The Winter Gardens in Morecambe is staging a comeback
PUBLISHED: 23:04 15 June 2014 | UPDATED: 18:00 01 May 2016
One of Morecambe's finest buildings is being brought back to life, with a lot of help from its friends
The boom in affordable foreign travel in the 1960s was a major factor in the slow demise of traditional British seaside resorts. Across the country, hotels closed and the audiences that once thronged to theatres for the summer season dwindled. Many theatres became bingo halls or cinemas while scores of others were flattened in the name of progress.
Morecambe took a long time to come to terms with the plight it was facing but in recent years the green shoots of recovery have been evident. The old seaside resort has a new sandy beach and a significant sum has been spent on renovating the promenade which now has wide footpaths and almost as many statues of seabirds as there are seabirds.
Of course, the highest profile boosts to the town were the revamp of the gleaming white Midland Hotel and the statue of Morecambe’s most famous son, John Eric Bartholemew, in familiar Bring Me Sunshine pose.
And a short stroll down the prom, a group of volunteers are helping to give one of Morecambe’s old jewels new lustre.
The Winter Gardens opened as the Victoria Pavilion Theatre in the last years of the 19th century and has played host to some of the most famous names in entertainment. Its grand red brick frontage is as much an iconic landmark in the town as the Midland, from where guests in the town’s heyday may just have been able to hear the laughter from crowds of more than 2,000.
But there’s no way the building could host that many people now, for one thing all the seats in the stalls were removed by a previous owner. Much of the grand old building is in a sorry state, with bare walls and broken windows, but the Friends of the Winter Gardens are slowly working to restore the building to its former glory.
They are led by Evelyn Archer, a former Morecambe hotel owner with an infectious passion for the place.
‘It’s a beautiful building,’ she said. ‘I think the Winter Gardens could start the regeneration of Morecambe. If we can get it back open as a multi-purpose building, rather than just a theatre, we will bring different groups of people into the town.’
The theatre closed in 1977 and stood empty for years before it was threatened with demolition. An action group was formed and managed to stave off that threat by succeeding in having the theatre listed. In 1986 the Friends of the Winter Gardens was formed and began to clean and preserve the building and to open it to the public.
A team of volunteers – there are now about 40 – has since been restoring and refurbishing the interior which is in need of a lot of work even though many of the building’s original features have remained because the building was simply locked up and left; the marble staircases, wood panelling, stained glass and the mosaic floor in the foyer. But the most breath-taking features are the stunning ornate ceiling and the beautiful detailing on the boxes.
In 2009 the Friends missed out on £12.5m of funding which could have secured the building’s future and added a new three-storey building housing dressing rooms, recording studios and meeting rooms but Evelyn said: ‘We’ll get there in the end. We are doing things slowly, putting together a business plan but there’s so much that needs doing it’s almost impossible to know where to start. I would love to say it could happen in my lifetime but I doubt it.
‘This building was part of my growing up. I came here to see Cinderella with my mum and my sister when I was seven and I fell in love with the building then. It looked so magical. You don’t look at a place in the same way when you’re young – it looked so big then.
‘In the 1950s and 60s the Winter Gardens was part of a circuit around the country it was filled twice nightly but those days have long gone now, unfortunately. We had a lot of big stars here, people like Alma Cogan and Shirley Bassey, but even then it had a poor reputation for the state of the dressing rooms and the back stage areas.’
The group’s plans for the building include bars, meeting rooms and a restaurant alongside a thriving theatre and events programme. And Evelyn, who ran the Archways hotel for 13 years and now also presents slide shows on the history of Morecambe, added: ‘There used to be five theatres, eight cinemas and two piers in Morecambe, all of that has gone now apart from the Winter Gardens.
‘When Urban Splash renovated the Midland I could see the two buildings working together and that could still be the case, but we need to look at ways we can use it and fill it again.’
The variety festival (held last month) the beer festival in August and September’s vintage festival (see panel) are among the highlights of the Winter Gardens calendar, bringing in people and much-needed money.
The group also receives income from shops which rent ground floor units, and from paranormal investigators who pay to hunt for ghosts – Evelyn is sceptical but says she did once see a man in brown overalls in the stalls who vanished when she approached him. Yvette Fielding and her team of TV spook hunters are regular visitors too. Did they find evidence of ghostly goings-on? Evelyn raises her eyebrows: ‘She’s paid to find things, isn’t she?’
A classic vintage
Morecambe-born style guru Wayne Hemingway is one of the patrons of the Friends of the Winter Gardens and he said: ‘It is an iconic building which is pretty much unspoilt and has not been ruined by modernisation. What a place it will be to have a restaurant or to get married eventually.
‘I have some great memories from the place. It has a great history and some great names have performed there. ’
Among those great names are Wayne and his dad, the wrestler Billy Two Rivers, who have both appeared on the Winter Gardens stage.
And Wayne will be back in the town in September with the second Vintage by the Sea Festival. ‘I genuinely believe it will be the best weekend out in Lancashire this summer,’ he said. ‘It will be an expanded and improved version of last year’s event and a real celebration of Morecambe.
‘Over two days there will be an awful lot going on, things to eat and drink, things to dance to and to watch, things to buy and things to do.’
Among the highlights of the weekend will be a classic car display, fly pasts by vintage aircraft including a Lancaster bomber, and lots of street entertainment. Music will be at the heart of much of the festival and there will also be a vintage market and the chance to be given a vintage makeover. For more information log on to vintagefestival.co.uk.
Events will take place across the town, including the Midland and the Winter Gardens, and Wayne added: ‘There are more than two amazing buildings in Morecambe but the Winter Gardens and the Midland are definitely the top two. One has been brought back to life and the other is unspoilt and is being brought back to life. It’s a shame it’s taking so long but that is the way of the world at the moment.
‘Regenerating the Winter Gardens will really help Morecambe overall but people need to be brave. In the fashionable areas of all the major cities across the world people are buying old properties and saying “We will make this work” and that’s not happening on a big scale in Morecambe yet.
‘Regeneration is not about waiting for government or councils to do something, it’s people that make things happen. It doesn’t cost much to buy property in Morecambe and it needs people to see the potential in the place and be bold and creative.’
Some key Morecambe moments
Mid-1800s: Morecambe grew out of a collection of small fishing and farming villages including Bare, Poulton-le-Sands, Heysham and Torrisholme
1848: The railway network reaches Morecambe and the direct rail link with Yorkshire leads to the nickname Bradford-by-the-sea as vast numbers of mill workers spend their Wakes Week holidays by the coast
1897: The Winter Gardens built as the Victorian Pavilion
1926: John Eric Bartholemew – later better known as Eric Morecambe – born
1933: The art deco Midland Hotel built
1956-89: Morecambe is the home of the Miss England contest
Early 1990s: both piers destroyed – one by storms, one by fire
1994: World of Crinkly Bottom closes 13 weeks after its opening sparking a legal row between Noel Edmonds and Lancaster City Council. Its closure was followed by that of Bubbles, the indoor water park, and the Frontierland amusement park
1994: Launch of the Tern project to bring public art to the prom and to celebrate the bay’s birdlife
1998: Midland Hotel closes and is targeted by vandals
1999: Eric Morecambe statue unveiled by the Queen
2003: Ranked third in a book of the 50 Worst Places to Live in the UK
2004: Chinese cockle pickers die in tragedy on the sands
2007: Morecambe Football Club win promotion to the Football League for the fist time
2008: Midland Hotel re-opens after £10m renovation