A resort built on air like wine

To what does Weston-super-Mare owe is phenomenal growth? Just over 150 years ago little more than a fishing village. What has attracted people here?

To what does Weston-super-Mare owe is phenomenal growth? Just over 150 years ago little more than a fishing village. What has attracted people here? Is it that it happens to be the only seaside place with a large fine beach near Bristol, the Midlands and Cardiff? Do people come here for the bathing, or is it the wide stretch of sands that draws them? In the years when Weston grew swiftly it had no shopping or entertainment amenities to compare with those of today.The holiday trade on which Weston developed in its early years was not that of the day excursionists, the trippers, but the gentry. They came, put up with the limited character of the accommodation, and came again. They did more than this. From spending holidays here they came to live here. It was the residential demand from the gentry customers that led to the building of the fine houses in local stone on the hill, and Royal Crescent and Ellenborough Park.Today the emphasis of the seaside holiday cult is on having a good time as a break from the workaday world. In the early days of Weston's history as a resort people went to the seaside not so much for a change as for seeking better health on their doctors' advice. To Weston in those early years came many of the pale, tightly corseted young ladies who, understandably, had been wilting, almost suffocating, in Victorian drawing rooms.The doctors ordered them to the seaside, but not, of course, to undress and abandon their bodies to the sea and air. Their deportment, under the strict eye of mama, was still as unrelaxed as they walked abroad as it was in the drawing room. Perhaps the more venturesome among them might, under the shelter and privacy of rocks at Anchor Head and towards Kewstoke, twinkle immodest toes in a pool.When sea bathing as an aid to health had growing medical authority, it is true the gentry's daughters did venture into the sea at Anchor Head. But their bathing costumes voluminously blanketed the feminine figures, their bathing area was screened from the shore, and there were by-laws prohibiting boatmen from going near.No, it was not the bathing that started Weston on the road to growth and prosperity as a seaside resort. We must conclude it was the air. The tributes to Weston's famous air are endless. They appear in the diaries of the first known visitors, and down through the years they have been sung most expressively in successive guidebooks.A letter written by famous Mrs Piozzi and quoted in Weston's first guidebook read: "The breezes here are most Salubrious, no land nearer than North America, when we look down the Channel .... Who would be living at Bath now? The Bottom of the Town a Stewpot, the top a Gridiron."'Stewpot' I think aptly describes the fair city of Bath in midsummer heat. The gentry, staying there for their health, felt impelled to get out of it. So they went off for day excursions by carriage to Weston-super-Mare, filled their lungs with sea breezes, were refreshed and went back thinking Weston a better pace than Bath, at any rate at that time of year.Doctors took to recommending their patients to try Weston's change of air. It only wanted a few eminent physicians to praise the quality of the air, and Weston was made. At one time eminent specialists seemed to be trying to outvie each other in the extraordinary detailed analysis showing why Weston should have such wonderful tonic breezes.The town's first Guide, dated 1822, declared: "Weston-super-Mare is opposite the Flat and Steep Holms, and is consequently open to the south-west winds, which generally prevail during the summer months."How they prevail don't they, sometimes? The Guide goes on to say that these south-west winds "are uncontaminated by passing over any land that can rob them of their peculiar salubrity. The air is soft but bracing, and is peculiarly efficacious to those constitutions with which the Devonshire coast disagrees; though it is so balmy that even when blowing a hurricane, it imparts strength to the invalid."Lifts him out of his chair, I should say!The Guide than adds: "This salubrity of the south-west winds is attributed by Sir Humphry Davy, an authority in chemical science of the most undisputed kind, to the large portions of oxygen they imbibe in passing over the vast vegetation of the extensive plains of the Savannahs of South America."So much for the claims for Weston's air in 1822. If we pass on another 30 years or so to Whereat's New Handbook to Weston-super-Mare, dated 1855, we find different reasons for Weston's wonderful climate. It was then argued that it arises because Weston happens to lie in the point of a triangle formed by Worlebury, Uphill, and Brean Down's hill.This is the Guide's claim: "The climate of Weston demands