Beyond the boards: past, present & future of Weston’s iconic piers

2023 has been designated the 'Year of the Pier', and in our final podcast of the season, we are celebrating Weston's piers. Of the 60 piers left in the UK, four can be found on North Somerset's 19-mile coastline, and three of them are in Weston! We chat to pier experts about the history and future of Weston's three very different, iconic piers.

The past, present and future of Weston's iconic piers

Introduction to our guests

Michelle Michael is one of the owners and directors of The Grand Pier and Revo. Her family purchased the pier in February 2008.

Simon Talbot-Ponsonby is Director of the Birnbeck Regeneration Trust, a charity that will take over the operation of the pier once North Somerset Council has finished rebuilding it. He’s also a trustee of Clevedon Pier.

Weston's Grand Pier and Birnbeck Pier
The Grand Pier (left), Birnbeck Pier (right) © BIrnbeck Regeneration Trust

The Grand Pier, Weston-super-Mare

On the entertainment side, we have 12 major rides. The newest is a replacement state-of-the-art electric Go Kart track on two levels, which was installed this spring. Alongside that, there are another 10 family rides and attractions, and about 500 family games ranging from a 2p-pusher to virtual axe throwing and dodgeball, which are very brightly-coloured and illuminated with lots of LED lighting, and noise. Fun for all the family under one roof.

Axe throwing is one of the games we would suggest to our corporate clients. We provide the team leader, we explain the rules, we keep the scores, because some people cheat! Then they have a nice meal and a room to do business.

The cafe right at the end, Tiffany’s Tea Room, has one of the greatest views in Weston. It’s open all year round and has a seasonal menu, but it’s famous for its afternoon teas. 

You can also get traditional fish and chips, candy floss and popcorn, lots of sweets and a number of other cafes are attached to the building that provide doughnuts and great coffee. 

There are about 700,000 visitors a year on the attraction, and close to 100,000 visitors on the event side of things, which include concerts, corporate events, weddings, family parties, anniversaries and milestone birthdays. Our Christmas parties and music events take place up to New Year, finishing off with a Masquerade Ball on New Year’s Eve. 

The Grand Pier’s annual spectacular fireworks display is very special for Weston.

History of The Grand Pier

Weston’s Grand Pier dates back to 1904. It was derived from an Act of Parliament. It has actually had two famous fires, one in 1930, and one in 2008 under our custody. I think the pivotal point of the 1930s fire was the difference in how people were entertained. Pre-1930s, people were being entertained by a theatrical act or musical act while sitting in a seat, dressed in their finery. Piers were for the rich and wealthy to promenade across the water and spend their time listening to bands and watching theatrical acts. When the fire happened in 1930, it took five years to reopen, by which time, there was a start to ‘interactive entertainment’ – people were expecting to DO something to be entertained. It was the start of the one-armed bandits, there were some little vehicles on the water – we see pictures of those in a lot of our historical archives. There was a big shift of demographic as well – opening to everybody, as opposed to just those that could afford it, and therefore a very big shift on piers as to what constituted entertainment. 

By the time we ended up owning the pier in 2008, we were taking over from three generations of family who were originally machine makers. They made one-armed bandits coin-operated machines and needed a showroom to showcase their products – that’s why they bought the pier. They installed their machines there so that clients could come and have a look at how they performed in a real environment. That family had the pier for three generations, but their children didn’t want to keep it on, so it was sold privately and we were in the market to buy it at the time. 

Since 2008 and the fire, our aspiration has always been to provide something for the town, so there is somewhere open every day, that families can do, see, sit and look at the view, as well as attracting daytripping tourists from up to a 90-minute drive away. 

The Grand Pier, Weston-super-Mare
The Grand Pier, Weston-super-Mare

Large events at The Grand Pier

We use our main hall for large scale events – we just finished a weekend of Christmas parties where all the machines get put away, and then that area becomes a banqueting space. Along with two other spaces, we create 1000 seats, in three different venues for Christmas parties. There was always a desire for the spaces to be flexible, so we could go into the future with the ability to change things quickly, and to provide the services that were required.

So with 1000 seats, does that make it the biggest venue in Weston?

I think it must be.

>>Discover Weston’s other meeting spaces<<

The Grand Piers main event hall with large circular tables and decorations with a event in full swing
The Grand Pier's main event hall

With Revo, and all the other assets that you’ve got, you as a family are very keen on training young people and helping them start their careers. Tell us how many staff you have and about the support you give them.

