Ep 2: Walker and Ling, Weston-super-Mare high street reinvigoration

In episode 2, host Becky Walsh chats to Sam Walker, Owner of Walker & Ling, a department store in Weston with a fascinating history, that has been run by the Walker family for 115 years.

Here’s what Sam had to say about:

  • the reinvigoration of the high street
  • what drew him to take over the reins of the family business
  • how he juggles the store’s heritage with modern shopping expectations
  • some of his favourite things to do in Weston-super-Mare
  • what he thinks about the town’s future

Q: The Walker & Ling department store has been in the Walker family for a very long time and is a stalwart of Weston’s high street. In that time you’ve had your fair share of ups and downs, tell us about the store?

We started the same year as Thatchers Cider and The Grand Pier in 1904, so I like to think we’ve kept a level pegging with those businesses. The store was levelled in 1942 in the second world war, and then they spent 10-15 years rebuilding it. 

Q: Talking about rebuilding, the store has had a recent facelift that has taken it back to a different point in time, tell us about that.

The government-funded Heritage Action Zone, delivered in partnership with Historic England and North Somerset Council, was designed to reinvigorate and unlock the potential of high streets across England and in this case, restore some of the nicer, older parts of the High Street to draw out the history of Weston. 

I became involved about 2019 and then Covid hit, but the project managed to get through the pandemic, and we were able to reinstate the modern green and blue tiles that were put on the building in the 1960s, after it was burned down in the Second World War. So now, we’ve reinstated a 50-year old architectural piece that is unique to Weston.

Walker & Ling mosaic tiles rejuvenation
Walker & Ling mosaic tiles rejuvenation
Walker & Ling homestyle retailer before
Walker & Ling after
Walker & Ling store before and after
*Heritage Action Zone funding*

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.

Q: Walker & Ling is a fabulous department store – tell us a bit about the range of brands, the number of staff you’re employing and what makes it so brilliant?

We’ve been around since 1904 and we’re a family business, so it’s still run by the Walkers. I am a Walker. We are a team of about 25 and we’ve done lots of different things over the years, including bespoke garments, custom suits, linens and a cookshop, but nowadays we’re mostly about fashion – menswear and branded women’s fashion, lingerie, accessories, bags and shoes. We have Seasalt, Joules, White Stuff, Scechers and Dry Robe is a new one for us, which has been really interesting. 

Q: What I love about Walker & Ling is, people can walk in, and without removing any clothes, have a wonderful lady take one look at you, disappear, and come back with a selection of perfectly-fitting bras. That is a talent and certainly something that you absolutely could not get online.

When I was younger I never really expected to be a professional bra or handbag buyer. But it’s kind of a unique thing and a very important part of dressing. For a lot of people, it’s almost a medical thing. So we like to think we’re specialists in the area.

Sam Walker running the London Marathon
Sam Walker running the London Marathon

Q: What did you want to do as a child? And did you go straight into working at Walker & Ling or was there another path for you?

I did Spanish and French at university, and then became an English teacher for two years. When my wife announced we were going to have a baby, we decided to move back to Weston-super-Mare to be near the grandparents. 

I have two sisters and for 30 years it looked like none of us would take it on, but I decided to take up the mantle at the family department store and it was a good decision – I wasn’t a very good teacher, to be honest.

I’ve been trying to juggle the history and heritage with trying to move forward with modern shopping expectations and brands. If you’re trying to sell Super Dry, you don’t necessarily want to have black and white photos on the wall. Having said that, I think we’ve managed to find a line.

Q: How many staff members do you have now?

At the moment, between 20 and 25. During the war and the interwar period, there were about 100 staff and they used to live-in. There are lots of old sewing machines in the back stock rooms – it’s a funny old building with lots of history.

The lift has a sliding door that goes across it as well, and there’s a machine that can suck  money up and push money down – incredible bits of history that you wouldn’t necessarily think about or witness while you’re out shopping.

Walker and Ling in the 1900s, Weston super Mare High Street
Walker & Ling in the early 1900s

Q: What else have you been getting involved with in the town? 

I live on the outskirts of town – we’ve just moved to Banwell from St Georges – and I drive into the centre of Weston every day. With the shop, I get involved with all the high street teams and Weston BID (Business Improvement District). I’ve got to know lots of our customers over the years as well, so we really are quite a central part of the community. 

Q: What do you and your family like to do in Weston when you’re not working?

We often go to The Tropicana when there’s events on, as well as The Grand Pier, the seafront, make sand castles on the beach, have ice creams. There’s so much to do on the seafront and on the beach. It’s always a pretty reliable day out when the sun shines. 

We are also quite Clip and Climb-oriented, and like the new bowling alley, All Stars and Cineworld for the latest Disney or U-rated film. 

Q: You were an integral part of the SEE MONSTER project (a decommissioned oil rig/art installation built at the Tropicana in Weston) which ended in a whole-community, educational ‘climate carnival’, and you made some of their merchandise.

The SEE MONSTER organisers involved businesses and the local community from day one. It was a good example of family life in Weston, because I took my three children up onto the SEE MONSTER and grandparents and in-laws. 

See Monster, Weston super Mare
SEE Monster, Weston-Super-Mare

Q: How amazing is Weston-super-Mare for running? You’re about to do the London Marathon and have been training in the town.

