The Alpine Route

Queensbury Tunnel, West Yorkshire (1979)

Anyone who’s visited the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway will be familiar with Keighley railway station, where main-line trains between Leeds, Skipton and beyond connect with the Oxenhope branch that is now the heritage railway.

Keighley branch platforms used to serve another route, spectacular to ride and difficult to operate, known formally as the Great Northern Railway’s Queensbury lines and unofficially as the “Alpine Route” for its steep gradients, sharp curves and heavy engineering works, a Y-shaped system connecting Bradford, Halifax and Keighley.

Opened in stages between 1874 and 1884, the junction between the three routes lay in the valley bottom at Queensbury, a highly unusual six-platform triangular station.  The only other true triangular station in Britain was at Ambergate, Derbyshire.

The village of Queensbury, home of the famous Black Dyke Mills, was four hundred feet higher, accessible only by a dimly-lit footpath.  By 1901 Queensbury had electric tram services to Bradford and Halifax, so most of the rail passengers used the station simply to change from one train to another.

Queensbury station has, sadly, been obliterated, but its location is the starting point for the Great Northern Railway Trail, which Sustrans and Bradford City Council have developed, firstly between Cullingworth and Wilsden in 2005, and then a separate section between Thornton and Queensbury between 2008 and 2012: https://www.sustrans.org.uk/sites/default/files/images/files/Great%20North%20Trail%202012.pdf.

The long-term aim is to provide a trail along much of the original rail routes between Bradford, Halifax and Keighley, but there is an immediate problem which needs an imminent solution.

Immediately south of Queensbury station, the line to Halifax ran through Queensbury Tunnel, 2,501 yards long, which has a constant gradient of 1 in 100, so that the north portal is seventy feet higher than the southern one.

After the track was lifted in the early 1960s, the Strines cutting to the south of the tunnel was sold as a landfill site, without adequate drainage, so that the run-off from within the notoriously wet tunnel backed up to a depth of thirty-five feet in the cutting, flooding the graded bore to almost half its length.

This accumulated water was pumped out in 2016 to enable a detailed engineering inspection, which found that though the tunnel had inevitably deteriorated and the brick lining had collapsed in two locations the tunnel itself was safe and capable of restoration.  (The lining doesn’t actually hold the rock tunnel up;  its function was to prevent loose rock falling on to the track or, worse, passing trains.)

The Queensbury Tunnel Society has mounted an energetic campaign, supported by Bradford City Council, to reopen the tunnel as a lit, paved cycle-way, using resources that the current owner, Historical Railways Estate (HRE), part of Highways England, had allocated for a short-sighted scheme to infill the bore.  Infilling for 150 metres at each end and capping the ventilation shafts was estimated to cost £5.1 million;  a cheaper scheme filling only 20 metres at each end would cost around £3 million.

The Queensbury Tunnel Society’s estimate for remediation to Network Rail standards would cost £3.3 million, and the installation of a cycle path and lighting would cost a further £1.5 million. The Society argues that taxpayers’ money would be better used for a scheme which delivers social and economic benefits, rather than one which renders the empty tunnel permanently unusable.

Detailed accounts of this controversy can be found on the Society’s website [http://www.queensburytunnel.org.uk/index.shtml] and at https://www.railengineer.uk/2018/07/12/securing-a-future-for-one-of-englands-longest-disused-railway-tunnels.

The Gaskells at home

Elizabeth Gaskell House, 84 Plymouth Grove, Rusholme, Manchester

The journalist Brian Redhead, editor of the Manchester Guardian before he became a stalwart of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, after walking down Cross Street and meeting, in quick succession, the cricketer Cyril Washbrook, the artist L S Lowry and the conductor Sir John Barbirolli, remarked, “Manchester’s like that.  It’s big enough for things to happen and small enough for you to get there and be part of them.”

It was ever so.

If in the 1850s you’d been invited to tea or dinner with Rev William Gaskell (1805-1884) and his wife Elizabeth (1810-1865) at their out-of-town villa at 42 Plymouth Grove (now renumbered 84), you might have shared hospitality with some of the greatest figures of Victorian society, alongside local residents who knew each other and became known to posterity.

