Drew up a list of buildings, made plans – dream on.
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley.
However, whilst on my 2015 cycle tour of the south west coast I arrived almost accidentally yet serendipitously outside Babbacombe Model Village.
A good place to visit as dogs are welcome and this is important to us. The models were very cleverly designed and each one is recognisable and very funny anecdotes and labels. It was much bigger than it looked but flowed easily and was fun and charming to walk around. There is also a free mini crazy golf room which makes a change to not charge for something like this and a joy to see. I really enjoyed myself and it is all so well maintained you can feel the passion of the people creating it.
I went in – how could I have done otherwise?
Many of the buildings reflect the areas’ Seaside Moderne styles, from the holiday chalets to the substantial Modernist Villa, plus all the up to the minute services and infrastructure one would expect in a modern model village.
Although there is evidence in the local area of occupation since the Iron Age, it was still a small village until the 19th century when it became a seaside resort, and was connected with local towns and cities by a railway, and two piers were built. The growth continued until the second half of the 20th century, when tourism declined and some local industries closed. A regeneration programme is being undertaken with attractions including the Helicopter Museum, Weston Museum, and the Grand Pier. The Paddle Steamer Waverley and MV Balmoral offer day sea trips from Knightstone Island to various destinations along the Bristol Channel and Severn Estuary. Cultural venues include The Playhouse, the Winter Gardens and the Blakehay Theatre.
I pushed my bike along the prom heading for my pre-booked digs in a stylish seafront hotel.
Past the Marine Causeway linking the shore to some kind of modern day Post Modern Shangri-La.
A mystical, harmonious valley, gently guided from a lamasery, enclosed in the western end of the Kunlun Mountains, possibly not.
You can stroll onto Knightstone Island, where you will find some cafes serving light snacks and refreshments, or to the other side which takes you along the causeway, accessible to walk across according to the tides. At the other side of the Causeway you will find a small rocky beach with tidal rockpools ideal for exploring.
Just along the prom stands one of my all time favourite seaside shelters.
Even further along – what’s all this here then?
The foundation stone of the Birch-designed Birnbeck Pier was laid in 1864. It opened on 5th June 1867 and consisted of a 1040 foot cantilever construction to Birnbeck Island and a short jetty extending westwards from the island.
It seems to have changed hands several times in its relatively short life, including the stewardship of the infamous Urban Splash and the mysterious mystery owners, the current custodians it seems, have done little to secure a secure future.
It remains alone and untended, stretching aimlessly out to sea.
In April 2015, Friends Of The Old Pier Society created a novel fund raising scheme in which 1p and 2p coins would be lined up to stretch from the Grand Pier to Birnbeck Pier.
September 2019 Councillor Mr Crockford-Hawley said:
It’s this end of Weston which is the sore, it’s the carbuncle, it’s clearly well past its prime and it needs some serious attention. I mean it would be wonderful if somebody came along with an open ended bank account and said ‘yup, I’d love to restore it for the sake of restoring it’, but quite clearly there’s got to bean economic future for the pier, there’s got to be a purpose for the pier.
Possibly a wealthy Beatle could bail the ailing pier out of deep water?
Next thing I know I’m outside the imposing and impressive sounding Ocean Hotel. Sad to say on the day/night of my visit it wasn’t just this weary traveller that appeared to be over tired, happy to report the the New Ocean Hotel has been revamped and in tip-top condition by all accounts.
Any road up, let’s get out, take a walk up the road – have look at some local type.
Watney’s mythical Red Barrel.
Watney’s was the Evil Corporation which sought to crush plucky small brewers and impose its own terrible beer on the drinking public. It acquired and closed beloved local breweries, and it closed pubs, or ruined them with clumsy makeovers.
Its Red Barrel was particularly vile – a symbol of all that was wrong with industrial brewing and national brands pushed through cynical marketing campaigns.
Keeler Productions has taken over Locking Road Car Park, opposite Tesco, and The Regent Restaurant, in Regent Street, to film a BBC period series The Trial of Christine Keeler, based on the Profumo Affair in the 1960s.
Enough of all that period drama, let’s have a look at some period architecture.
Madeira Court – 67 flats built in 1988.
Weekly Social Activities include – coffee mornings, card evenings and occasional days out, organised by social club. New residents accepted from sixty years of age, both cats and dogs generally accepted.
