Posted on April 30, 2012
Words by Liz Corlett. Images by Phil Kneen
It’s easy to sentimentalize Morecambe’s past and poke fun at its shortcomings; more difficult to envisage a positive future for the town.
During our visit, we encounter no shortage of people who agree that the town needs ‘something’ but rather fewer able to identify what that might be. Local authority initiatives are given short shrift, and there’s a recurring sentiment that Morecambe has been left out in the rain by its guardians. This feeling has been simmering since 1974, when a reorganisation of local government handed Morecambe to Lancaster City Council, an awkward move which, as Evelyn Archer puts it, saw “a historic city saddled with a seaside town” and made a poor relation of the latter.
This said, there’s a buoyancy in the air quite at odds with the popular perception of Morecambe as the doyen of moribund coastal resorts. And I suspect that the ingredients the town needs for revival are already within its range: Morecambe has pride, and it has friends. Perhaps I’m suffering from chronic romanticism but I feel that the British weakness for the underdog, for a comeback against the odds, could be as much Morecambe’s trump card as its heritage.
The momentum began with The Midland Hotel, the Modernist beauty rescued from dereliction and reopened in 2008. Upon the hotel’s original launch in 1933, Lord Clonmore wrote in the Architectural Review, “it rises from the sea like a great white ship, gracefully curved…as comfortable as if it were on the Continent” and its most renowned guests – Coco Chanel, Dusty Springfield, Laurence Olivier – vied with their surroundings for style and glamour.
The combination of social history and aesthetic finesse – not to mention the extraordinary sea-light which floods the interior – make for a powerfully affecting cocktail, especially if you allow the spectre of wasteground or executive apartments to haunt you for a moment. Now gaze up through the floating staircase at Eric Gill’s Triton medallion while the pianist plays ‘As Time Goes By’ (no, really) and you’ll see that The Midland is a temple not just to nostalgia but to optimism. Its rarified air might seem at odds with the frowsy town but The Midland is how Morecambe dares to dream of itself, and it works.
In the resurrection of The Midland is a powerful message: not all decline is terminal. While goodwill halts its progress, perseverance and love can turn it around, and just a short walk from The Midland, that’s the story unfolding at another landmark. The Winter Gardens began life as the Victoria Pavilion in 1897, changing to the King’s Pavilion in 1909. Behind its bold grandeur were Mangnall & Littlewood, who also designed Blackpool’s Empress Ballroom. Its stage was once a galaxy: The Rolling Stones, Laurel & Hardy, Shirley Bassey, Elgar, Tony Hancock, Morecambe & Wise. In 1977, the doors closed – but the curtain which came down on the life of the theatre is now rising again, thanks to a singularly tenacious group of people.
The Friends of the Winter Gardens – of whom Evelyn Archer is a founder member – formed in 1986; in the demolition of the ballroom adjacent to the Pavilion, they saw the writing on the wall. Twenty years later, a Preservation Trust was also founded and together, the groups work to protect the building and raise funds, so that the Winter Gardens might have a future as a multi-purpose venue for the whole town. The scale of the theatre and its state of neglect are such that it would take £12.5 million to restore it completely. In the meantime, the undaunted Friends press on with gradual repairs and, through a variety of events, usher in life, although the paranormal investigators with whom the Winter Gardens is popular (the Most Haunted show has filmed here twice) might say that life never went away.
Our tour guide, David Chandler, believes he has “found his calling” in the Winter Gardens: “If I’m not in the building, then I’m thinking about it 99% of the time. I still get a feeling of wonder every time I walk into the auditorium”. You soon realise why. Only metres away from the pound shops and the tired arcades, we’re in a profane cathedral of stained glass, dark wood, carved marble and tiling that still gleams. Layers of dust and old nicotine, fire damage and faded colours can’t diminish the impact of the main auditorium: it’s like stepping into the thoracic cavity of a colossal beast, one thought to be extinct or even mythical. Hold your own breath, and you can hear it breathing. And waiting.
“It’s a space designed for people to enjoy themselves and for extraordinary things to happen”, says David. “It’s been done in the past and it can be done again, we just need to put the right mix of committed people and fresh ideas together. I want the building to once again become somewhere where people will be entertained, awestruck, moved, thrilled, fall in love – I strongly believe that if we keep the integrity of the building, then people will come and great things will happen.”
This was the final part of the Morecambe project, thanks for reading! Words and images copyright Liz Corlett and Phil Kneen, respectively.
Posted on April 29, 2012
Words by Liz Corlett. Images by Phil Kneen
“Boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.”
The beauty of Morecambe’s body may have been in a protracted decline but its soul is replenished twice a day. Morecambe Bay, and those tides which come and go in long, deep breaths, are genuinely remarkable. Covering over 120 square miles, the scale of the bay in relation to the town verges on epic; it’s like stepping through the back door of a small terraced house to find, not an equally modest backyard, but a prairie stretching to the edge of sight. Morecambe’s loss of vitality has somehow served to magnify the actual and symbolic dimensions of the bay: on an overcast day, all life seems to leach into its expanse; when the sun comes out, the same expanse gleams with a sense of possibility.
