For the first stage of our Summer Holiday 2014, we stayed on the outskirts of the town of Weston-super-Mare for 3 days, before heading further south to a static caravan near Dartmouth in Devon. Weston is a well known seaside town in the area, so we set out to explore…
Status: North Somerset Unitary District, Somerset, Town, England
Eating & Sleeping: Premier Inn Weston, Domino’s Pizza, Greggs, Pizza Hut
Attractions: Weston Pier, Town Hall, Bristol Channel, Beach, Winter Gardens, Marine Lake etc
Our journey started in the centre of town, as there are a few landmarks that aren’t tied to the seaside theme of the town, before you head down to the beach and the piers. The most notable of these has to be Weston Town Hall, a stunning building, the Clock Tower of which is easily visible on the skyline as you drive into the town. The building is currently home to the North Somerset Council, the head of a Unitary Authority District covering Weston and running up to the border with the city of Bristol. In 1974 a county called Avon was created that encompassed Bristol, Weston and a few other towns and cities including Bath, but the county was abolished in 1996 and the districts split up. 2 merged to form South Gloucestershire, 1 became the City & County of Bristol, 2 merged to become Bath & North East Somerset, and the final district was called Woodspring, which was later renamed North Somerset, which is grouped with Somerset geographically as it was historically part of the county.
Construction of the Town Hall was begun in the 1850’s, by J M Ison from the nearby city of Bath. 50 years later the building was enlarged, by Hans Price (1835 – 1912, Architect from Somerset) who also contributed to other buildings around the town from the Library to the various Baptist Churches. The North Front was then added in 1897, completing the building as it stands today.
If you look at the front of the building, the left hand side is noticeably different to the right, and the side of the building. Presumably the area on the left was the original construction, with the area on the right being a later addition. Looking at the Town Halls position geographically on the map, the area on the right would indeed appear to be the Northern section, so this must be the North Front from 1897. It’s a stunning building, and has been kept in a great condition so the original colour of the stonework is visible.
The front of the town Hall is located on Walliscote Road, and our next landmark is situated down Oxford Street, which runs past the North Front.
The landmark in question is the Church of Emmanuel, created by a duo called “Manners & Gill” in 1847, in the perpendicular style, as it consists of a number of right angles, most obviously around the central tower and its connection to the main body. The Church falls under the COE (Church of England) Diocese of Bath & Wells (the two local cities in Somerset). “Manners & Gill” was made up of two architects:
1) John Elkington Gill (1821 – 1874, Architect from Bath) who was a little known architect in the region until he partnered up with George Manners.
2) George Phillips Manners (1789 – 1866, Architect from Bath) who originally partnered up with Charles Harcourt Masters (born 1759) before working with John from 1845 until 1866 when Charles retired. Together they were responsible for various buildings around Bath including work on Bath Abbey. His practice still survives today, and from 1846 until 1909 it was located at No. 1 Fountain Building. A variety of architects followed in his footsteps in the practice, although many of them were in fact descendants of John Gill as opposed to George himself. A lot of Georges most well known works were on Churches, a lot of them being made in the Perpendicular style like Emmanuel.
Moving back into the centre of town, Walliscote Road continues round from the Town Hall towards the sea front and around a park area, which contained this delightful floral train display. It was installed in 2006 by the local council, and celebrates 200 years since the birth of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806 – 1859, famous English Engineer) whose works we would encounter a few times in the coming days, from his SS Great Britain and Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, to the Royal Albert Bridge carrying the railway over the river Tamar between Devon and Cornwall. Another reason for the display is to show where the towns original train station stood after it opened in 1841, on the line between Bristol and Exeter. It later closed sometime after 1851, and a new station presently stands on the outskirts of the town centre. The engine shown in the display is a scale replica of a locomotive called the “North Star” which was the first train to run on the Great Western Railway between London and the South West, also built by Brunel. It was once of 12 engines used on the line, known as the “Star Class” and was designed by Robert Stephenson (1803 – 1850, railway engineer). “North Star” was operational on the line from 1838 (when it pulled the first train) until 1871 when it was withdrawn from service. It’s amazing how much one small floral display can represent, and it opens up centuries of history.
Continuing on from here towards the sea front, we passed a rather unusual piece of public art, called “Silica” which rises 26 feet above the streets of Weston. This public square area is known as Big Lamp Corner, and the sculpture lights up at night across the various rings. It was built as a joint Kiosk/Bus Shelter/Advertising Space, and although I am unsure whether the Vendor section is still in use, it still operates as a bus stop. I have to say it must be the most expensive bus stop in the country, at £280,000!
The controversial sculpture, which is supposed to represent Man’s harmonious relationship with the Sea, was designed by Wolfgang Buttress (Notable British Artist) of Wolfgang & Heron, a company created out of a partnership between Wolfgang and Fiona Heron.