We have about 75 year-round, full time staff, and in peak moments, we flex up to about 200. We rely a lot on student staff and we generally see students come to us at 16 years old. We see them through their schooling, and their education and off to their relevant career. I don’t think there’s a lot of youngsters in Weston that haven’t actually come through here as employees, but we like to keep the same people until they head off to their main career. We like to keep a few of them for this career too, because we firmly believe that tourism is an industry that isn’t promoted well enough.

I think we are the fourth biggest industry in the UK at the moment and we employ a new person every 20 minutes of every day. It’s a big statistic and it’s a sector that needs to be taken seriously. We like to train and keep as many people as we can, but we recognise that tourism is one of those industries where people get a bit of extra money, get good at what they do, then head off to what they’re supposed to be doing, so we do see that turnover of staffing as we go through the seasons.

Lots of people do different jobs, so you might be a ride operator in the day and then in the evening, you’re delivering a three course meal or working behind the bar. 

Revo Kitchen Weston-super-Mare
Revo, Weston-super-Mare

You do a hell of a lot for this town in terms of the charity work that you do, that isn’t shouted about enough. Why are you quiet about all of this brilliant stuff that you do?

Well, our dad passed away about 20 years ago and he was quite a philanthropic person. He did a lot for the hospital, with the councillors, and for tourism. His mantra was always to help others, so when he passed away in 2003, we decided to set up a charity in his name. 

We started to raise funds annually to help local worthy causes where we could make a difference to someone’s life. We’ve sent children to hospitals in America for pioneering treatment, we’ve helped people fulfil bucket list dreams at the end of their life, and we’ve helped provide some equipment for other charities. 

We do it on an application basis and we have a trustee board, which is made up of family members. Nobody is paid on the trust, everyone gives their time for free. Two weeks ago, we had our first charitable ball after five years (due to COVID) and we raised a staggering £410,000 – the most we’ve ever raised and the most incredible night. There were 640 very generous souls in the room. All of our suppliers, our staff, every person gave something, whether it was their time, their supplier or expertise every single person involved on that night played a part in that money being raised. For people to give their time, when the country is struggling, is truly remarkable to see. 

That gives us a charity pot to go out and do some good in our father’s name, and to continue his legacy. That money is an absolutely phenomenal amount and will go towards helping others, and it just goes to show that there are so many good people out there, that are still willing to help. It’s more about being able to help, rather than being able to shout about being able to help.

Dinner in the Great Hall at The Grand Pier, Weston
Dinner in the Great Hall at The Grand Pier, Weston

Any anecdotes about famous people who’ve visited the pier?

At one of our charitable balls, we had John Cleese as a guest with his wife, and they travelled down from Bath and we were really excited to welcome him because he is a Weston lad and we thought that he would be a really good bolster for the night. He was making a speech and we were mortified to discover that he hates Weston and everything about it! The first thing he said when he opened his mouth was “I hate Weston and I don’t want to be here”. So that was a bit of an interesting one. 

But we’ve had quite a lot of famous people come here and all of them have had really positive things to say about the pier. The last person I encountered personally, was when I made an advert with Alison Hammond and she was wonderful. But what was even more wonderful for me, was that she was a pier customer. She was a single mum with a young son and she used to bring him to Weston for day trips – Weston was their seaside. 

The Grand Pier, Weston-super-Mare
The Grand Pier at sunset_Weston super Mare © Neil O'Donoghue, Community Renewal Fund

Are there any other developments that have taken place at the pier recently? 

We have just installed some new lighting on the walkway. Our charitable ball was the first night that we have had that lit up. Our logo colour is green, so the walkway was lit up green, and we lit the building up. This is the beginning of the lighting that we aspired to have when we first opened, but had a lot of problems with our installers for the feature lighting, so we’re now getting to the stage where we are investing heavily in the lighting around the building, so we can work with the colours in the evenings. It’s a changeable colour, so we can now respond to some of the requests to light it up for particular awareness days, which we weren’t able to do before.

We’ve also replaced all of the sleepers around the railings, on the whole of the perimeter of the pier this year. That’s been a big cost, which probably our guests wouldn’t realise. We’ll be taking our glasses off and having a good look at what’s to come. We normally go to a show in January every year and pick out the best of what’s out there – there’s a big show at Excel in London. All of the suppliers bring the latest gadgets and toys and we have a look and see whether our guests would like a particular product and then bring it in. We are all about investing every year to bring something new and shiny to the pier. 

You got involved with GLOW festival and helped extend it from being something that took place in Grove Park to become a town festival, because of the pier’s involvement. 

Any big events or planned anniversaries, that you want to shout out about?

We’ve still got Christmas party tickets for upcoming weekends.

