ohOn a fine weekend evening, locals gather at Watchet Harbor in western Somerset. Town Crier David Milton, clad in a gold-trimmed green jacket and tricorn hat, leads the song: vigorous tales of drunken and loving sailors and past maritime glories. Children jump onto parents’ shoulders, and seagulls project figures of eight against the blue-gray horizons of the Bristol Channel and the gentle outlines of Barry Island in Wales beyond.
Rather than a nod to pandemic TikTok fashion, Watchet’s monthly slum chants are an expression of a proud maritime identity for a city that is often overlooked by artisan cider vendors and bookings. luxury cabins on the West Country Vacation Tour.
A few steps east along the harbor, a new symbol of Watchet’s pride looms against the blue of the coast: a cubist jungle of brightly colored boxes overlooking the drydock. Designed by Invisible Studio architect Piers Taylor and produced by a determined collective of local women, East Quay is a £ 6.3million cultural venue with a gallery, restaurant, studios and rooms, all funded in part by the Coastal Communities Fund and the Arts Council. England. It offers a model for how tourism can be harnessed for good in our struggling coastal communities.
Edwardian guidebook writer Ms Osborne Hann said of Watchet it looked “more like a foreign wharf than anywhere else I’ve been to … a quaint and jumbled town. [where] the houses seem to have fallen from the sky willy-nilly ”.
“It hasn’t changed much,” smiles Georgie Grant, one of the co-founders of the Onion Collective project (or “Onions” as the team of five women are called). “Watchet has a character of its own,” she says, showing me around the town’s main street, with its 16th-century inns and sloping cream-colored facades.
Despite this civic spirit, Watchet was in a tough spot in the mid-2010s when its largest employer, a mid-17th century paper mill known locally as “The Family,” closed its doors for good. . In 2013, when plans for a controversial luxury apartment development on the Marina Wharf fell through, Georgie and her Onions colleagues – Jess Prendergrast, Rachel Kelly, Sally Lowndes and Naomi Griffith – decided to put their skills to work. common in local politics, charity and arts management. and ask other Watchet residents what they wanted for their city. Many Watcheters, Georgie recalls, were keen to restore the town’s Boat Museum, dedicated to the traditional boats – known as “flatties” – that sailed the shallow mudflats at low tide; others wanted to upgrade the visitor center to attract more foreigners to a city that attracts 70,000 tourists a year (compared to the million that settle in nearby Minehead). Most of them arrive as day trippers on the West Somerset Heritage Railway which runs the 20 mile route to Watchet from Minehead four times a day in the summer (and for festive fish-themed routes -fry and steam and cream during the colder months).
“We just listened to the locals,” explains Georgie. “And eight years later, with a little sweat and tears, Watchet has its boat museum, its visitors’ center and this– she walks around the East Quay site from the courtyard which will also serve as a theatrical performance space.
Opened in October and commanding a third of Watchet’s harbor frontage, East Quay features an immersive two-story art gallery run by the arts charity Contains Art; 14 studios / workshops for local artists; a geology and ecology workshop; an alternative education space designed by local schoolchildren; a bistro and five independent accommodation units, with interiors designed by the architect-makers of Hereforshire Pearce + Fægen (available to book from early 2022).
Importantly, in an area with the lowest social mobility in England and an average household income of £ 16,000 per year, East Quay offers 37 new decent jobs, including five apprenticeships, and will support 109 jobs indirectly through visitor spending for local businesses.
The five pods (which can sleep between two and four) are tiered metal boxes inspired by Watchet’s industrial and maritime history with, as Jess puts it, “a bit of graffiti and steampunk on top.” Each pod has an individual theme – Playful Architecture, for example, has matching furniture (chairs that convert into tables and lounge chairs) and a cargo net to slip into, and Industrial Heritage includes a ship ladder and tub. custom iron with view. Modules are nestled between artist studios, to encourage visitors to come have a cup of tea and discover the artists’ collaborative productions.
With a brilliant light over the Bristol Channel and the harbor lined with moored boats, Pod One, Object Exchange, feels a bit like a guest on a luxury yacht. As in the other pods, there is a downstairs bathroom and a kitchen with hob, microwave and grill, kettle, fridge and toaster. On the mezzanine level, a two-seater sea-viewing platform has a picture window offering 180-degree views of the waterfront.