Despite its lunar starkness, the bay supports teeming populations which in turn support the town: for centuries, shellfish have provided livelihoods, the dangers of which have also, notoriously, taken lives away. The area’s rich birdlife brings visitors to the town, which honours its seabirds, endearingly, in a number of sculptures.
Reminiscent in hue of cold tea and wet cardboard, neither the waters of Morecambe Bay nor its sand and mud flats – wetly exposed when the tide withdraws like a coverlet dragged from a bed – are classically alluring. But Morecambe people (‘sand grown ‘uns’) love and take pride in their bay, in the same way that people who live in flat landscapes feel attachment to their big skies. For one, there are the sunsets: lavish, cinematic affairs which demand to be watched until the last ember dies. Passing a care home on the seafront one evening, I see an elderly lady doing just that: standing at the window, her face saturated in the glow.
And then there’s the view of the Lakeland fells, uninterrupted and often startlingly clear. It’s that view which anchors Tony Vettese, who has run The Old Pier Bookshop on Marine Road Central for nearly twenty years. Despite the impression of magnificent disorder – the shop appears to be made of books, crammed together in self-supporting, higgledy-piggledy structures – Tony knows the whereabouts of every book for sale. But it’s his familiarity with the territory outside which gives him the greatest pleasure: “Where else would you get a view like that? I wouldn’t be anywhere else. That’s why I’m here, seven days a week. On a clear day, you can see every single peak – all 199 of them”.
On West Promenade, there’s a memorial to Commander Charles Gerald Forsberg OBE, RN, a long distance open water swimmer of some distinction. He notched up 29 crossings of ‘his beloved bay’ and the memorial represents his retirement wish to ‘sit facing wonderful Morecambe Bay and imbibe the matchless view’. However, it far from honours that wish to the letter: captured in the throes of front crawl, he’s imbibing more water than view. The statue of Eric Morecambe also faces inland, presumably so that visitors can corral the town’s most celebrated son and one of those famous sunsets into one photograph.
The irony in offering the sunsets and the views as reasons to visit Morecambe is that they’re attractions which are ‘happening’ elsewhere, on the horizon. What’s more, the proximity of Morecambe to the Lake District – a mere 30-40 minutes’ drive – is regarded as one of the town’s selling points but it could just as easily be an incentive to, well, keep driving. And yet, that’s somehow to miss the point: Morecambe, curiously gentle and passive, feels well-suited to watching and dreaming, longing and waiting, focused on some vision which seems close enough to touch while remaining teasingly out of reach.
In its golden age, Morecambe was once pitched to visitors as ‘the Naples of the North’ and, for several people I meet, the appeal of that immense view is that “you could be anywhere. Switzerland, Italy….anywhere”. You could be – but you’re not: you’re in Morecambe. And on this front, I happen to agree with Tony Vettese: you won’t find better than this.
Posted on April 27, 2012
Words by Liz Corlett. Images by Phil Kneen
Seaside resorts give you everything up front; there’s no waiting game or charms withheld. This can lend their ‘off duty’ quarters a curiously unfinished quality: leave Morecambe seafront and walk three or four streets deep into the town, and the quietness is singular, as though there’d been an emergency evacuation only moments before.
In the East End, time itself has been ushered out of town: a detour through the side streets leads directly to the 1950s. There’s a general store called Vittles, a no-frills tobacconist, two handsome Methodist chapels within a shout of each other and a tiny Shrimp Shop, which closes at 1 o’clock so that its proprietor can carry on shrimping.
Morecambe’s bane is that there is very little in the way of contrast to this hush. There is no shortage of cafes, shops and bars but the town is haunted by absent splendour. In its heyday, Morecambe had eight cinemas, five theatres, two piers, a funfair and one of the largest outdoor swimming pools in Europe. The Olympic-sized Super Swimming Stadium, which opened in 1936, accommodated 1,200 bathers and, at one time, the glories of Miss Great Britain.
As the crowds moved on, the landmarks which made Morecambe were either demolished – like the pool – or claimed by the elements. The hungriest by far was fire: the Central Pier suffered two blazes in its lifetime before being dismantled in 1992; the Alhambra Theatre was gutted in 1970; even the Victorian schooner which starred as the Pequod in ‘Moby Dick’ before being retired to Morecambe, went up in smoke. Frontierland fairground staggered on as far as 2000; the site is now a retail park. As local historian and councillor Evelyn Archer says with brio, “Morecambe’s had it rough”, and it sounds as though the town’s arm just fell in a wrestling contest.
So what can you do in Morecambe, now that its gilt has all but worn off? If you had a mind to send a postcard home, how would you fill it? You can truant in the arcades and browse old-fashioned pranks – hot sweets and exploding cigarettes – in Mr Santa, if you can withstand the glare from the man behind the counter. You can buy a five-sausage bap for £2 in the West End and count how many Staffordshire Bull Terriers go by in the time it takes to eat it.
