Ep 1: The driving force behind Weston’s outstanding ‘Super Culture’

In the first episode of the 'We are Super Weston' podcast, we spoke to Fiona Matthews, Artistic Director and Tom Newman, Executive Director of Culture Weston, the driving force behind the outstanding cultural activity at the heart of Weston-super-Mare's daily life.

Giant bats in a climate carnival, massive murals on walls and festivals for the grieving – the impact of Culture Weston on the town can’t be understated.

Here’s what Fiona and Tom had to say about:

  • The importance of culture to Weston and the town’s regeneration
  • Why Weston was chosen as a ‘priority place’ for Arts Council funding
  • How community and collaboration is a big part of the success of Culture Weston 
  • Weston’s cultural renaissance over the past few years
  • How projects in Weston like SEE MONSTER and Banksy’s Dismaland captured international attention
  • The development of Weston for creative people, where paid work is no longer something they have to move away to find
  • Lesser known facts about Weston and their favourite places to eat, drink and shop
  • Exciting events Culture Weston has in the pipeline

For more information about what’s on in Weston, check out the Visit Weston website.

Tell me about Culture Weston – when and why was it started and how is it funded?

Fiona: Culture Weston is a program that was originally set up with Theatre Orchard in 2020. It’s a partnership-led initiative all about supercharging culture at the heart of Weston-super-Mare’s daily life and future growth. It’s about making the cultural offer really ambitious, inclusive and forging skills and development pathways for people to be artists living and working in town.

Tom: I was working at Arts Council when they made Weston-super-Mare a priority place, which means it was one of their area priorities. They got a bit more money and support to make interesting, creative things happen. 

I worked a lot with Fiona and Theatre Orchard on the plans for Culture Weston, and then the role came up to lead the Culture Weston work. I thought it would be brilliant because I’d really enjoyed the time I had spent in Weston working with Fiona on its planning.

Arts Council decided that Weston was a significant place to draw its attention to. How did it get to where it is now? Tell us about that journey.

Fiona: We started off just as Lockdown hit in 2020, and that was an opportunity to really embed what Culture Weston wanted to be. Across Lockdown, culture and creativity became real lifelines for a lot of people in Weston and North Somerset. 

It’s really important to say that it started in conjunction with local people. We have a panel of local partners who help shape the work and I think that’s really borne out the reception that Culture Weston’s program has been having in the town.

Why was it so important for the Arts Council to work with Weston?

Tom: There was a significant amount of opportunity and energy in Weston that there wasn’t in other places. Arts Council look at areas where they might have underinvested historically, but also where there is an appetite and energy within the community to make stuff happen. That really exists in Weston.

GLOW Festival artist Chila Kumari Burman and Pigeon artwork
Culture Weston's GLOW Festival, artist Chila Kumari Burman and Pigeon artwork, image credit Paul Blakemore

What type of events and workshops do you host and who are your events for? 

Tom: One of the things I’m most proud of is our collaboration with Upfest, Europe’s largest street arts festival. We’ve worked with them over the last three years to bring around 40 large scale murals to Weston.

I was looking through my phone’s photo reel the other day and I’ve got a really dramatic selection of boring-looking buildings that have been completely transformed by brilliant world-class artwork. They are returning again for Weston Wallz this summer 2023.  Check out Weston Wallz 2022 tour here

We’ve worked with community partners, community groups and residents and delivered a whole load of festivals. We did lots of workshops, creative activities and events around SEE MONSTER

We worked with local residents to co-design a whole series of activities, including large scale flags down the high street, poetry popping up in unexpected places in the Sovereign Centre lifts and along the seafront. 

We also run everyday creative activities that people can get involved with, from repurposing clothes to performing arts, to spoken word, acting and dance.

Weston Wallz street art in Weston super Mare
Street art in Weston

Fiona: We’ve been working with the *Heritage Action Zone and Historic England on a program called 21st Century Super Shrines, which is all about putting people at the heart of new creative collaborations in the high street to really reanimate it. 

One of those projects is Super Wonder Shrine, which is at the end of the high street, a very big, colourful, contemporary band stand structure. That project was about 18 months in the making. It was designed with local people of all ages and painted with help from about 50 people from Weston College and beyond.

It really tapped into a big creative community in Weston whom we’re continuing to work with. I love that structure because it’s just so joyous and affirmative. And if you go into it and look up at the roof, it’s covered in people’s dogs’ names. People love their pets in Weston, so it feels very distinctive of the place as well.

You’ve also staged some of the Good Grief Festival there too. So tell us a little bit about the Good Grief Festival that’s been running in Weston.

Fiona: The design of Super Wonder Shrine was led by Morag Myerscott, who’s an artist whose work you can see all over the world. She put me onto this brilliant artist called Vandango Kid, who, like Morag, has a very colourful motif, but her work is largely around grief. She suffered some quite profound experiences of grief herself. 

We launched our Good Grief Festival with a grief rave at Super Wonder Shrine on the high street and it was a real joy. People were able to come along and dedicate a song to someone they’ve loved and lost, and dance with other people in communal remembrance and celebration of their lives. That felt like a very poignant way to launch Good Grief Weston, an eight day festival that happened at the beginning of May in collaboration with Bristol University, to open up conversations around death and bereavement through cultural and creative activities.

Super Wonder Shrine Culture Weston
Super Wonder Shrine, Culture Weston
Marvin Muoneke, Super Wonder Shrine
Marvin Muoneke, Super Wonder Shrine launch

What else does Weston have to offer culturally? 

Tom: There’s a whole range of really vibrant grassroots arts organisations in Weston. Weston Artspace is an artist studio and exhibition space along the high street. 

We worked with two local theatre makers to open Front Room, which is a pop-up, small scale theatre space in a repurposed Pizza Express. It looks wonderful and is an amazing reuse of an empty shop unit space. 

There’s also loads of other interesting cultural assets in the town – Weston Museum is really wonderful, they’ve had some incredible exhibitions recently, including Quentin Blake. I think they were the only place in the UK to host the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition for free. So some really amazing national and international profile exhibitions. 

You’ve also got family favourites like The Playhouse and the Blakehay Theatre

There’s a real grassroots music scene in Weston, The Brit Bar and Loves, who always have regular live music programming. 

We have recently collaborated with Loves to do a series of bandstand sessions. So over the summer they will be presenting a load of really interesting, diverse international musicians in Grove Park bandstand that will be free for people to come along and visit.

It’s that kind of thing that we’re really keen to collaborate on and grow, that opportunity for people to engage in high-quality and unexpected creative activity, wherever they go in Weston.

Brit Bar for live music
Blakehay Theatre in Weston-super-Mare
Blakehay Theatre in Weston-super-Mare
The Playhouse Weston-super-Mare
The Playhouse Weston-super-Mare

What are your thoughts on the impact of large events such as SEE MONSTER and Banksy’s Dismaland in Weston?  

Fiona: There’s a huge economic impact in those large events. I think they really raised the game of what culture can achieve and shift perception about what culture is and can be. It can be disruptive, it can be fun, it can be educational, it can be seismic, and it can really put a town on the map.

I think with SEE MONSTER, it was very embedded in the community, so it’s had huge ripples in terms of thinking locally about sustainability and seeding a lot of projects that have continued to have a life. I think both of those projects had a huge impact at the time and continue to make people engaged and happy thereafter.

Why is culture so important to Weston? 

Fiona: It’s making a contribution to the economy of the town, without losing any of the hallmarks that were integral to how Theatre Orchard began. It’s about making sure things are inclusive, that we’re listening to people, taking people along on the journey and being as ambitious as we can. 

