Broody skies hung heavy as we trundled along the coast. Our offspring had long expended all distractions a train carriage might offer, the promise of ‘the beach’ now the singular deterrent to insufferable squirming.
Their grandpa had questioned our motivation. ‘Weymouth?’ His mock baffled tone condensed decades of decline at the UK’s once celebrated seaside resorts into two, over-elongated syllables.
Yet this particular faded coastal destination, a former promenading fave of King George III, is very much back on the map today. The Dorset resort is about to play host to the Olympic sailing events and is braced for all the accompanying hoopla. The imminent global attention was not our primary concern on arrival, though. We were too busy willing the horizontal mizzle to cease.
As a car-free weekend break destination, the town geography couldn’t really be better. The train from London pulls in a mere pebble’s throw from the beach. Our well turned out accommodation proved equidistant from both. Half way between the buffers and the breakwater.
The Great British Summer of 2012 held off its party piece so the kids could mercifully redeem their beachy travel reward. Weymouth’s greatest asset: a golden crescent of a bay that luxuriously stretches out its wide sandy girth before being cupped far in the distance by an ancient, craggy coastline. ‘It’s the best sandpit in the world!’ exclaimed a brace of satisfied Mini Kentishtowners.
As late June’s trademark late dusk fell, a wander revealed a town of two distinct halves, the dramatic bay dominated by the arc of weather-beaten, solid Georgian hotels making up an impressive front. It’s very much the arcades, donkeys, Punch and Judy take on the seaside experience.
Passing on through the pedestrian (in every sense of the word) shopping area, the town promptly morphs into a quintessential ancient harbour-based version of coastal holiday fantasies. As many starched tableclothed fish restaurants as there are chip shop joints around the bay.
A humming Yacht Club spilled laughter out towards a clutch of moored fishing vessels, then onwards over the water to the cobbled lanes and well kempt cottages that ramble pleasingly over the opposite side of the harbour.
The following morning produced glorious sunshine. The bucket ‘n’ spade crew emerged en masse, gleefully released from rain-enforced exile. Parasols and wind breaks blossomed across the huge strike of sand. The water proved clear and temperate, enough to coax more of a full blown swim than the intended paddle.
When sandcastles suddenly became tiring, we easily decamped through to the harbourside and lunched on a fresh catch of plaice, landed but a metre or so from our table at the pretty Vaughn’s Bistro.
A chunky plaque on the outside of building informs that the Black Death entered the country right here in 1348, before laying waste to 30-50% of the country’s population. We crossed the harbour bridge to where impossibly Captain Birdseye styled boatmen sit smoking pipes, offering the kind of hyper real tourist photo ops that Camden Town’s ageing punks likewise provide.
Olympic sprucing is very much in evidence around the bay – new gold leaf on the monument, decent seating on the scrubbed up esplanade. On this side the converted but then closed down shopping and heritage centre, the Victorian Brewer’s Quay building, was rumoured to be resurrected as boutique hotel and shops development in time for the games, but work has yet to begin.
Controversy about the changes the games are bringing is the simmering topic everywhere, opinion as divided as the harbour/bay impressions of the town. One development that’s been delivered right on time is the brand new Sea Life Park observation tower, something that alters the historic sea views. Funded by the London Eye people, it’s somewhat less iconic. More akin to a communist era telecommunications hub to regard from the beach, the views from the top are no doubt corking ones though.
The last time the beach panorama was so altered was when the white horse tribute to King George was carved into the chalk hillside on the opposite point of the bay. Our little ones were far more excited by this, babbling about it as we used the Victorian Jubilee clocktower as our compass point. And yes, it was time for fish and chips at King Edward’s, a pleasant enough spot right on the corner.
On the easy Sunday evening train home, grandpa called again, repentant. Weymouth had been all over the weekend broadsheets. ‘Doing a Barcelona’, he recounted the much hoped-for Olympics legacy benchmark.
We’ll soon know how things pan out for this pretty Dorset town. But as a global showcase for the all too often neglected Great British seaside resort, from its ‘kiss me quick’ to dressy yacht club extremes Weymouth feels like the ideal torchbearer. And the kids absolutely adored it.
Words & Pics: Tom Kihl