COLUMN: The good old days of Weston tourism?

The village of Weston in 1815 showing The Hotel and old St John's church.

The village of Weston in 1815 showing The Hotel and old St John's church. - Credit: Weston Museum

It’s 1822. You’ve left London and come to Bath for ‘the season’. There’s a whiff of hedonism amongst the visiting upper class. Virtue and money will be easily lost and the pox easily caught.

Welcome to Georgian England.

The old order of aristocracy and land still rules, though it’s also a time of revolution.

Wealth through industry is giving rise to a new middle class and to a less tolerant moral outlook. But let’s stay awhile with that beloved of all English misconceptions - the good old days.

The air is rife with the odours of modern city life. So bad is the murk from Bath’s smoke enveloped valley and the stench of manure filled streets sodden into a grimy quagmire at every downpour that visitors of a more delicate disposition are being advised to visit the less fashionable but exceedingly healthy little spa village of Weston-super-Mare.

New baths on Knightstone Island by Edward Askwith. 

New baths on Knightstone Island by Edward Askwith. - Credit: Weston Museum collection

How to get here? You’ll need to wait 19 years for the first train to puff into Weston so jump aboard a bone-shaking stagecoach departing Bath’s Angel Inn Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays at noon arriving ‘about’ five hours later at Fry’s Hotel (today Royal, opened 1810).

If cash is a problem, then take an overnight cart or caravan and don’t moan about pot holes.

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Why 1822? It’s the year Weston’s first guide book hit the bookstalls.

The previous year’s census recorded just over 700 residents (it’s now more than 70,000).

Health rather than entertainment is the sales pitch with references to ‘the uncommon salubrity of its invigorating breezes’. The air is ‘soft but bracing’ and, cocking a snook at our neighbours, ‘peculiarly efficacious to those constitutions with which the Devonshire coast disagrees’. Though balmy, Weston’s weather imparts ‘strength to the invalid even when blowing a hurricane’.

No stag or hen parties, no riff-raff, no kiss-me-quick vulgarities, no naff beer-bellied forty something shaven headed oikes clinging to long-since departed youth; no seekers of a Saturday night punch-up, no surreptitious alleyway exchanging of narcotics, no karaoke belching from speech inhibiting amplifiers - just well-heeled genteel seekers of salubrity.

The Royal Hotel in 2006 with its original 1810 front façade. 

The Royal Hotel in 2006 with its original 1810 front façade. - Credit: John Crockford-Hawley

Emphasising this point our guide points out ‘health and not dissipation being the lure, public amusements are few’. There is, however, a billiard table near the Hotel and a reading room at Knightstone baths where newspapers are taken in daily. Great!

Holidaying first impressions are all-important. Unlike today’s comms graduates who excel in verbal deception the 1822 guide calls a spade a spade with the opening line "Weston-super-Mare does not present a very inviting appearance to the stranger."

The houses, scattered mostly without arrangement … give a character of meanness …. and if a stranger first enters it on a stormy day and at low water, he may perhaps feel inclined to turn his horse’s head towards home again.

Ah ha, but read on and we’re told that ‘on a fine summer evening nothing can be more beautiful than the scene which it presents: numerous groups walking on its extensive sands, a variety of carriages of all descriptions, horses, ponies, donkeys, wheel chairs, &c. fishermen shrimping, and the villagers enjoying the high tide after the labours of the day’. One coin; two sides.

Old St John's 12th century church. Replaced in 1824.

Old St John's 12th century church. Replaced in 1824. - Credit: John Crockford-Hawley

Where to bathe? There are three ‘machines’ on the sands, though Georgian gentlemen rather favour skinny dipping. Women might bathe with assistance at Anchor Head near Claremont ‘a beautifully situated lodging house’, and Mr Howe has opened hot and cold baths on Knightstone (three shillings for the hot one). Two pleasure boats skippered by ‘careful and experienced fishermen’ appeal to those who enjoy trips around the bay.

But where to stay? Three hotels including Fry’s, Plough (replaced by M&S in High Street), and Masons Arms (later Imperial now Olea) set in ‘a handsome row of new houses with accommodation for large families’. Many other households take in guests and charges are generally between 18 shillings and 5 guineas a week.

All that was exactly 200 years ago. Good old days?

By John Crockford-Hawley