Bible and Paradise Lost were the only two books in the town

PUBLISHED: 15:48 29 January 2007 | UPDATED: 10:32 24 May 2010

A painting of a corner of Weston in village days. The precise locality is not known.

A painting of a corner of Weston in village days. The precise locality is not known.

I enquir'd for books, there were but two in the town was the reply : a Bible and paradise Lost." So wrote Mrs Thrale Piozzi during her stay at Weston in 1819

The Royal, Weston's first hotel, has had several changes of name down the years. In the 1820s it was Fry's Hotel, and here is Mr Fry, the proprietor.

I enquir'd for books, there were but two in the town was the reply ... a Bible and paradise Lost." So wrote Mrs Thrale Piozzi during her stay at Weston in 1819. She was one of the cleverest women of her day and a great friend of Dr Johnson.Her letter was included by Ernest Baker in a reprint of Weston's first guidebook, dated 1822, which in its comments on the young resort's attractions frigidly declared: "Health and not dissipation begin the lure which Weston-super-Mare holds out, public amusements are few. There is, however, a billiard room at the Hotel, and a reading room, commanding a fine marine view, at the Knightstone Baths, where newspapers are taken daily."It was long thought that the earliest guidebook to Weston was that by John Rutter, published in 1829. One day, however, local historian Ernest Baker came across the earlier one, dated 1822.He had it reprinted, and in the preface to it he wrote that: "so scarce, so quaint, and so curious did I find the little book, that I decided I would not bury it in my library, but would reprint it in a very cheap and popular form for the benefit of my fellow townsmen, and the descendants of 'The inhabitants of Bristol, Bath, and their vicinities', to whom it was originally dedicated by its anonymous author."Mr Baker printed Mrs Piozzi's fascinating letter - the first recorded letter by a visitor to Weston.Addressed to Sir James Fellowes at Bognor, the letter included the following: "I feel delighted Dear Sir that you have not forgotten me; some Ladies that I met upon the sands last night said Sir James Fellowes had mention'd my name at gay and fashionable Bognor. This little Place is neither gay nor fashionable yet as full as an Egg, insipid as the White on't and dear as an Egg o' Penny. I enquir'd for Books, there were but Two in the Town was the reply ... a Bible and Paradise Lost ... but I don't care about that."... The Breezes here are most Salubrious; no Land nearer than North America, when we look down the Channel; tis said that Sebastian Cabot used to stand where I now sit and meditate his future Discoveries of Newfoundland. Who would be living in Bath now? The Bottom of the Town a Stewpot, the top a Gridiron, and London in a State of Defence or Preparation for Attack or some strange Situation, while poor little Weston is free from alarms ...." The Guide to Weston of 1822 opens by stating that Weston is already 'a fashionable summer retreat', and that the census of the previous year showed that its population was 735. It assays that a few years earlier the place consisted of only a few huts, and that the inhabitants gained a living by fishing.It sets the pattern of Weston guidebooks down the years by extolling the health-giving quality of our famous air: "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."It acknowledges that Weston at that time did not present a very inviting appearance: "The houses, scattered mostly without arrangement, and roofed with red tile, give a character of meanness to the village," it says, "and if a stranger first enters it on a stormy day and at low water, he may perhaps feel inclined to turn his horses' heads towards home again. However, a walk to Claremont Lodge and over the hill, would even then convince him that Weston has at all times attractions; and his surprise at the metamorphosis will be great if he patiently awaits the flowing tide."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, etc., fishermen shrimping, and the villagers enjoying the high tide after the labours of the day; whilst the distant coast of Wales, the white sails of the vessels in the harbour of Cardiff, the Steep and Flat holms, and the setting sun ... form a most interesting coup d'oeil. As the shades of evening draw on, the light-house on the Flat Holm, now on new construction, attracts attention."At that time the main route into Weston from Bristol was apparently still the old Bristol Road over the hill, and the writer of this first guidebook to the resort describes the view as Weston comes into sight: "Passing through the ancient village of Worle, the traveller ascends a hill, within two miles of Weston."Here nothing can be more striking than the variety of the scenery on a fine clear day; before him lies the Channel, covered with vessels; the Steep and Flat Holms, and the Welsh coast, on the right, the bleakest and coldest looking hill, whose top is strewn with stones of a greyish hue, which imagination may form into the remains of the winter's snow; behind him lies the richest and most extensive vale, covered with villages and gentlemen's seats, etc. On the left lies the village of Weston-super-Mare, situated in a valley, and sheltered by hills, except