Isambard Kingdom Brunel and his family lived in Weston, at Swiss Villa (eastern corner of Alexandra Parade and Swiss Road), for a number of months whilst he was supervising the construction of the Bristol and Exeter Railway in the area. With the opening of the railway in 1841, thousands of visitors came to the town from Bristol, the Midlands and further afield, on works outings and Bank Holidays. Also, many mining families came across the Bristol Channel from South Wales by paddle steamer. To cater for them, Birnbeck Pier was completed in 1867, offering in its heyday amusement arcades, tea rooms, funfair rides and a photographic studio. However, it now stands in a derelict state and has recently been added to English Heritage's list of endangered buildings, but is still possible for visitors to marvel at the structure from behind the barbed wire. It was designed by Eugenius Birch with ironwork by the Isia Foundry of Newport, Monmouthshire. It is a grade II* listed building.
Large areas of land were released for development from the 1850s onwards. Large detached villas, for the middle classes, were built on the southern slopes of Worlebury Hill. Semi-detached and terraced housing were built on the low 'moorland', behind the sea front in an area known as South Ward. Many of these houses have now been turned into bedsits by their owners. Most of the houses built in the Victorian era are built from stone and feature details made from local Bath Stone, influenced by local architect Hans Price.
In 1885 the first transatlantic telegraph cable of the Commercial Cable Company was brought ashore and the company started a long association with the town, ending in 1962.
A second railway, the Weston, Clevedon and Portishead Railway, opened on 1 December 1897, connecting Weston to Clevedon. The terminus station was at Ashcombe Road. The railway was extended to Portishead on 7 August 1907 but was closed on 18 May 1940.
Local traders, unhappy that visitors were not coming as far as the centre of the town, began the construction of a new pier closer to the main streets. Opened in 1904, and known as the Grand Pier, it was originally planned to be long.
The Grand Pier still stands in truncated form. Amusements and cafes replaced the original music-hall theatre it supported, in a building dating from 1933. Further development occurred after World War I, with the Winter Gardens and Pavilion (1927), the open air pool and an airfield all dating from the inter-war period. Art Deco influences can be seen in much of the town's architecture from this period.
During World War II many evacuees were accommodated in the town. Weston suffered several bombing raids, damaging parts of the town centre, particularly Orchard Street and Boulevard. War industries, such as aircraft and pump manufacture, were dispersed to the town. Many US troops were billeted in Weston. The troops and their equipment quickly vanished, in the run-up to D-Day.
Residential areas include the Oldmixon, Coronation, and Bournville housing estates, which exhibit many examples of early to late twentieth century architecture. Newer housing has since been built towards the east of the town in North Worle and Locking Castle, locations nearer to the M5 motorway.
The town as a whole has expanded in size considerably and at one time in the 1980s was the fastest growing municipality in Europe. Weston-super-Mare has expanded to include the established villages of Milton, Worle, Uphill, Oldmixon, West Wick and Wick St. Lawrence, as well as new areas such as St. Georges and Locking Castle.
A structure known as Silica was installed at Big Lamp Corner during 2006. It is a piece of public art, an advertising sign, a retail kiosk selling newspapers and hot food, as well as a bus shelter. It has been criticised by some local residents who liken it to a carrot or a space ship, although it is meant to symbolise man's harmony with the sea. This was part of North Somerset Council's ongoing civic pride initiative that has sought to revitalise Weston-super-Mare's public spaces – which had suffered a period of decline.
Other public space improvements have been made throughout the town such as improvements to the street scene in Grove Park Village. There has been some controversy in the town over whether the silica enhanced the town or was a waste of money. However, this debate centred round a misunderstanding of the government funds used to pay for the sculpture. Many local residents did not realise that the money came from central government and had to be used on public art/improvements to the street scene environment. Although a significant part of the funding also came from Weston Town Council and tourism budgets that could have been spent elsewhere. Much of this argument was covered by the Weston & Somerset Mercury. Some residents considered that an attractive water fountain or garden would have been a better investment of this money.
On 28 July 2008, the pavilion at the end of the Grand Pier was completely destroyed by a fire. Eleven fire engines and 80 fire-fighters were unable to contain the blaze which is believed to have started in the north-east tower of the Pavilion.
Made an urban district in 1894, Weston-super-Mare became a municipal borough in 1937. In 1974, under the Local Government Act 1972, it was merged into the Woodspring district of the County of Avon, and became a Charter Trustees town. Weston-super-Mare regained its town council in 2000, becoming a civil parish.
Before 1974, Weston-super-Mare was in the County of Somerset. When Avon was split up in 1996, it became the administrative headquarters of North Somerset, one of the successor authorities, which remains part of the ceremonial county of Somerset.
The mainly flat landscape of Weston is dominated by Worlebury Hill which borders the entire northern edge of the town, and Bleadon Hill which together with the River Axe, and Brean Down at Uphill form its southern border. In the centre of the town is Ellenborough Park a Site of Special Scientific Interest due to the range of plant species found there.