We’ve got a music event – the Lapinski Christmas party night , and tickets are still available for the Masquerade Ball on New Year’s Eve. 

We are currently planning for 2024, so look out for announcements on the website. I think next year, we are going to increase our Christmas presence, we’re going to have a Santa show in early December. We weren’t able to host it this year because we were too busy.

Santa's grotto at The Grand Pier
Tiffany's Christmas Party
Santa's Grotto, Tiffany's restaurant at The Grand Pier

The history of Birnbeck Pier

It was built in 1867. The guy who designed it was a chap called Eugenius Birch, who designed a lot of piers around the country. It’s unique in the fact that it is a pier, but it uses an island as its Pierhead, so it could be argued it’s a bridge, but everybody thinks of it as a pier. It was primarily intended for shipping, because it was the best place in Weston that you can get on and off a ship at almost any stage of the tide, when there was a jetty. 

There was an enormous funfair on the island from 1900 to 1930, it had huge rides on it and some of them were really quite dodgy and dangerous. The most famous – or infamous – one was the water chute, where people shot down in boats and hit the water at great speed. Sadly, quite a few people died, but they seemed to get away with it in terms of health and safety.

Birnbeck Pier early 1900's permission to use Birnbeck Regeneration Trust
Birnbeck Pier 1880's permission to use Birnbeck Regeneration Trust

During the war, it was commandeered by the Admiralty as a secret weapons research establishment and it was known as HMS Birnbeck. It was top secret and nobody quite knows what they did there.

After the war, it was quite difficult to keep it going, it was very expensive to run and it changed owners a lot. Gradually, fewer ships came.

One of the big drivers that made Birnbeck attractive was the fact that there was no pub open in Wales on Sundays. They used to come over on the boat in their hordes and get drunk in Weston – some of them didn’t even leave Birnbeck Pier, they just came over and drank and then somehow got back on the boat to Wales. Like all piers on this side, they were built after the railways appeared, as a way of getting across to Wales. But then that diminished once the Severn tunnel was built in the 1880s.

Birnbeck Pier from the water chute early 1900's permission to use Birnbeck Regeneration Trust
Birnbeck Pier 1954
Birnbeck Pier 1954 with permission from the Wild family and Birnbeck Regeneration Trust

Lifeboats first went on the pier in 1882. They had one original lifeboat station, then they built another one about 20 years later because it wasn’t quite the right shape for the new boats. The pier closed to the public in 1994, because it became unviable to maintain it and keep it safe. The RNLI stayed on the pier for another 20 years, with just a narrow walkway down the middle, but then it became too unsafe for them in about 2014. It became more and more derelict as it became neglected. 

It was bought by Urban Splash, a big national regeneration developer, but I think after the economic crash of 2008, they just couldn’t cope with it. They then passed it on to another developer who owns the adjacent former hotel site. He had plans to do something with that, but nothing came of it and it just fell into further decay and neglect. The council took interest in it, once the RNLI realised that Birnbeck Island was the only place they could have a good lifeboat station in Weston.


The Beatles at Birnbeck Pier
The Beatles at Birnbeck Pier 1963, permission to use from Judy Smith and the Friends of the Old Pier Society

Negotiations started about four or five years ago with the RNLI, so then the council issued a ‘repairs notice’ on the owner, because as a listed pier, they’re required to keep it in good condition but they didn’t do anything. That moved on to the compulsory purchase order which dragged on forever and a day because the owner fought it off.

It was about to go to the public inquiry in August, this year, and about two weeks beforehand, he agreed to sell it. So it’s now owned by North Somerset Council and that removes all the uncertainty about its future.

North Somerset Council has applied for a lot of grant funding. Historic England over the years has given about a million pounds, the National Heritage Memorial Fund gave about £3.5million towards the restoration of the bridge. About £4.5 million from the Levelling-up Fund is for the works around Birnbeck. The National Lottery Heritage Fund has given around a quarter of a million to develop the project further – they do it in two stages. The next stage, which is going to be submitted next September, will be applying for a grant of £4.5million. You’re not guaranteed to get it, but they obviously like it, otherwise, they wouldn’t have given funding for round one. The RNLI have built up a fund to go towards getting the lifeboats back on the island, So they’re contributing as well.

Birnbeck Pier in 2015
Birnbeck Pier in 2015, credit Neil O'Donoghue Community Renewal Fund
Birnbeck Pier in 2015, credit Neil O'Donoghue Community Renewal Fund
Birnbeck Pier in 2021, credit Neil O'Donoghue Community Renewal Fund
Birnbeck Pier in 2015 and 2021, ©Neil O'Donoghue Community Renewal Fund

What’s the plan for Birnbeck Pier?