Initially I didn’t get through on the ballot, but I’d just started as a trustee for Weston Hospice Care – one of Weston’s biggest and best-loved charities, based in Uphill – and they had nine gold spots so I was able to fundraise for them and I’ve raised just over £1500. 

Running in Weston, you have undisturbed mileage of lovely promenade, which I’ve used every week since I started training in September. I started outside the Grand Pier, ran all the way to the Royal Sands where the golf club is, all the way back to Knightstone, and then back to the Grand Pier (almost exactly five kilometres) and it’s completely flat. It’s marvellous, I don’t really train anywhere else.I need to start my triathlon training now at Weston’s Marine Lake

Weston super Mare promenade
Weston-super-Mare promenade: image credit Paul Blakemore
Sam Walker London marathon
Sam Walker with his London marathon medal

Q: Tell us some of your favourite places in Weston to eat and drink.

Well, with three children, I don’t go out for dinner as much, but there are some lovely pubs around where we are in Banwell. The beautiful, 100-year old Railway Inn in Sandford is quite close to us, which is bolted on to the family-run Thatchers Cider factory.

Weston town centre restaurant scene has come a long way. We like going to Brunello Lounge, that’s fantastic. For lunchtime, Loves Cafe is great. The new Jenny’s Coffee House serves really nice coffee and we like going into the Winter Gardens opposite The Green House, which has opened up in the last couple of years. 

We also go to The Nut Tree in Worle.

We’ll also be looking forward to Weston Lions Real Ale Festival in July, a big charity event on the seafront this summer, that’s good fun. We usually sponsor a barrel, so we get a couple of free tickets. I think they’ve done it for about 20 years and it’s usually fairly raucous.

Q: What is an unpopular or unusual opinion that you hold about Weston?

I actually quite like Weston High Street. I suppose I’ve got a vested interest in it, but  because I am a professional shopper, I see quite a lot of high streets and if there was a competition for best high street, I think Weston has weathered the storm pretty well. 

Lots of high streets have lost their department stores – Weston lost its Marks and Spencers – but we were not quite big enough to lose all the Topshops and Wallaces and all the other stores when they went down. I think we skirted under the clothes shops’ shutting crisis and have come out the other side, as we were before.

We are Super co-working space in the Sovereign

Q: There is a huge footfall down the high street, what do you think about some of the ways in which Weston has used and reinvented some of the empty shop spaces, especially around the shopping centre? For example Weston Art Space, and Hub Zero (a climate change education space at The Sovereign Centre).

I think it’s great. I really like the grassroots, community spirit part of it, trying to get resources into people’s hands to start businesses and projects. The office space in The Sovereign Centre is another example, I’d really like to see more people using that. It seems like a really innovative way to use a space.

Everybody would like more shops, but the truth of the matter is, there really aren’t more shops available to come in. We’ve got to try and find new practical ways to bring people into the town centre – and it’s not just about customers or bringing tourists in, it’s about living and working, shopping, workers buying their lunch in the town centre every day, using transport, going out for drinks in the evening. Anything’s better than empty units, and Weston has fewer empty units than so many high streets. 

Weston has done some really clever things in regards to murals and giving the place a unique identity. Sometimes you go down a high street, and you could be anywhere because it’s always the same kind of shops, whereas Weston has its own little quarters of independence, and independent shops.

Little village areas, The Grove area, the retro Victorian side of it. Weston is really turning into a unique place to live and it’s starting to find its own identity and character in terms of culture and creativity, away from being the ‘rundown seaside town’ with donkeys.

The beach is an extraordinary geographic asset for Weston, and will always be a draw to the town, so I think the fact that we’ve got a council that’s working to reinvigorate and reinvent The Sovereign Centre, that’s really quite an open-minded project.

Weston High Street
Weston High Street, image credit: Paul Blakemore

There are some big players (Weston College, Winter Gardens and The Grand Pier etc) supporting the regrowth of the town, so it seems inevitable that this town will grow and projects that the council and others are doing, are going to speed that process up.

All of the new seating, the new benches, 10 trees planted down the high street, that will have such a positive impact on people’s mental health when they start to grow. The Italian Gardens, where you can go and help yourself to herbs from the herb garden…

Q: Any last thoughts or opinions that you would like to give anybody about Weston-super-Mare?

One of the things we haven’t touched on is the future. I’d like to see a bit more entrepreneurialism – startups, tech startups. There’s so much potential, Weston has got an opportunity to reinvent itself, connectivity is going to be very much improved in the next few years, and there are opportunities for new businesses anywhere between the town centre and on the seafront, and all the way to the motorway, including the Food WorkSW operation.

To listen to the full conversation between Sam Walker and Becky Walsh, click on the podcast below:

Keep up to date with what’s going on at Walker & Ling on Instagram or Facebook.

Find out more about Weston Town Centre, opportunities in vacant units and other retail business enquiries by contacting Weston BID.

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

If you want to hear more about the super people working and living in Weston, make sure to subscribe to the We are Super Weston podcast. You can do that over on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever else you listen to your podcasts.

Every two weeks host Becky Walsh will be chatting with inspirational people to uncover the stories of life in the seaside town, from those who have created successful businesses in the town, to those who are bringing excitement and intrigue through new projects, events and culinary delights.