William Gaskell’s Unitarian congregation at the Cross Street Chapel included such figures as –

  • Sir William Fairbairn Bt (1789-1874), civil engineer
  • Sir Benjamin Heywood (1793-1865), first president of the Manchester Mechanics’ Institute
  • Robert Hyde Greg (1795-1875), MP for Manchester (1839-1841)
  • Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth (1804-1877), co-founder of the Manchester Statistical Society
  • Thomas Worthington (1826-1909), architect

The Gaskells’ status – he a great preacher and philanthropist, she a celebrated novelist who unlike the Brontës and Mary Ann Evans made no secret of her gender – attracted visitors from outside Manchester, including Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Ruskin.

By the time the Gaskells bought their elegant Greek Revival villa in 1850, William had been minister at Cross Street since 1828, and Elizabeth had published her first novel, Mary Barton:  a tale of Manchester Life (1848).

The pianist and conductor Charles Hallé (1819-1895) gave piano lessons to the Gaskells’ daughters at Plymouth Grove after he settled in Manchester in 1853.

Elizabeth wrote her later novels at the house, including Cranford (1853) and North and South (1855), and longed to have a peaceful home outside Manchester.

After her death in 1865, William continued to live at Plymouth Grove until his own death in 1884.

His two surviving unmarried daughters, Meta and Julia, kept the house on.  Julia died in 1908, and after Meta’s death in 1913 the family gave it up.

International appeals for it to become a museum commemorating Elizabeth Gaskell’s writing were rejected by Manchester City Council.  Manchester University owned it from 1969 to 2000

Listed Grade II*, it was purchased in 2004 by the Manchester Historic Buildings Trust, which opened it as a museum ten years later.

It’s a delightful place.  The ground floor rooms are restored as closely as possible to their appearance in the Gaskell’s time.  The upstairs rooms contain exhibitions and administrative offices.

In the basement is a coffee shop with exceptional cake.

It’s well worth a bus-ride out of town to visit:  http://elizabethgaskellhouse.co.uk.

A visit to Elizabeth Gaskell’s House forms part of the Manchester’s Heritage (June 3rd-7th 2019) tour.  For further details, please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Manchester’s Heritage, please click here.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 tour Manchester’s Heritage, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Tyson Smith

21107-Liverpool-city-centre

21109-Liverpool-city-centre

Cenotaph, St George's Plateau, Liverpool

Cenotaph, St George’s Plateau, Liverpool

I first came across the work of the sculptor Herbert Tyson Smith (1883-1972) in a roundabout way.

I was struck by the majestic war memorial on Hamilton Square in Birkenhead, because alongside the set-piece Portland stone cenotaph by Lionel Bailey Budden (1887-1956), embellished with Tyson Smith’s sculptures, lies a phalanx of simple black marble slabs placed by local community groups to remember their own heroes – those who were killed at Dunkirk, in the Blitz, in Normandy, in the Burma campaign, Korea, numerous regiments including the Welsh Guards and the Irish Guards, “all shipmates who crossed the bar in the service of their country”, Merchant Navy seafarers and Merseyside aircrew.

Somehow, these recognisable cohorts are more immediately moving than the huge list of 1,293 names of the individuals killed in the First World War.  The names of those who died in the Second World War are recorded in a Book of Remembrance in the Town Hall.

The original plan was to locate the Great War memorial on the north side of the square, but by popular demand the statue of William Lever, the founder of Birkenhead, was moved to the west so that the war memorial could stand foursquare in front of the Town Hall portico.

Tyson Smith did the sculpture for other civic war memorials for Widnes (1921), Accrington (1922), Southport (1923) and Fleetwood (1927), but his reliefs on the Liverpool cenotaph outside St George’s Hall, unveiled in 1930, are the most powerful.

The cenotaph is a simple, shaped block of Stancliffe stone, designed like the Birkenhead memorial by Lionel Budden, carrying two 31-foot bronze relief panels of haunting poignancy.