Tom: I started working with and in Weston in 2018, and what has really stood out for me is the massive growth in the visibility and connectedness of the creative community. I think there were loads of creatives in Weston before, but over the last couple of years, both the large scale events and the opportunities to be involved in everyday activity, like what Theatre Orchard delivered, and the opportunities that are available at Weston Artspace, have given people who are creative in Weston a real confidence boost to get more involved and do more things. We’ve seen a lot more projects emerging from individual creators, which is really brilliant. I think we’ll only grow.

Fiona: There’s a lot more opportunities for creative employment now because all that spins off into the community and a lot more artists are getting work in Weston and staying there.

Becky (host): And I can speak to this because I trained as a stage manager – I did a BTech National Diploma in Performing Arts at Weston College and then my first job was at The Winter Gardens. At the time, if you wanted to work in theatre, you had to move to London and it’s lovely to come back to Weston and see it as a place where people who are creative can actually make a home. 

Why is Weston a really exciting place to be for culture right now? Why is it a great place to live for creatives? 

Tom: There are really nice pubs, the beach is lovely, but on the creative front, I think that there’s a really warm and open artistic and creative community in the town, which is really welcoming. I think that there’s lots to take inspiration from in and around the town, and lots of really interesting projects to get involved in. There’s an increasing number of opportunities for paid employment and career progression in the town and it’s just a really lovely place to be and spend time.

Fiona: It’s very supportive, isn’t it? I think there’s a real sense of nurturing amongst people in the creative community, which is unusual. You could sit on a freelance desk in the Sovereign Centre at We Are Super, go swimming in Weston Marine Lake for lunch, grab a nice coffee from Can’t Dance Coffee on the way back – what a nice day at work.

What’s an interesting fact that people outside of Weston may not know about?  

Tom: Weston-super-Mare has the oldest signal box in England – it’s just by Weston Station and was built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Fiona: You can become a rogue feral gardener in Weston. You can arrive at the station, there’s a lovely seating area which is planted by local people, and you can visit various revamped Tampax machines in the town that are full of seeds that you can plant.

There’s plenty of opportunities to get involved in growing and contributing to the green lusciousness of the town centre itself! That’s a strong theme of the cultural scene in Weston – sustainability and repurposing at every opportunity.

Becky (host): We’ve also got a fantastic new water fountain as well  that’s been funded by the Civic Society. You can grab some water and if you don’t need it yourself, you can water our flower beds and our new trees down the high street. 

What do you do when you’re not working? 

Fiona: I have been brought into the outdoor swimming fold. It’s been getting so much momentum in Weston since the Marine Lake was dredged last year, and it’s now swimmable every day of the year, all day, and it’s brilliant. It’s one of the largest horizon pools in the world. 

Tom: I am a Fulham Football Club fan, so I spend a lot of my spare time going to watch football matches in London. I think Weston just got promoted to the National League, so I need to get down there and watch a game on one of the Saturdays when they’re playing.

Weston Marine Lake
Weston Marine Lake

Where are your favourite places to eat in Weston?

Fiona: I do love Love’s Cafe and Sprout. I’ve been a lifelong vegetarian, and you can get amazing food there. I am also partial to a chip or two, but it’s hard to choose between the chip shops.

There’s so many brilliant restaurants in Weston. I love that Indian restaurant just around the corner from the museum. Orchard Street area is full of brilliant eateries. 

Becky (host): I can probably name all of them down that street. There’s The Curry Garden. There’s Hussain’s

Tom: I’ve got to give a plug to Weston’s amazing Japanese restaurants, which for the size of the town, are punching well above their weight – Sakura and Ebisu.

I try to eat less meat, but walking past Bare Grills Smokehouse when they have got the barbecue on, always smells delicious. I really like the retro vibe of some of the Greek restaurants as well.

Loves Cafe
Loves Cafe
Sakura Japanese restaurant

Where are your favourite places in Weston for a coffee?  

