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.