The panel facing St George’s Hall shows ranks of grim-faced soldiers, each face distinct and individual, marching relentlessly from left to right, above a quotation from Ezekiel 38:15 – “OUT OF THE NORTH PARTS A GREAT COMPANY AND A MIGHTY ARMY”.

On the other panel, facing Lime Street Station, Tyson Smith depicts those left behind, the mourners, of all ages, men, women and children, in contemporary dress, some bringing wreaths and flowers.  Underneath is a verse from the second book of Samuel 19:2 – “AND THE VICTORY THAT DAY WAS TURNED INTO MOURNING UNTO ALL THE PEOPLE”.

It’s impossible to walk past this monument and not remember what it stands for.

Providential curry

Former Providence Place Congregational Chapel, Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire

Former Providence Place Congregational Chapel, Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire

When my curry-loving mate Richard and I go to Bradford to meet my friend Mohammed he usually takes us to one of the many curry houses in inner-city Bradford, but on our last meeting we set off on a mystery tour to Cleckheaton.

Our destination was Aakash, which claims to be the largest curry house in the world.

It occupies the former Providence Place Congregational Chapel of 1857-1859, a gigantic temple of nonconformity designed by the prestigious Bradford practice of Henry Francis Lockwood and William Mawson, who built much that is fine in the Bradford area in the mid-nineteenth century including St George’s Hall (1851-52), the Wool Exchange (1864-7), the City Hall (1869-73), and almost every building in Saltaire (1851-76).

Providence Chapel cost about £9,000, an impressive sum that sounds considerable until it’s compared with the £16,000 that Sir Titus Salt spent on the Congregational Church in Saltaire.  At the time you could get a modest but respectable Gothic parish church for around £4,000.

For their money, Cleckheaton Congregationalists were given seating for 1,500 and a grandeur that would flatter a municipal town hall.  Its ashlar façade has a giant portico of five unfluted Corinthian columns supporting a pediment containing a roundel, surrounded by carved foliage, with the inscription “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to all men”.  In front are cast-iron gates and lamp standards.

Listed Grade II*, the chapel was described in Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England as “amazingly pompous for a religious building”.

It closed in 1991 when the remaining congregation combined with the amalgamated Spendborough Group of United Reformed Churches at Grove, Gomersal, and it became an Indian restaurant founded by a former taxi-rank owner, Mohammad Iqbal Tabassum.

It was named Aakash, the Urdu word for “sky”, and the coffered ceiling was painted with clouds.

The box pews inevitably went and the rake of the gallery floor was levelled, but the organ and the pulpit, described by a reviewer at the time as “skip-sized”, remained as a “lookout post” for the restaurant manager.

Sometime before 2008 it closed and reopened under new management.  Perhaps that was when the pulpit was replaced by a series of staircases linking the main floor with the gallery.  The organ pipes remain, heavily painted, but the organ has gone.

The buffet-style curry is as splendid as the surroundings:  http://aakashrestaurant.co.uk.

Are these trams going anywhere?

Sheffield Cathedral tram stop:  South Yorkshire Supertram nos 206 & 113 (September 2018)

Sheffield Cathedral tram stop: South Yorkshire Supertram nos 206 & 113 (September 2018)

Photo:  John Binns

The announcement that the new Tram-Train service between Sheffield Cathedral and Rotherham Parkgate would begin service on Thursday October 25th 2019 was not before time.

It was initially planned to open in 2015, and the seven new Tram-Train vehicles have been running on the main Stagecoach Supertram network since September 2017.

The South Yorkshire Supertram network now runs two separate fleets, the original German-built Siemens-Düwag units of 1992 (numbers 101-125) and the seven new Spanish-built Vossloh vehicles (number 201-207).

Even before the new service started up, the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive (SYPTE) initiated a consultation exercise to determine the future of the system from 2024, when the Stagecoach franchise expires:  https://www.travelsouthyorkshire.com/futuretram.

It seems that no provision has been made to finance the replacement of the original fleet, which is nearing the end of its useful life.