Boulevard United Reformed Church – Waterloo Street
Architects Gordon W. Jackson and Partners 1959
Constructed on part of the site of the former Electric Premier Cinema, the Odeon Theatre was opened on 25th May 1935 with Jack Buchanan in Brewster’s Millions. Built as one of the original Odeon Theatres in the then emerging Oscar Deutsch Odeon Theatres circuit, it was built on a prime corner street position in this sea-side town and was the first of several Odeon Theatre’s to be designed by architect Cecil T Howitt.
The Weston-super-Mare Odeon was built by C Bryant & Son Ltd of Birmingham on the site of the former Electric Premier Cinema. It opened on 25 May 1935, at which time it was described in the souvenir programme as ‘modernity at its best’, with seating accommodation that was ‘luxurious and spaced to give ample room for true comfort’.
A short walk along the prom snapping shelters and the sheltered – no two the same.
I then chanced to fall into a Beer Festival and bad company – the rest is a blur, see you all tomorrow there’s some cycling to be done.
There was a field – Ash Farm, farmhouse and field, at the junction of Manchester Road and Denby Lane, owned by one Harry Hitchen.
Harry Hitchen’s ambitious grandson reckoned that it was time that Heaton Chapel had a picture house, so on 6th May 1939 – where once there was a fertile farmer’s field, the seven hundred seat Empress Cinema opened.
Opening with a screening of Alexander Korda’s The Scarlet Pimpernel.
It continued to trade as a cinema until 18th April 1959, whereafter it transformed at the end of that year, into a dance house opening as the Empress Club on the 9th December, run by Manchester City footballer, Keith Marsden.
Other parts of building were used for Flamingo Coffee Jive Club, from 1961 Empress Bingo club used the none-cabaret portion of the building.
In many northern towns and cities at this time a thriving beat scene emerged, literally hundreds of local bands, playing a circuit of clubs large and small.
One such band played at the Empress on 14th November 1964, formerly The Matadors, then becoming The Swinging Hangmen, later known as The Hangmen. With a now sound, slick suits, a business card and a swinging, dead, novelty teddy bear mascot, they had everything going for them.
I too played in such bands during the late 60’s and early 70’s, piling in and out of assorted vans, cars and buses to arrive at a packed venue, sandwiched between the bingo and a top flight comedian.
December 1968, in a flurry of flags, the Poco a Poco Club and Casino is born, international cabaret and entertainment abounds from here on in, beginning a fashion for the American style supper club, boil in the bag dining, for the discerning chicken in a basket cases.
As beat becomes mod, psych, prog and glam a new generation of bands adapt and mutate to suit the ever changing moods and modes of modern music.
One such were Toby Twirl.
They hailed from Newcastle upon Tyne in the North East of England. Formed in the 60’s and originally called ‘The Shades of Blue’. After being signed to Decca Records by Wayne Bickerton, a name change was called for, as there was a US group of the same name. The group released three singles on Decca – Back In Time, Toffee Apple Sunday and Movin In. Although critically acclaimed in later years, none of the singles charted due to lack of major radio play. The group concentrated on live work during the late 60’s and early 70’s and were a top draw around the North of England. The line up was Dave ‘Holly’ Holland vocals, Barrie Sewell keyboards, Stuart Somerville bass, Nick Thorburn guitar and John Reed drums. Stuart was replaced by Dave Robson after he was tragically drowned in Tynemouth and Holly was replaced by Steve Pickering.
Prior to 1969, they were recording with ex-Shadows drummer and record producer TonyMeehan. Between 1965 and 1969 the group released 9 singles and a live album. There were some changes in personnel and some successes, most notably Step by Step, Count To ten, Cherry Cherry, It’s So Easy and Peanuts, the latter remaining in the Danish charts for 3 months and also reaching No 8 in Japan.
Famously Mr David Laughing Gnome Bowie played there on the 27th April 1970, just a few days before receiving his Ivor Novello award at The Talk Of The Town in London, for Space Oddity, which had been voted the best original song of 1969.
The club traded on through the 70’s and 80’s, continuing to ride the trends in popular music, the emergence of the discotheque and the almost superstar local DJ. As interest in the live cabaret music scene waned, the club began hosting boxing matches in the 80’s. Changing its name to Chester’s in 1983 and finally closing in May 1987.
It had lasted almost 50 years as a rich source of entertainments for thousands of Stopfordians, from a flickering film to a flaming beat, sadly it all ended in demolition.
The beat goes on.
Many thanks to Stephen for the essential facts and copyright images from his website.