You can insinuate yourself into the thick of a Mod rally at The Ranch House, hit the bingo hall or sing Meatloaf at a karaoke night. I got a taste of paradise, I’m never gonna let it slip away. The cemetary should not be missed. And don’t overlook the potential inherent in the great stretch of promenade: you can walk, cycle or run for miles and miles – until you’re in another place entirely.
Posted on April 23, 2012
Words by Liz Corlett
If ever there was a town which looks for silver linings, it’s Morecambe. And just occasionally, that delicate gleam is not the promise merely of more rain. On my first stay in Morecambe, I’ve only been in town for half an hour when Ian Pashley, who works at The Midland Hotel, tells me how the West Pier was swept away in storms in 1977. It wasn’t all bad, he says: unfettered one-armed bandits disgorged money all over the beach, to the delight of hordes of salvagers in short trousers.
Time and fortune have not been so bountiful to Morecambe as a whole. It’s commonly defined by what it used to be, what it lost and can never recover. In less than half a century, the town has been demoted from a seaside Shangri-La for hundreds of thousands of holidaymakers to a magnet only for faint distaste and amusement. You’re going to Morecambe? people say. But why? Curiosity. A certain perverse pleasure in the downbeat, even the seedy. And lastly, politeness – it’s just not the done thing to judge a book by its cover.
Morecambe’s sea front is actually not unlike a book. East Promenade, with its flowerbeds and chin-up guest houses, is the front cover; turn over to West Promenade and another tale is told in charity shops and boarded-up windows. And the spine? The lovely Midland, which has borne the freight of Morecambe’s hopes for regeneration since reopening in 2008. Its Deco curvature – swelling out towards the bay, embracing the town – is as eloquent a vow of resistance as you’re likely to find.
Revisiting the town with Phil, we’re told by a man in the Joiners Arms that “Morecambe is dead, man. Oh, it’s dead”. I’m not convinced, not least because the vivacity (or otherwise) of a place is sometimes in the mind of the beholder. It’s fairer to say that Morecambe’s tide simply went a very long way out, for this at least admits of the possibility that it could be due to flow back in – any day now.
Words and images copyright Liz Corlett and Phil Kneen, respectively.
Posted on April 21, 2012
My new Epson V750 scanner arrived yesterday. The first thing I did was take to the negative carrier with a hacksaw and a file. These carriers are never quite big enough to scan full frame, so a bit of DIY is always required. This image of Bonzo was shot on a Mamiya 7II with 150mm lens using Kodak Tri-X rated at 800 ASA.
Posted on April 15, 2012
Spring 1989, I was 19. I’d been working in a local pottery making reproduction Staffordshire figures, hideous tat. My boss had been looking for an excuse to sack me for weeks. His opportunity came one Friday afternoon when I decided to come back from my Wednesday lunch break, two days late.
So, I had two weeks wages, a second-hand Olympus OM1 and a Honda 125cc motorbike. I decided I was going to ride to Scotland. I got on the Isle of Man ferry to Liverpool at 8am on a Saturday and rode the 435 miles to the Isle of Skye, sleeping for a while in the night in Glen Etive. I arrived at the Sligachan Hotel, at the foot of the Cuillin mountains at 3pm the day after, it was a beautiful spring afternoon.
I don’t know what I’d planned to do in Scotland, but when I arrived I got a pint and a meal at the Hotel, lay in the sun and then got my sleeping bag out and slept by my bike. I woke-up at 4am the next day, got on my Honda and rode all the way home.
That was 23 years ago,almost to the day, I had no idea about f numbers and shutter speeds, no clue how a light meter worked, and best of all, no concept of how far a 1000 mile road trip is on a 125cc motorcycle.
Posted on April 7, 2012
I had the most fantastic long weekend in London last week with my lovely wife, Helen. We did all the tourist things – London Eye, The British Museum, The War Museum (where I saw the amazing Don McCullin photography exhibition), we ate-out and spent a lot of time in various pubs with good friends, Amber and Loz. I really didn’t want to come home!
I took three cameras, a Mamiya 7II medium format, a Nikon TW20 compact and an Olympus Mju II compact and 10 rolls of film. All the shots were taken on the Olympus using Kodak Portra 160 film.
Posted on April 7, 2012
I’m having a love/hate relationship with my Mamiya 7II at the moment. I love the quality, but its under-generous minimum focus distance is causing me problems. I’m also finding the rangefinder to be a bit of a pain in low light, in fact, I tried using the M7II with a flash attached in very low light, but found it impossible to focus. I’d use a Hasselblad, with its lovely bright focus screen and close-up capability, but I had a 503cx and didn’t like the square format.
I may have to start looking at large format again…
All the images below were made using a Mamiya 7II and 80mm lens. Colour images are Kodak Portra 400, black and white images are Kodak Tri-X 400. All developed and scanned at Peak Imaging