The consultation includes the suggestion of scrapping the whole system, which understandably has few political friends outside Sheffield:  https://www.doncasterfreepress.co.uk/news/mayor-ros-jones-no-more-cash-from-doncaster-taxpayers-for-supertram-1-9344722.

This has, predictably, greatly exercised the tram-enthusiast community –  [http://www.britishtramsonline.co.uk/news/?p=24061] – and provoked South Yorkshire taxpayers (such as me) to query whether their community charge and taxes are being wisely spent.

I wonder if this option among a range of others is actually political shroud-waving.

It’s not simply a matter of scrapping the vehicles and covering the tracks with tarmac, as happened to Sheffield’s first tram-system in the 1950s.  Not only has most of the track been relaid over the past few years, but dismantling Supertram would involve demolishing viaducts and reconfiguring road junctions and traffic signals across an eighteen-mile network.

It would also fly in the face of applying the results of the Tram-Train pilot scheme to other parts of South Yorkshire as well as the rest of the UK.

As a Sheffield resident I’ve often wondered why the South Yorkshire Supertram system has not developed, apart from Tram-Train, since it opened a quarter of a century ago.

In that time the Manchester tram-system has extended from two former rail routes with a street link into Piccadilly Station to seven routes (with an eighth, to Trafford Park, under construction) and the original 26 trams have been replaced by a fleet of 120 trams with 27 more on order.

In Nottingham, an initial service to the north of the city has grown to an X-shaped system running 37 trams over twenty miles of track, and the Birmingham tram-line to Wolverhampton, which initially stopped short of the city-centre, is now extending across the city with the intention of reaching Edgbaston by 2021.

In Edinburgh, where the tribulations of construction caused uproar, the tram service is hugely popular and likely to be extended in the next few years.

Why is there talk – even hypothetically – of shutting down Supertram when other cities are reaping the benefits of light rail?

Update:  The first day of service for TramTrain didn’t go well:  https://www.thestar.co.uk/news/sheffield-tram-train-derails-after-collision-with-lorry-causing-major-travel-disruption-1-9414192.

Rails across Malta

Malta Railway:  Valletta Viaduct

Malta Railway: Valletta Viaduct

Malta Railway:  Floriana Viaduct

Malta Railway: Floriana Viaduct

The Malta Railway opened in 1883, and never made much money.  Its original metre-gauge line ran through Birkirkara to an inconvenient terminus, called Notabile, in a deep cutting outside the hill-town of Rabat.

The Malta Railway Company went bankrupt in 1890 and reopened two years later under the auspices of the Malta government which improved and in 1900 extended the line up to a station called Museum, nearer to the ancient capital city, Mdina.

In 1905 Malta Tramways Ltd opened its three routes to Birkirkara, Zebbug and Vittoriosa, two of which directly competed with the railway.

Both the railway and the tramways were British exports.

The olive green steam locomotives for the railway were built by Manning Wardle of Leeds, Black Hawthorne & Co of Gateshead and Beyer Peacock of Manchester.

The trams expired in 1929 and the railway closed two years later, both defeated by the relentless competition of Malta’s self-employed bus drivers.

The Valletta railway terminus was located next to the Royal Opera House:  the tracks were underground and emerged on to a viaduct which crossed a ditch that formed part of the city fortifications and entered another tunnel.  It then crossed another viaduct alongside the Porte des Bombes in Floriana.

The tunnels apparently remain in good condition, and have occasionally been opened to the public:  https://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20121022/local/Railway-tunnel-part-of-Malta-s-heritage.442073.

Both viaducts were originally timber, at the insistence of the military authorities who wanted to destroy them quickly if necessary in an emergency.  Eventually they were rebuilt in stone and still exist.  They’re easy to locate, thanks to a meticulously obsessive video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8OlMnpZvtQ.  It helps to know what you’re looking for.

Several of the country station buildings survive.  Hamrun is a scout headquarters;  Birkirkara is a childcare centre;  Museum station is a celebrated restaurant: [https://www.facebook.com/pg/stazzjonrestaurantrabat/photos/?tab=album&album_id=218770048333827].