especial attention, inasmuch as to its salubrious influence must be mainly attributed the fact of an insignificant fishing hamlet having in a very short space of time sprung up into one of the most prominent places of healthful and fashionable resort in the West of England."In point of salubrity, however, it differs from most of them in some essential peculiarities. The air is dry and bracing, yet possesses a softness or balminess which is totally independent of humidity, and is, consequently, whilst extremely grateful, invigorating, and stimulant, without any relaxing tendency whatever. "The town is situated just within one point of what might be considered a triangle, looking to the sea (the westward) as a base. It nestles closely under Weston or Worlebury Hill, by which it is fully protected from the north and north east; whilst from two to five miles distant is a line of hills to the southwards, comprising Brean Down, Uphill, and Hutton hills."From the base of the supposed triangle these hills will be found to converge, and to meet exactly at a point, but to form at some distance to the eastward a kind of contraction, or throat, leading into the North marsh, through which aerial egress is easy, but regress impossible."A remarkable immunity from fog, which is a matter of almost daily remark, is thus easily accounted for; as well as the surprise of many, who having approached it through a dense mist, find it at last in a perfectly clear atmosphere. Fog, when it occurs, follows the course of these convergent hills separately, leaving the town quite free; and the two tributes of watery vapour coalesce only at a point where the hills approach nearest each other; whilst mist or land fog from the eastward, instead of urging itself through the before-mentioned throat, takes a course more readily open to it, by passing on the other side of the protective hills."Mr Whereat continues: "The most striking peculiarity of this climate is the great amount of therapeutic agency which it supplies."This, though vouchsafed to all periods of life, is especially remarkable in childhood, from the rapidity with which the lack-lustre eyes, pasty features, attenuated limbs, and listless gait, which too clearly indicate the cachectic predisposition, are exchanged for a robust frame, activity of body, and chubby cheeks stamped with the rosy tint of health."The great distance to which the ebbing tide recedes from the shore, leaving apparently a large tract of uncovered mud, has ever been an eye-sore to those who approach the town at the time of low water, and not infrequently has raised a suspicion of consequent unhealthiness."It must be remembered that this is not a bed of mud at all, but of stiff clay. There can be no stagnant water or unwholesome emanations, seeing that it is washed twice a day by the flowing tide, which, receding, leaves it covered simply by a thin layer of salt water and fresh seaweed."The only emanations that can possibly arise are, therefore of a healthful character, namely, saline particles taken up and circulated pure, or in the form of spray, throughout the atmosphere, which the sense of taste readily recognises; whilst a further proof, if wanting, is found in the actual deposits of salt upon vegetation several miles inland, after a strong westerly gale."Besides this, it is but a fair presumption that the seaweed contributes its quota of iodine, the more fully to impregnate the air with wholesome combinations. Hence, an imaginary disadvantage appears to be fraught with positive good."When he gets towards the end of the chapter Mr Whereat is going even stronger. He says: "The rate of mortality in this district is unusually low, and bears no proportion to the numbers of births, which considerably exceeds the average of other localities. Endemic disease is unknown; whilst the usual epidemics appear to be much mitigated by the climate, and run, when they occur, a very moderate course."In conclusion, Mr Whereat quotes a Weston Guide of 1829 which he says, stated: "not long since a medical gentleman of celebrity, resident at Bath, sent one hundred patients to Weston for the benefit of the air, only four of whom left the place without being benefited."Finally, he adds: "Since the above remarks were written, we have been gratified to learn that they are fully confirmed by the opinion of Sir John Forbes, Physician in Ordinary to Her Majesty's Household, Physician Extraordinary to Prince Albert, etc. The opinion of this gentleman must be regarded as particularly valuable, from the facts more especially of his appointment as Physician to the Hospital for Consumption and Diseases of the Chest, and from his having made the subject of Climate his particular study - having published a valuable monograph in reference to it."This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on August 18, 1967

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