Reaching the sea front, one of the best ways to enjoy the views of the seafront and the Bristol Channel that separates Weston from Wales. There are three piers in the town, and this is the central and larger of the two, the Grand Pier. Measuring 400 m long, it was built by an Engineering called P. Munroe between 1903 and 1904. The original pier had a large theatre at the far end, with 2000 seats for spectators. In 1907 a 500 yard docking extension was added to the end of the pier, with the idea being that boats would sail over the channel to and from the Welsh capital, Cardiff, but the strong currents soon put paid to the idea and the extension was taken down. In 1930 a large fire engulfed the pier and the theatre was destroyed, and after rebuilding a funfair enclosed inside a pavilion replaced the theatre and was then converted into an amusement arcade.
A 2nd fire occurred in 2008, destroying the pavilion, but leaving the main structure of the pier intact. By the end of 2010 the pavilion had been rebuilt by John Sisk & Son, to designs by Angus Meek from Bristol. The cause of the 2nd fire was determined to be electrical, and sadly was one in a long line of pier fires around the UK, with the most recent being on Eastbourne Pier in Sussex.
The views from the pier are quite something, and you can see all the main buildings along the seafront. If you click on the above panoramic it will open in a new tab so you can see the view in greater detail. The major landmarks looking from right to left include:
1) The Winter Gardens (far right) which opened in 1927, and includes the Tourist Information Office. Its distinctive curved front looks out onto the promenade, and inside it contains various events centres, cafes and bars, as well as a theatre.
2) Directly to the left of the Winter Gardens is the Berni Royal Hotel, which was Westons first hotel when it opened in 1810. Also in the building is the Feathers Public House, built around 1845, with three storeys. The Feathers makes up the Northern Part of the building.
3) Next along, at 90 degrees to the Berni, is the Royal Terrace Grosvenor Hotel, built around 1860. The Grosvenor is one of the various grand hotels in the town, along with the Royal.
4) Moving to around halfway along the panoramic, there is a short stone arch located on the promenade. It was completed in mid 2010, and is the centrepiece of a redevelopment of the promenade, which had been modernised and updated, with brand new sea walls. Made up of 15, 7.5 tonne granite blocks, the arch is self supporting, and was designed by an artist from Bristol named John Maine.
5) Behind the cluster of buildings, around 3/4 of the way from the right, is the spire of Holy Trinity Church, built by H Lloyd back in 1861. It has a commanding position above the town, with the spire rising above the surrounding buildings.
6) Past the edge of the land shown to the right is the Bristol Channel, with Wales behind it, and the two cities of Cardiff and Newport are visible from various points along the shoreline. The rest of the landmarks shown on the panoramic clustered around the left of the picture include Birnbeck Pier right at the very end, and the edge of the marine lake, but I shall get to both of these later on in this post.
In the middle of the Bristol Channel are two islands, one called Steep Holm (left) and one called Flat Holm (right). Despite their proximity, they are actually both in different countries:
1) Steep Holm – Somerset, England
Steep Holm is a limestone island covered by the administrative unit of North Somerset, and is privately owned by a group of trustees. Both of the islands have fortifications on them, added by the Victorians in fear of an attack by the French Navy. These remain today, and the old Barracks have been turned into an Exhibition Centre. As well as these, a second set of fortifications added during World War II also exists, and consist of guns, rocket launcher sites and searchlights. Steep Holm is the furthest out to sea, and lies around 5 miles away from Weston. The rest of the Island is a nature reserve, and regular trips to the island from Weston allow visitors to experience the local flora and fauna. The whole island is about 0.6 of a mile long, and 1,300 feet wide. It’s name comes from its distinctive appearance, and at it’s highest point it rises to 265 feet tall (78 metres).
2) Flat Holm – City of Cardiff District, Wales
Flat Holm, again named for its layout obviously distinct from Steep Holm, is a limestone island closer to Wales, and comes under the City of Cardiff District. Trips are available to the island, and it is also 5 miles away from its respective coastline. The local wildlife includes rabbits and one of the largest gull colonies in the whole of Wales. There are a few buildings left on the island, from the ruins of the old Cholera Hospital (1896) and the 98 feet tall Lighthouse (1737). Due to its position in a busy shipping channel the Lighthouse stops ships running aground on the island, and flashes once around every 3 seconds. A Foghorn was added in 1906. Like Steep Holm, it was fortified by the Victorians and again during World War II, and they survive today. The island is smaller than its counterpoint, at only around 0.4 miles long and 0.4 miles wide. Its highest point is only 105 feet tall, less than half that of Steep Holm. Due to it’s position, the island is officially the most Southerly point of Wales.
