Probing the secrets of Weston's tonic air

Nobody today bothers to question whether Weston-super-Mare's air really has tonic quality. Its bracing effect is felt and therefore accepted

Nobody today bothers to question whether Weston-super-Mare's air really has tonic quality. Its bracing effect is felt and therefore accepted, but the resort's early guide books went to great pains to give the proof, and devoted pages to medical opinion and to results of experiments.Robbins' sixpenny guide to Weston of about 1861, unhesitatingly attributes the resort's prosperity to its healthy climate, and says: "The air is peculiarly tonic, possessing at the same time a degree of mildness without a relaxing tendency. The town is sheltered from the north and north-east winds by a spur of the Mendip hills, and is beautifully and romantically wooded ... its exposure to the Atlantic ocean, whose breezes become mild and subdued from the expanse of water over which they travel, exempt the town from the cold, biting winds, and severity of winter."But then," it continues, "the county itself is reputed for its mildness of air and some authorities contend that the world Somerset is synonymous with the old British word, Gladarhaf, and signifies summer air, the climate being so peculiarly mild and genial."It is not generally accepted that Somerset's name had any such origin. It comes rather from the Saxon Seo-meres, or sea lakes, the people in Somerset's far off marshy days being known as the Seo-mere-setes, or dwellers by the sea lakes.Although Robbins' Guide was trying to do what every Weston guide before and since has done - to sell Weston the health resort to visitors - it had the courage to debunk a previously held claim for local seaside air.It comments: "Some years ago, when the curative properties of iodine became generally known, and that this element was found in sea water and seaweed, it was popularly thought that the very air of the coast owed its great restorative effects to its presence in it."The advance of modern science has dissipated this idea; but if so it must be in such minute form as not only to escape detection by the most delicate tests, but to be of no practical value to health."This issue of iodine in seaside air is taken up more fully in a later Weston Guide, Beedle's Visitors Handbook of 1870. It gives an extensive quotation from a paper by Charles Pooley Esq., Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, published in 1862 and entitled, "Ozone, not iodine, the cause of the salubrity of Weston-super-Mare."Mr. Pooley comments: "It is a common remark that the climate of Weston is dependent for its salubrity upon iodine. To the presence of this element is attributed the singular efficacy of the air in the cure of scrofula and its cognate diseases, and invigorating the constitutions of persons enfeebled by illness."This opinion, which is widely spread, has taken root as an article of faith in the place, but I can discover no ground for it, other than that which is to be traced to the not uncommon mistake of confounding the smell given off from marine vegetation with the odour of iodine.""We may reasonably conclude that iodine does not form a constituent of the air of Weston-super-Mare," concluded Mr Pooley ... "Other causes will be found to account for the great salubrity of the place, and for the power its air possess in restoring the diseased to healthy action. Among the most potent of these is ozone."All this, is rather amusing to look back on, but the health giving properties of seaside air were much written about and discussed in the days when resorts began to grow, and seaside holidays were becoming fashionable.And what is ozone, you may ask. Beedle's Guide goes on to examine this question. It tells us that ozone is derived from the Greek oleo, and gets its name from the peculiar odour that distinguishes it. The odour was familiarly noticed where electrical machines were in action, and was known as the smell of electricity. Beedle's Guide quotes a Chamber's Journal article as saying that ozone in the air has an important bearing on health. "Ozone has an immense as a disinfectant," says the article. "It decomposes the products emanating from putrefying matter more effectually than any other known element ... in this acting as a disinfectant it is transformed into oxygen."Where ozone is strong the air is consequently oxygen plus!For further comments on Weston's wonderful air we turn to Professor W. R. Jackson's Visitors' Handbook of 1877, by far the largest and fullest guide to Weston ever written. This is what he says: "The main impression received and expressed by the stranger coming here, is the extraordinary vitality or 'strength' of the air at Weston. It seems to many persons a stimulant such as they never had felt before. "Weston winds are known all over Somerset - and far beyond its borders. The single fact is really very full of significance. The reader of Lord Eldon's life will remember how, when nerve and bodily vigour failed him, the Earl was advised by his physician to make carriage journeys of many miles per day, with the object of being blown upon by long columns of air."The visitor at Weston standing still, feels those long columns sweeping against him, and hence we have reported from time to time most remarkable cures of nervous exhaustion, spinal disease, and other complaints produced by overtaxed powers, accidents, or ailments leading to prostration and chronic debility.These disorders make up a large proportion of our human heritage of physical suffering, and therefore no doubt Weston is really very extensively useful, and merits the praise of a 'wonderfully healthy spot'. "The bay of Weston forms at low water a large evaporating pan, bottomed by a kind of clayey lias, which, when burned, has the property of setting under water, and is known in the district as "brown lime."Professor Jackson continues: "Whatever may be the particular chemicals thrown into the air, there can be no doubt that they contribute certain strong 'sniffs of the briny'. A modern man of science will probably say that ozone is specially abundant here, and along with it such properties of sea water as are most easily taken up and wafted by the breeze. Many such elements, difficult of detection in a combined state, are thus carried from the wave on the beach to the breathing apparatus of the health-seekers."Another circumstance to be considered is the vast distance through which the sea breeze travels over salt water, scarcely touching land in its flight. If anyone, opening a good ocean map of the grand tract between Great Britain and the United States, and planting a pin on Worle Hill, moves a thread attached to it in various down channel directions it will be a surprise to observe how the bay lies open to the seawind's passage, and how the configuration of the land itself, by taking a funnel shape, seems to direct the blast on Weston."Getting more enthusiastic, Professor Jackson declares: "A day when sunshine cannot be enjoyed by the invalid is really a rare occurrence ... Delicate persons and children, usually shut up half winter long, may here be seen enjoying their walks or rides nearly every day, not only with impunity, but with great pleasure and advantage."And so it has gone on down the years. In modern times Weston's annual holiday resort publicity campaign has plugged "Air like wine!" or the slogan "Spring in the Air" at Weston-super-Mare.In the 1967 Guide to Weston, we find "Members of the medical profession continue to send their patients, and the healthiness of its climate contributes in no small measure to Weston's growth. The village of 200 inhabitants a century ago is now one of the country's leading health resorts with a rising population of some 43,000."On this Somerset coast the tide rises to a greater height than anywhere else in Britain. Spring tides are as high as 42 feet and it is believed that this extraordinary rise and fall of the ride constantly diffusing ozone, is largely responsible for the outstanding health-giving properties of the air."And what are we to say to all this? Do you believe that Weston air has any special properties? If we are to accept what the guidebooks say, we who live in this place should be bursting with good health.At the risk of being called a crank with the rest, I admit that I am a firm believer in the special quality of Weston air. Winter or summer I hardly let a day go by without at least walking a short distance along the sea front. That is where the best Weston air is - straight off the brown lime, stiff clay, or mud, call it what you will.I concede that the fact that I feel better for breathing sea-front air may have nothing to do with any special characteristic in the air. It could be that I am better for taking exercise. The air may do me good because it is fresh and clean.Possibly I feel more zip simply because to go on the sea front, to look at the sea, Brean Down, the islands, and the sweep of sky, is to be taken out of this small local world for a few minutes, to have a vision of the immensity of things, to appreciate that in the sweep of time and the vastness of space and the eternal surge of the tide nothing really matters; my own little concerns least of all.Yes, perhaps all this, but it is my firm belief too that there really is something in the air at Weston-super-Mare.This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on September 1, 1967

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