The beach lies on the western edge of the town. The upper part is sandy but, as the sea retreats a long way with the tide exposing mud flats. The tidal range in this part of the Bristol Channel is great, since the beach and mud flats are on a gentle slope. Consequently it is only at the part of the tide cycle where high tide is in the early morning and late afternoon that the sea comes well up the beach. Many day visitors see little of the sea because of this and also must be confused to see a long pier with little or no water under it. Attempting to reach the sea at these times is inadvisable as the sand gives way to mud which is very deep and has cost several people their lives over the years. Driving on the beach (which is permitted in certain areas) catches people out as they drive too close to the sea and break through the sand to the underlying mud and are then stuck.
The tidal rise and fall in the Severn Estuary and Bristol Channel can be as great as . second only to Bay of Fundy in Eastern Canada. This tidal movement contributes to the deposition of natural mud in bays such as Weston. There has been concern about pollution levels from industrial areas in Wales and at the eastern end of the Bristol Channel, however this tends to be diluted by the Atlantic waters. There are measurable levels of chemical pollutants and little is known about their effects. Of particular concern are the levels of cadmium and to a lesser degree some residual pesticides and hydrocarbons.
The main Weston-super-Mare railway station is close to the town centre less than ten minutes walk from the sea front. Other stations are located at Weston Milton and Worle. Weston-super-Mare station has direct services to London Paddington operated by First Great Western, and also trains to stations such as Bristol, Taunton and Cardiff Central. A few CrossCountry services run to Birmingham and the North.
Most bus services are provided by First Somerset & Avon or ACL Travel. All services call at stops in the Regent Street and Big Lamp Corner area; a few services to Sand Bay, Wells, Burnham-on-Sea and Bristol International Airport start from or run via the main railway station. Some bus services serve the main High Street. National Express and Bakers Dolphin operate long distance coach services, mostly from the caoch terminal in Locking Road Car Park which is close to the railway station.
Weston is close to junction 21 of the M5 motorway to which it is linked by a dual-carriageway relief road built in the 1990s. This replaced Locking Road as the designated A370 route and avoided some of the traffic congestion along that narrower urban road.
There is a heliport at the town's Helicopter Museum.
The town has a number of arts venues. The Playhouse serves both tourists and the local population. The Winter Gardens on the seafront hosts shows, exhibitions and conferences. The Blakehay Theatre & Community Arts Centre is a small venue housed in a former Baptist church.
Weston-super-Mare has a couple of live music venues of note. Hobbit's on Carlton Street caters mainly for young up and coming punk and pop acts, whilst the nearby Scally's bar hosts local and national touring rock bands. On the other side of town The Back Bar, The London, and the Imperial hold regular open mic nights which attract a wide array of local musicians, as well as artists from further afield. The T4 on the Beach pop music concert attracts up to 40,000 music fans and is given national TV coverage each summer.
The town was the subject of a song Sunny Weston-super-Mare performed by local band, The Wurzels.
There are two Rugby clubs in the town; Weston-super-Mare RFC, formed in 1875, and Hornets RFC, formed in 1962. They play in South West Division One and South West Division Two (West) respectively.
Somerset County Cricket Club played First Class and One-Day matches for one week a season on a pitch prepared at Clarence Park, near the Sea Front. This began in 1914 and continued until the last “festival” in 1996.
The town is well known amongst motocross enthusiasts for staging the Weston Super Mare Enduro beach race every Autumn. Over 900 riders take part in the annual event, with crowds approaching 20,000 spectators. In addition, races are also held for youth riders, sidecarcross riders and quad bike competitors. The most recent winner of the Weston Beach Race was reigning World Motocross Champion Steve Ramon of Belgium.
Weston-super-Mare is a popular tourist destination, with attractions such as the long sandy beach, the world's largest dedicated helicopter collection at the Helicopter Museum, North Somerset Museum, the Grand Pier, the SeaQuarium aquarium. On the Beach Lawns can be found a Miniature Railway operated by steam and diesel locomotives, and a putting green. The Paddle Steamer Waverley and MV Balmoral offer day sea trips from Knightstone Island to various destinations along the Bristol Channel and Severn estuary, tickets for which are on sale at the resort's Tourist Information Centre.
The T4 On The Beach concert, hosted by Channel 4 youth programme T4, is a recent addition. Many well known bands and singers perform four or less of their hits. However, many of the vocals are mimed as the event is being produced for live TV broadcast.
'International HeliDays', in association with The Helicopter Museum, are usually staged at the beach lawns over a long weekend around the end of July, where up to 75 helicopters from all over Europe fly in for static display. Helicopter Air Experience flights also take place on a regular basis from the Museum heliport. There is also an annual display by the Red Arrows.
Weston Beach Race is an annual Motorcross Enduro event in October, first held in 1982. In 2005 it attracted 1,400 competitors and around 80,000 spectators. There are a number of races for quad bikes, sidecars and children in addition to the main event.
Some of the town's attractions are out of use or undergoing redevlopment: