It’s half past nine on a balmy mid-September morning and the Butlin’s end of Minehead is ghostly quiet. Bar some gutsy swimmers bracing the biting Bristol Channel, I’ve almost got the coastline to myself. Serene isn’t exactly how I remember this buoyant beachfront.
I first came to Minehead in 1999 as a starry-eyed eight-year-old who had never left his home city. We didn’t have a car, so me and my mum caught a coach from Birmingham which traversed the wildlife-strewn countryside on its golden-coast expedition to Butlin’s: every child’s utopian playground. For this landlocked young boy, the journey alone felt like a holiday. Imagine my joy when we actually got there.
Today, as a 29-year-old re-visiting Minehead for the umpteenth time, I’m riding a wave of nostalgia. After a brisk ten-minute walk from my hotel to the beach, I gravitate towards seafront arcade Merlin’s, the scene of many futile attempts at coaxing teddies into my young grasp. The dazzling lights, sentimental smells and, frankly, irritating sounds of the British arcade are still too good to bypass, as I’m once again thwarted by the claw.
Quelling my inner-child’s disappointment, I head towards North Hill and Minehead’s lovely harbour. On my leisurely stroll I pass chocolate box cottages with residents tending to their hillside gardens, ice cream shacks with queues spilling across the esplanade, and quayside pubs welcoming couples for lunch. Minehead feels alive.
At the harbour, Edwardian pub The Old Ship Aground is benefitting from a sudden downpour. A good chunk of indoor tables are taken by diners, while pint sippers like me find shelter beneath the parasols out front. The fickle weather signals the start of walking season – the 630-mile juggernaut of all walking routes begins round the corner – but owner Julian Abraham says he has noticed a change from the usual South West Coastal Path clientele.
“We’ve found it interesting,” says Abraham, discussing the last few months. “We’re fortunate that our strong customer base has returned since we reopened in July, and also that more people are holidaying within the UK. We’ve probably welcomed a wider range of customers than before.
“People are still cautious, but our Covid measures allow us to provide a good hospitality experience and make our customers feel comfortable too. We’re still going strong, even if our bookings have reduced slightly.”
It’s true, business is still going strong. In stark contrast to the hushed beachfront, the town centre at 1pm is buzzing. Along this gorgeous tree-lined boulevard I find lots of folk dining al-fresco and perusing quirky gift emporiums. Though many people discover Minehead via Butlin’s, the town is flaunting its own merits to persevere through an unusually extended season.
“This season has been… different,” says Sally Turner, the manager of Minehead’s visitor information centre. “By mid-March we had everything in place for Easter but coronavirus effectively pressed pause on it all.
“People were anxious at first, but visitor numbers have been steadily increasing since everything reopened in July. Self-catering accommodation filled up very quickly, while most other providers are now either close to capacity or fully booked until mid-October. It’s been a little quieter as a result of less families visiting Butlin’s, but our independent businesses have picked up instead.”
Despite that initial uncertainty, people have been putting their trust in the town. I’m told by Minehead BID that those October accommodation bookings are now outdoing the same point last year. Almost all of Minehead’s shops are open and the town’s retail occupancy rate is the third highest in the South West. People clearly feel safe here, I do.
As my day nears its end, I head to seafront chippy Dana’s, an old favourite of mine. A hit with the locals too since opening in 1999, Dana’s is a humble streetside takeaway with no room for seats beyond its bi-fold doors. Bizarrely, it’s the changeable British weather that causes them more havoc than coronavirus does; being exposed to the elements occasionally forces an early closure.
“Since lockdown was lifted I haven’t really noticed a decrease in customers… other than during bad weather,” says staff member Nicholas, who is handing over my fish and chips. “We tend to get quieter in September, but even then we’re still busy for most of the day.” The quick-forming queue to my side is a testament to both its popularity and the luck you need to eat here.
Of the hazy memories I have from my first time at the beach, it’s not the arcades, candy floss or sandcastles that immediately spring to mind, it’s sitting on these plastic chairs outside Dana’s, looking out at the crashing waves, and eating fish and chips. As I do the very same 21 years on, I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be.