A “lost items” feature, arranged on its floor-to-ceiling shelves, allows visitors to leave behind something that reminds them of their trip as they pick up a souvenir: perhaps a piece of handmade paper or a fossil from mudlarke from the coast, where Jurassic and Triassic sediments meet in a riot of streaked limestone and ocher. In line with East Quay’s position to support local labor markets, the pod bedding is made by a Devonshire company that sews mattresses by hand, and packs of local, seasonal produce welcome arrivals, while fresh bread is offered each morning from the on-site bistro, East Quay Kitchen, delivered to your door on request.
At the heart of the ground floor of East Quay is another nod to Watchet’s legacy: a working paper mill. Local paper maker Jim Patterson was an apprentice at Wansbrough Paper Mill in the early 1970s, before establishing his own specialty watercolor paper mill, Two Rivers Paper in 1976. The 74-year-old planned to retire, but was drawn to again in the craft industry. papermaking to train a new generation at East Quay. “Watching Jim at work will be a highlight for visitors,” says Georgie. From the end of 2022, East Quay will also be home to a factory that produces living building materials from the mycelium fungus, an advanced post-carbon technology.
East Quay follows a wave of social enterprises that funnel tourism revenues into local community renewal. These include the Foxes Hotel in Minehead, which offers apprenticeships for disabled young people, and London’s Good Hotel, which trains long-term unemployed Londoners. At a time when many residents of popular coastal areas speak out against overtourism, there is also a benefit, according to Jess, to expanding footfall to under-visited destinations. “We want to widen the vacation season here to reduce the seasonality of employment,” she says, “and we’re bringing in new housing, rather than seeing local properties converted to vacation rentals or sold as second homes.”
As the afternoon sun browns the sea, I climb with Jess and Georgie to one of the two viewing platforms above the site, where locals and visitors alike can come and admire the ancient and the new Watchet and the hubbub of East Quay below. Development has already encouraged new marinas owners, the Marine Group, to dredge the Watchet silted dry dock; Onions are hoping that pleasure boat moorings will increase and that one day the pleasure ferries that plied the Watchet route to the Welsh coast in the 1950s and 1960s will return.
We walk up the harbor from East Quay as a steam train enters the station. As we climb onto the bridge over the railroad tracks, a teenage boy in a logo sweatshirt stops and looks at Jess. “Are you one of those Onion women who make East Quay?” He asks. Jess nods, uncertain. The teenager pumps his fist in the air. “Big up the onion collective! ” he is crying.
East Quay pods cost from £ 100 a night, eastquaywatchet.co.uk
Tourism social enterprises across the UK
Jubilee Pool, Penzance
One of the last seawater lidos in Europe, Jubilee was threatened with closure following storm damage, but in 2017 was taken over by a utility company. The group restored the pool to its art deco glory and operates the pool – now a major tourist attraction – for the community.
South Tynedale Railway, Cumbria
South Tynedale Railway Preservation Society volunteers have created a tourist attraction straddling two of the UK’s most deprived rural areas: a narrow gauge railway winding from Alston through the scenic South Tyne Valley. It attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.
Bed & Breakfast Art, Blackpool
This classic Victorian waterfront hotel, refurbished by 30 contemporary artists, reinvests its profits in local arts and community projects and hosts events, conferences and workshops for locals.
Good hotel, London
Set on a boat in London’s Docklands, The Good Hotel offers jobs and vocational training for long-term unemployed Londoners. Proceeds from the project go to educating children through the hotel’s global foundation, notably in Guatemala, where the original Good Hotel was founded in 2007.
Bristol ferry boats
Bristol Harbor’s iconic yellow and blue boat fleet has been operating for the benefit of the community since 2013, the group that runs the boats runs interactive tours, wildlife sightings and storytelling trips for Bristolians.
Tower House, Oxford
This guesthouse supports the Student Hubs charity, which helps students in the city tackle local social challenges and strives to keep students from less advantaged backgrounds in the higher education system.