibble contentedly with sand between your toes.

But don’t do this…

As more than one resident muttered to me somewhat euphemistically, “It can get a little… noisy downtown at night.” Walk directly inland from the Grand Pier and you’ll reach the kebab and cheap pint zone along Alexandra Parade and beyond, where Saturday evenings are said to be prime for fighting – best avoided on a summer’s evening.

And don’t be tempted to run across the sand into the surf when the sea comes in. Weston is said to have the second highest tidal range in the world, regularly reaching heights of almost 50 feet; Many an over-enthusiastic visitor has been surprised by rushing waves or sinking mud. Be aware of warning signs.

From the locals

“Before I came, my father-in-law said, ‘You’re not going to Weston-super-Mud? I wouldn’t go there if you paid me rent!’” recalls Mag, a resident of 30 years. “But there is a lot of civic pride. They work hard to keep the beaches and gardens clean. Even the motorcyclists clean it up themselves.”

“There is an active community committed to making Weston better,” agrees Kelli Rapson, owner of Sustenance bakery. “Historically, all the money was just outside the city, while now there is more investment in the center. It is Weston – you do get people hanging around – but they are generally harmless. And it has the best sunsets anywhere!”

Kelly Rapson, who runs Sustenance bakeryKelly Rapson, who runs Sustenance bakery

Kelly Rapson runs Sustenance – John Lawrence bakery

From tourists

“I love the fresh air – I always sleep better after being in Weston,” smiles Veronica Sawyer, as she enjoys a day out from Gloucester. “It’s cheap and cheerful – I don’t want it too posh. I wouldn’t stay here for a week but it’s great for a day out which cost us £20. What else do you get for £20 these days?

“They spent a fortune paving the boardwalk, and they did a great job,” says Wendy, a Midlander who has been going there for 30 years. “But they removed the beautiful array of lights strung along the ball, which was the epitome of the seaside atmosphere. The ones installed to replace them are rubbish.”

Veronica Sawyer thinks Weston-super-Mare is a good choice for a day out because it's 'cheap and cheerful'Veronica Sawyer thinks Weston-super-Mare is a good choice for a day out because it's 'cheap and cheerful'

Veronica Sawyer thinks Weston-super-Mare is a good choice for a day out because it’s ‘cheap and cheerful’ – John Lawrence

Get there

Weston is a breezy half-hour from Bristol, with wooded hills lining the horizon north and south. Direct trains from London Paddington take just over two hours. The coast is a 10-minute walk west of the station.

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