Anthea Gerrie braves the underbelly of the See Monster, a new beast on the Weston-super-Mare seafront and discovers a garden of earthly delights
Like a huge fluorescent dragon dog rising above the deserted seafront on Weston-Super-Mare on a damp Monday night, See Monster endows the genteel Edwardian resort with a wow factor from the moment it hovers into the eyeline of visitors arriving after dark.
Like us, those visitors would have been half-expecting an apparition. They have almost certainly made a detour to the North Somerset coast outside the summer seaside season just to see this installation, which by day is anything but monstrous – in fact a garden of earthly delights created by the visionary arts collective SKYMAGIC.
The folks who demonstrated their talent for spectacle with the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations spent several months moving a retired oil rig from the North Sea earlier this year and 10 weeks transforming it into a beautiful sky garden with a helter-skelter, crashing 10-metre waterfall, giant misting machine suggesting a dragon drawing breath every few minutes and a crane hanging off at one end making a perky tail for the monster.
Queues have been forming daily since the installation opened in late September, with a limited life, at least as a free attraction, due to end on November 5. The thing to do is get there at opening time – 9am – on a weekday if at all possible and walk straight in.
As only working dogs are allowed, we went in shifts, and once I had reclaimed the pooch the rest of the family found what looked like a 20-minute mid-morning queue moving swiftly, allowing them in within less than half that time. Weight must be a consideration in limiting numbers on the gridded platforms, and perhaps the need to preserve a sense of wonder by allowing plenty of ground space for visitors to enjoy the transformed rig in its full glory.
Vertigo can be a factor – treading on grids through which you can see the ground below prevented our son ascending the higher levels – so I rode to the top on a lift, startled to be invited by the helpful volunteers to decant myself into a narrow silver tunnel immediately upon arrival and slide down to the floor below.
I declined, lingering at the top to enjoy the fabulous views of broad, sandy beach in both directions and Weston’s handsomely rebuilt Grand Pier to the northeast, with the South Wales coast visible across the Bristol Channel. A small amphitheatre at the centre of the third floor was a surprise; apparently spontaneous performances from acoustic guitarists and others enrich the viewing experience on an ad hoc basis, but for all-comers, there is a perpetual broadcast of the shipping forecast.
There is a sky garden at this level, but a much more luscious one on the floor below, where every genre of visitor from schoolgirls to little old ladies emerges with a whoop of triumph from the bottom of the twisted steel helter-skelter of a slide. Seasonal plants have been used to great effect to create a gorgeous environment which is a riot of colour in autumn and subtly reinforces the theme of sustainability which is the keynote of the project but not sledgehammered home as a message.
The second floor is a good place to find yourself when the dragon hisses for several minutes through the misting machine at the first-floor level; descent is achieved without vertigo via a rusted-steel ramp wrapped around the outside of the installation. Getting drenched in the mist is one way to participate in the drama; another is to stand beneath the roaring waterfall which is only switched off with the lights late at night. The water crashes into a pool which was the site of the old Tropicana lido before it was given new life this year as a bed for See Monster.
An overnight stay is de rigeur, not only to get a first thrilling view of the monster but perhaps experience its different and very special ambience by night when visitors are admitted onto the platform up till 8 pm. The obvious place to stay is bang opposite at the excellent Beach Hotel owned by the YMCA. In no way a hostel, this is an attractive and comfortable dog-friendly lodging with stylish furnishings, a bar-lounge overlooking the sea and an excellent buffet breakfast included. Our sea-view rooms allowed us an all-night view of See Monster as a bonus.
Weston-Super-Mare is not very well set up for off-season visitors, with pubs closing their kitchens at 8 pm midweek, but standalone eateries include a Nando’s and there is excellent fish and chips to take away until 9 pm from the Atlantic in Hutton, just outside the town centre.
Perhaps because of a faint sense of having given up the ghost once the bucket and spade brigade have left, the resort does draw artists with its faded elegance, and slight sense of melancholy.
However – Banksy was here a few years ago with Dismaland, his dysfunctional temporary theme park, but See Monster does not mock its homeland, nor even bark – rather it seeks to celebrate and delight, and one can only hope it gets to live on in situ as a paid attraction rather than be dismantled and disappeared back to into the North Sea without a trace of its glory days as a decorated dragon.
Tell Me More About See Monster
Open from 9am-9pm; free to enter and no booking required.
Tropicana, Marine Parade
Weston-super-Mare BS23 1BG
For more information visit See Monster