If a broiling Bristolian or Bathonian is hell-bent on a drive to the coast, it’s at Weston-super-Mare that they’re likely to wash up, stepping out of their superheated sardine cans to survey the tantalising dazzle of coastline. However, depending on the tide, those glistening ripples can quickly turn out to be a mirage that leaves them up to their ankles in muck.
The affectionately nicknamed Weston-super-Mud has one of the highest tidal rises in the world – the low tide mark in Weston Bay is a mile from the seafront. Fortunately, for those craving a splash of salt there are plenty of fish and chip shops before the daytripper reaches the water.
That’s because Weston is nothing if not a traditional seaside town; all knotted handkerchiefs, sticks of rock and penny-slot amusements on the Grand Pier. On my mid-heatwave visit, donkeys shelter in the dwindling shade of their transport carrier, while elderly tourists pant in the Victorian shelters on the promenade, fanning themselves with copies of Take a Break.
Like many places on the British coast, the shopping centre is best avoided, but on the prom all is reassuringly timeless. Restaurants and bars with Eighties signages heave with scenes from a Martin Parr photoessay.
Tea dances in the Pavilion might be Weston’s bread and butter, but some locals have been worried that if they fail to move with the times, in a few years they might be scraping around for a decent spread of tourists.
At least, that was until 2015, when irony washed up in Weston in the form of street artist Banksy’s Dismaland, a pop-up exhibition in The Tropicana, a disused lido. This dystopian “bemusement park” might not have been to everyone’s taste, but it certainly made the council realise, in the words of Anna Southwell, owner of the independent Loves café, “that there’s room for more than the Kiss-Me-Quick tourism in Weston. Dismaland proved that cultural tourism could work for the town too.”
Hence, Weston is now courting a younger and more arty kind of seaside visitor, from cosmopolitan cities such as Bristol and Bath and bohemian hotspots like Bruton. The trendies are snapping up property around Weston, too. “People are buying houses and flats on the hillside, with a view of the beach and the woods behind them. It’s a nice quality of life,” says Southwell.
So could Weston be the Margate of the South West? Already the solid Victorian buildings sport the telltale sign of hipsterfication – the graffiti stencil.
And despite a certain edginess, there’s a real sense of optimism in the town. In 2017, the Pavilion underwent a £15 million refurb, while the flourishing University Centre Weston ensures a steady, youthful footfall.
Those crumbling prom cafés are suddenly retro-cool and already hosting club nights. Bath Opera recently put on a performance of La Bohème and performance group Theatre Orchard pop up in unusual places in the town.
I wander around until 6pm, when the sea has swept back in and gently laps the prom steps. As the hot sun relents, toes are dipped and whole bodies immersed. It’s proof that if you stick around long enough, this Somerset spot really does get cool.
Part of the hipster revival, The Brit Bar looks like a dead end but features outside tables and a great range of real ales and wines. Jam Night is every Friday, live bands Saturday night, and open mic on Sunday.
Check out the impressive feats of sandcastle-making at the Weston Sand Sculpture Festival – 2018 marks 250 years since the birth of an art form. Adults £4, child £3, family £10.
The Weston Air Show took place last month, but you can see more than 80 helicopters and autogiros at The Helicopter Museum.
The cake stop
Located on Knightstone Island, at one end of the Prom and near to Marine Lake, Dr Fox’s Tearoom gives you a different vantage point of Weston.
The light and airy Lassester’s serves up reasonably priced chefy fare in the refurbished Pavilion.
The event space
This crumbled art deco Tropicana lido was resurrected by Banksy, and is now an arts venue that buzzes at the weekends and during school holidays. Forthcoming special events include a vegan festival and Comic Con.