This is a view looking South along the beach towards the 2nd of Weston’s 3 piers, also taken from the end of the main pier. This particular pier is notable, as at the time it was the first new pier built in Britain since around 1910. It opened in 1995, and the building that sits on top of it houses the town Aquarium. It is known as the SeaQuarium, and it is 1 part of two such Aquariums, with the other being in the town of Rhyl, in North Wales. You can see from the picture that it is much shorter, and looks to be one of the shortest in the country, although we would encounter the actual shortest pier in Britain later in the day, round at the town of Burnham-on-Sea, also in Somerset. If you want to find out more about the different species present in the Aquarium (including 10 different zones showcasing fish from all over the world), as well as its opening times, visit their official website here.
We eventually left the Grand Pier and had a wander down the promenade. Further along, well past the Arch, is the Marine Lake, which even has it’s own beach! It was artificially created in 1927, and at the front of the Lake is a concrete sea wall separating the Lake from the tide, and a walkway crosses the sea wall, giving great views across the Lake and out into the Bristol Channel. Prior to this a causeway ran across to the island, created around 1833 out of granite.
Next to it, to the left (out of shot) a rocky outcrop known as Knightstone Island, which was visible on the panoramic photograph from earlier, on the far left (with Birnbeck Pier protruding behind it). Boats leave from the “Island” to Flat Holm, and when the tide recedes this entire area round to the Grand Pier is exposed. A cluster of buildings on the Island includes three Grade II listed buildings:
1) The Pavilion, a large public hall & theatre built in 1902. There are storeys to the building, and it looks similar to the one on the end of the Grand Pier, and looks out across the bay and the Lake.
2) The Edwardian Swimming Baths from 1904, with a Romanesque tiled roof. It has been finely crafted with columns and tall windows around the outside.
3) Another Bath House, called the Sauna & Solarium, which was built by Dr Fox of Brislington in the 19th Century, and part of it today includes the Dr Foxs Tea Rooms.
Our last stop was further along the Promenade, looking out towards the sadly derelict form of Birnbeck Pier. Like the SeaQuarium Pier, it is also notable, for being the only pier in the country which actually links an island back to the mainland, rather than just terminating out to sea. It runs 1,150 feet out to Birnbeck Island, and also includes an RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) station which can be seen on the left just past where the main section of the pier reaches the island. It previously used the sloping jetty on the left with a Boathouse (1902) for it at the top. Behind that is a large white building, which is the new boathouse added in 2011, as the station is still used by the RNLI. A 3rd Boathouse is sat to the right of the White one, and was the original from 1889. This slipway is the one currently used.
On the far side of the Pier is another jetty, for steamboats running out towards the Bristol Channel. This is called the North Jetty, and was built in 1905. The Pier itself was built in 1867, to designs by Eugenius Birch (1818 – 1884, architect from Shoreditch, London) and was a tourist attraction until World War II, when it was taken over by the Navy for weapons research. After the war ended the pier reopened but trade had slowed, with boats hardly visiting, so it closed again in 1979, and has slowly become dilapidated ever since. I hope that soon it will be restored, and maybe one day when we revisit the area we can enjoy a sunny walk down to the island.
One of my favourite views from Weston is far away, over the Bristol Channel, in Wales. The Welsh capital city, Cardiff, is easily visible to the naked eye, with a few major landmarks standing out in the distance. If you look directly above the small building at the end of the North Jetty, you will see 3 of the 4 spired corners of the Millennium Stadium (1999), which is the national stadium for Wales and the home of the Welsh Rugby Union Team. To the right of that is the tall, rectangular figure of Stadium House (1976) which is the tallest building in the city, at 255 feet tall. A 131 feet tall spire sits on top of the building, and lights up at night.
Turning back, we retraced our steps back along the Promenade to our starting point, and got a great view across the beach. The tide was still out, and the poor little boats were stranded until it returned. You also get the best view of the Grand Pier from here, with the Pavilion at the end. You can get behind the Pavilion, but only on the far side from here, as the other side is staff only.
Weston-super-Mare is a pleasant town, and a great location for the stunning views across the Channel, to the two islands, and over to Wales. The Beach and the Lake are great places to relax, and the interesting history of the Piers is a huge draw. We enjoyed visiting the town, which also has good transport links. The M5 Motorway (South for Exeter, North for Bristol, Gloucester & Birmingham) runs close to the town, and Bristol International Airport is only 15 miles outside of the town, halfway between Weston and Bristol itself. The new train station, opened in 1884 (replacing two previous incarnations from 1841 and 1866) has direct services to the cities of Manchester, Stoke-on-Trent, Wolverhampton, Birmingham, Bristol, Exeter and Cardiff, as well as Taunton, Paignton, and of course the Capital, London. Various other local towns are also served, along with a bus service calling at Cheddar, Burnham-on-Sea, Bristol Airport and the city of Wells.
After enjoying the view for a bit longer, we moved on, and our next stop was 11 miles South along the coast, to the town of Burnham-on-Sea, home to the shortest pier in Britain…