Fiona: Mine at the moment is Can’t Dance Coffee (inside the Sovereign Centre – it’s a great place to do networking and hold meetings because it’s huge and it’s got some really lovely little corners of cosy seating). I really like their coffee and they also do really great soup and dhal, so you can double up on coffee and lunch at the same time.

Tom: Can’t Dance Coffee is really nice. They’ve also got comfy sofas and armchairs, so if you want a more relaxed meeting, then definitely head there. Loves to do really nice coffee as well.

What’s your favourite shop in Weston? 

Tom: Christopher’s House of Chocolates, because they’re always so good. They’re handmade and you can watch them doing it.I think the last time I was in there, they were making banoffee pie, chocolate truffle things, and the smell was insane.

Fiona: Have you tried that gin and tonic chocolate? That’s a good tip.

Christopher's House of Chocolates
Christophers Chocolates

What’s the most underrated thing about Weston you wish people would ‘get’ because you love it?

Fiona: It’s hard to say, there’s so much to love, but the skies at the beach are just mind-blowing. The ability to walk dogs on the beach – not that I’ve got one, but I often borrow one. You can swim, people say you can’t swim in Weston because of the mud, but you can, and you can swim on the beach if it’s high tide, which is really special.

Great pubs, good pubs, great creativity, always lots to do, lots of music. 

It’s very accessible, so close to Bristol on the train, I don’t think people realise the fastest train is about 17 minutes. If you get the late one back at night, it is really speedy.

Tom: The whole vibe. It’s got a really nice warm feel wherever you go in the town. The landscape really helps with that, but also the wonderful architecture and people are really friendly as well and say hello, it’s got a really nice community feel. 

Weston-super-Mare beach

Where can people find out more about what’s coming up for Culture Weston? 

Fiona: We’ve got Whirligig Outdoor Arts Festival on 9th and 10th September. It’s going to be two days this year for the first time. The main hub of it is in the Italian Gardens and it mixes international work with national and local work. I think my favourite comment from last time is someone saying he thought he was in Barcelona – it has that real European street vibe. 

We are going to have multiple sites this year, including something on the Marine Lake. We’ve got a company coming over from Belgium who look amazing, so it should be a real riot of excitement that weekend.

We’ve got other festivals happening that month, one of which is a literature festival – that’s in collaboration with the town council, and got some really lovely programming in it. Things to listen to, things to do, and in a range of different locations in Weston.

Tom: As part of SEE MONSTER, there were loads of creative interventions in the town – poetry in the bus shelters and big epic word statements on the side of various popular locations. Those will all be being refreshed this summer, so there’ll be lots of opportunity to feed into those. 

We will be working with Weston Artspace to do Weston’s second Annual Summer Photography Open. During the summer there’ll be a big call out for photographers to submit their work of Weston and then there’ll be an exhibition in various places around town of that work. We’re hoping to do a few other surprise creative interventions in the town centre, which people will have to keep an eye out for.

Whirligig Weston super Mare
Whirligig Outdoor Arts Festival, Weston-super-Mare

Fiona: There’s a series of bandstand sessions at Super Wonder Shrine this summer as well as at Grove Park with Loves and do check out Beautifully Proud (a month-long programme of events, activities, exhibitions and performances for all ages across multiple venues in Weston throughout Pride Month in June.

Find out more about the work of Culture Weston 

To find out about what’s on and things to do in Weston head to Visit Weston. 

*North Somerset Council was awarded £800k in funding by Historic England in 2017 to create the Great Weston Heritage Action Zone, which ended in September 2022. Weston was one of the first places in England to receive Heritage Action Zone status.

In 2020, the council received a further £1.1m in funding to set-up the High Street Heritage Action Zone, which will run until March 2024. Part of this work saw the introduction of a Shopfront Enhancement Scheme offering grants to help businesses invest in the appearance of their stores, making the area more attractive and increase footfall in the town centre. Walker and Ling was the first business to benefit. The work, which started in February 2021, included re-instating the original mosaic shopfront using tiles made by the original Italian manufacturer.