The long term ambition is for it to be a heritage attraction, because it’s actually very pretty, and everybody loves going out on a pier. But on this one, you go out to the island and you feel as if you’re going out to sea. I think there’s a quaintness about the island, that it’ll be sort of National Trust-ish people as the clientele. It’s an upmarket Victorian pier and people love going out there. Currently, when it’s falling down, that whole area just feels sad. Once you bring it back to life, it’ll actually regenerate the local area, and people will want to go there. 

Birnbeck Pier in 2020, credit Neil O'Donoghue Community Renewal Fund
Birnbeck Pier in 2021, credit Neil O'Donoghue Community Renewal Fund
Birnbeck Pier in 2020 and 2021, © Neil O'Donoghue Community Renewal Fund

Are we talking about making it safe for people to go around and have a look at the dilapidated ruins? Or are we talking about putting in a theatre or something that used to be there in a Victorian style?

It’s not going to be a funfair, again, the buildings will be restored, they’re not going to be totally replicated, because they are in too bad a condition, but they’re going to build back the same sort of mass and groupings of buildings to give it a Victorian feel. That’s the sort of atmosphere that will be there. 

There’s a lot of space on the island, and you’ll be able to have all sorts of events. It’ll be a completely different experience to The Grand Pier. I think they’ll be very complementary, they’re just different markets. In fact, people will go to both. 

So it won’t be a pastiche of just replica Victorian buildings, but equally, there’s not going to be lots of romantic ruins, because when people are there, they’re going to want to do things, when they’re on the island, they want to sit down and have something to eat or look around, or find out the history or what happened there during the war. Certainly on the landward side, the pier master’s cottage will become a cafe and a shop, where people want to go. 

Birnbeck Pier, Weston-super-Mare
Birnbeck Pier ©Neil O'Donoghue

How is fundraising going for the restoration? 

The council is leading this and they’ve got a lot of people working out their ideas at the moment and they’ll publish what they’re going to be doing. A little bit of work will be done next year, some safety work, and then the bulk of the rebuilding work on the land will start at the end of next year. 

Hopefully it will open to the public in 2026. As for fundraising, the Birnbeck Regeneration Trust are  offering people to sponsor planks etc. Now that the project is going forward, there’s a temporary visitor information point on the promenade by the pier. There’s a lot of volunteers helping there if anybody wants to come and volunteer and join in. When the pier reopens, it’ll be the Birnbeck Regeneration Trust operating it and there’ll be a lot of volunteer involvement in running it, guiding people and being hosts.

Birnbeck Pier in 2017, credit Neil O'Donoghue Community Renewal Fund
Birnbeck Pier in 2017, credit Neil O'Donoghue Community Renewal Fund

We’ve got three piers around here, Revo, The Grand Pier and Birnbeck.

There used to be about 100-120 piers around the country, and there’s about 60 left. 26 are listed piers. In Weston, The Grand Pier is a Grade II-listed pier. Birnbeck is a Grade II* listed pair (there’s only six Grade II star-listed piers in the country). So it’s one of the seven best piers in the country. The Revo pier has only just been named a pier by The National Piers Society, who dictate these things. The other pier we’ve got in North Somerset is Clevedon, which is the only Grade I-listed pier

There’s only 19 miles of coastline in North Somerset, so to have four piers in 19 miles is quite a lot of piers. They all have a very different purpose and place. It’s the piers coast – if you’re a pier enthusiast, we are the place to go!


The Grand Pier in Weston
The Grand Pier in Weston

Where is your favourite place to go in Weston?

Simon: Worlebury Hill Fort and Weston Woods because they’ve got such amazing views over the estuary. I like Brunello Lounge – there’s a lot of them around the West Country and they’re informal and friendly.

Michelle: If I’ve finished work and want sunsets and cocktails, then it’s got to be Revo because that’s got the best sunset view in town. Also Sakura. Traditionally, I always go to The Old Thatched Cottage because it’s where I grew up. I also like Michelangelo’s you can’t go wrong there. Lately I’ve been drinking coffee in the morning, sometimes at The Boathouse in Uphill, which is also very nice.

Where do you like to shop in Weston?

Walker & Ling is my go-to because it’s got quite a lot under one roof. TK Maxx has got a really nice selection as well.

We’re lucky to have an artisan chocolatier in town  – Christopher’s House of Chocolates. I always go to Beau & Bloom, which is a florist in Uphill and she’s fantastic and really versatile with what she can get for you and how she makes it. She’s got a really modern feel to her arrangements. 


Revo Weston-super-Mare
Revo, Weston-super-Mare

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