on the west where it is open to the sea."With the immense trade of Bristol, the huge coal exporting of Cardiff and other Welsh ports and, of course, smaller craft to carry the cargoes, there must at times have been dozens of ships in full sail beating up and down the Channel.The guide goes on to refer to the accommodation available. This includes that at Fry's Hotel, 'a large square house, near the sea' this being Weston's first hotel now under different proprietorship. The Plough Hotel, in High Street, or The Street as it was known, had also made its appearance.The Verandah House, in the hotel fields, was 'a favourite lodging', and Verandah Cottages were let for from two-guineas-and-a-half to three guineas a week. Wellington Place was a row of houses with gardens in front "divided from the sands by a small field: each of these let at from two to three guineas a week." Regent Place, leading to the sea, contained many houses and lodgings of different sizes and prices.The days of Weston's tiny village church were numbered. The guide comments: "In consequence of the very great increase of the place, it is now too small for the accommodation of even the inhabitants; but it is hoped that measures will speedily be adopted to remedy this evil. A munificent donation of a thousand pounds has been liberally subscribed for this purpose by the lord of the manor, the Rev Wadham Pigott, of Brockley; an example so laudable, we trust, will not remain without imitation. There is service twice every Sunday, at half-past ten in the forenoon, and at half-past two in the afternoon."Bathing facilities in village Weston, as one might expect, were extremely modest. In her letter Mrs Piozzi mentions that: "We have swarms of Babies here, and some bathe good-humouredly enough, while others scream and shriek as if they were going to Execution."The guide tells us: "On the sands are three machines, which can be used except at low tide. The hour of bathing is regulated by the tide, and may be ascertained with tolerable accuracy by referring to an Almanack; high water at Weston-super-Mare being about three quarters of an hour earlier than at Bristol Dock Gates. There is bathing at Anchor Head, at all tides; it is about a quarter of a mile from the Hotel, very near Claremont; a beautifully situated lodging house."Hot and Cold Baths are now erected on Knightstone. To the enterprising spirit of Mr Howe, the proprietor of Knightstone, Weston is under great obligations. To him it is indebted for these baths, which have been erected at a very considerable expense .... The price of a hot bath is three shillings, and one shilling for a cold bath. In Somerset Place a hot bath is opened, attended by Mrs Gill, one of the original bathing women of the place. A shower bath may be procured at Knightstone and at Somerset Place."And what amusements were there at Weston in the early 1820s? In addition to the billiard table at the Hotel, and the reading room at the Knightstone Baths, our first guide also mentions "...two pleasure boats - the Princess Charlotte, Mugglesworth, Master; and the Mary, Burge, Master - are kept for hire by careful and experienced fishermen. Jaunting cars, wheel and sedan chairs, ponies, and donkeys, are to be hired in the village; in the environs of which are many beautiful drives."For those for whom these manifold attractions were not enough the guide recommended the study of conchology, or seashells, although it admitted there were only seven varieties to be found.Knightstone was then an island, and the guide says: "Knightstone is another favourite walk; it is a rock joined to the village by a bank of pebbles, thrown up by the sea. At high tides it is an island of about a quarter of a mile, or less, in circumference, and the unwary stranger has frequently been detained some hours here, but a boat is always in attendance."A Reading Room, Hot and Cold Baths, and A Lodging House have been erected by a spirited individual, who purchased the island for that purpose."Three years ago Knightstone was a useless rock, and Legend says was the burial place of a Roman knight, from whence it derives its name. When it was blown preparatory to these buildings, some bones of gigantic size were discovered, and it is supposed were those of the knight whom tradition says was interred here."Knightstone produces a coarse kind of marble, which answers well for chimney pieces. Specimens of this marble adorn almost every house in Weston-super-Mare."At Spring Cove just below Kewstoke tollgate there used to be a remarkable rock formation through which the tide gushed, causing a sound like tremendous sighs. The 1922 guidebook says: "The tide rushing through the cavities, produces an extraordinary sound, and, in one spot, forcing its ways through a fissure in the rock, and then foaming over, it resembles a boiling kettle, which name it bears. The best time to observe this curiosity is when the tides are rising."The sighing rock was destroyed by a landslide in later years.Just think what the Borough Council would make of this feature if it existed today. It would no doubt be boxed in, with entrance by turnstiles on payment of a fee!* This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on June 23, 1967

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