Weston's end of the pier show
After the fire, how will this seaside resort win back the tourists, asks Ian White
Spare a thought for Weston-super-Mare. Not only has the North Somerset resort had to contend with losing the greater part of its seafront centrepiece, the Grand Pier, to fire (for the second time in its 100-year history), but it has also had to suffer the indignity of its two other main attractions, the Tropicana open-air swimming pool complex and Birnbeck Pier, being unable to step into the breach, having been closed for several years.
A few hundred yards south along the promenade, the Tropicana fell into disrepair and became uneconomical for the town council to run eight years ago. To the north, Birnbeck Pier is still pleasing to behold but has been closed since 1994.
The timing of the Grand Pier fire on 28 July couldn't have been worse. The school holidays had just begun and the pier's new owners, Michelle and Kerry Michael, had just spent more than £500,000 on a major refurbishment project.
The council's marketing department is keen to point out that Weston-sans-Pier is still open for business, with "plenty to do", including the SeaQuarium, the Helicopter Museum, the Winter Gardens and Weston Playhouse. But, though these attractions may well be worth a visit, they are not what Weston's typical holidaymakers are primarily looking for.
When the Michaels opened the landward part of the Grand Pier and its pier deck just four days later, that's where a great many of Weston's tourism demographic were to be found – buying ice creams and surveying the blackened rubble with a mixture of curiosity and sadness. Local radio stations were inundated with phone calls from residents and tourists alike. "It's Princess Di all over again," wailed one. "There's nothing left in Weston now," mourned another. The clear winner for outrageous hysteria was the caller who declared, "It's Weston's 9/11." It should be said that no one died in the fire.
However, this writer wasn't untouched. The Grand Pier is where, in the 1970s, my schoolmates worked as fare collectors in the summer holidays, riding on the back of dodgems.
The pier means a lot to Westonians, some of whom can remember the first time it was burnt down in 1930. It was reopened in 1933, and similarly, the Michaels have pledged to restore the pier to its former glory. Hopes are that it will be fully open in two or three years' time.
But, with more credit-squeezed Brits deciding to holiday at home, why hasn't the town invested in new, updated seafront attractions? Well, it is in the throes of doing just that, together with a variety of private developers.
The Tropicana is to be reborn as Lifestation@Tropicana, a much larger complex with a cinema, an indoor waterpark, a bowling alley, a hotel, a Whitbread Premier Inn and more besides. The developer, Henry Boot, plans to open the £30m attraction in 2010.
But getting planning permission is proving difficult. Local campaign groups want to see something smaller and more traditional. "A lot of the objectors want it restored to the Diana Dors era," says a spokesperson for Henry Boot, "but that would cost £8m-£10m before you even start. We've done as much as we can for the objectors and moved a long way from our original proposals."
Birnbeck Pier has been bought by the developer Urban Splash, which recently restored Morecambe's Midland Hotel. A mix of 21st-century hotel and residential accommodation is planned. Meanwhile, the council has launched its own regeneration project which includes spending £29m on strengthening the sea wall defences and £10m on improving the town centre.
Weston's ability to attract large-scale events such as Channel 4's T4 On the Beach, the International HeliDay display, and the annual Motocross Enduro race is impressive. What it has not been so good at is keeping its permanent attractions in good shape for the large percentage of its annual 5.9 million visitors who don't just come for these events. In the wake of the pier disaster, the tide may be turning.