Little else remains.  The only surviving piece of railway rolling stock is a third-class carriage which has stood in the open for years at Birkirkara:  https://web.archive.org/web/20170408171035/http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20170407/local/watch-maltas-last-surviving-train-carriage-chugs-toward-restoration.644585.

An intriguing hint that there may be more can be found in a news article about the reappearance of four reversible seats from one of Malta’s trams, suggesting that a tram body survives at St Thomas’ Bay:  https://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20170628/local/century-old-malta-tram-benches-found.651902

There are images of both the railway and the tramways at https://vassallohistory.wordpress.com/maltese-public-transport-since-1856-a-brief-history-of-the-public-transport-in-malta-the-omnibus-up-to-the-mid-1800s-the-only-means-of-human-transport-w.

It’s clear from an article in The Guardian that Valletta’s railway tunnels are only a tiny part of the fascinating underground beneath the city:  https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/feb/20/malta-secret-tunnels-inside-newly-discovered-underworld-valletta.

The first industrial estate

Rochdale Canal, Ancoats, Manchester

Rochdale Canal, Ancoats, Manchester

Ancoats was a rural village outside Manchester until the late eighteenth century when landowners, realising the imminent arrival of the Rochdale and Ashton Canals, parcelled up their property and sold it for development, both for mills and factories.

Some of the mills were huge by contemporary standards, steam-powered and served by canal wharfs which also provided the condensing water necessary for the engines.  Adam and George Murray’s Old Mill (1798) may have been the first eight-storey factory in the world.

The Murray brothers, along with their rivals James McConnel and John Kennedy, came from Kirkcudbrightshire, and used their expertise in building textile machinery to produce bigger and better equipment with which to spin cotton.

Ancoats’ population boomed from 11,039 in 1801 to 53,737 in 1861.  In 1821 one-fifth of the total population of Manchester lived in Ancoats.

Though some respectable housing was built among the industries and slums, there was no attempt to provide for a bourgeois population.  It was, by Jacqueline Roberts’ definition, “the first residential district of the modern world intended for occupation by one social class, the new urban working class”.

Title-deeds for such properties typically contained no restrictions on uses that would cause nuisance, and very few were provided with privies.   Bathrooms and running hot water were, of course, unknown.

Foreign writers were appalled.

Léon Faucher (1803-1854) who visited England in 1843, published Études sur l’Angleterre (1845), in which he wrote of “the breathing of vast machines, sending forth fire and smoke through their tall chimneys, and offering up to the heavens, as it were in token of homage, the sighs of that Labour which God has imposed upon man”.

It can’t have been fun to live in Ancoats, despite the well-meaning efforts of philanthropists, who provided the Ardwick & Ancoats Dispensary (1828), later Ancoats Hospital, ragged schools and night shelters.

The life-expectancy of a Manchester labourer in 1842 was seventeen years.

In 1889 Dr John Thresh reported a death rate of over 80 per thousand, and commented, “3,000 to 4,000 people [were] dying annually here in Manchester from remediable causes”.

This prompted the Manchester Labourers’ Dwellings Scheme of 1890, which led to the building of Victoria Square (Henry Spalding & Alfred W S Cross 1897), a five-storey block of one- and two-room walk-up flats with penny-in-the-slot gas meters, communal sinks and water-closets shared between two apartments and, in the turrets, laundries and drying rooms, Anita Street, originally Sanitary Street until the name was truncated to suit 1960s sensibilities, two-storey terraces of one-, two- and three-room flats, and George Leigh Street, which provided three-bedroom houses, intended for families with children of both sexes.

Only the better-off labourers could afford the rents.

Owners of back-to-back terraces were offered £15 per house to convert their premises to through houses, and by 1914 almost all of the city’s back-to-back houses had gone.

However, this was only a partial solution.  A 1928 social-study group inspection report remarked, “the reconditioned house of the eighties is not to be tolerated today”.  There were houses so dark that the gas-light had to be kept on all day, and such dampness that plaster would not hold wallpaper in place.

In the end, the only practical solution was to clear the housing wholesale.  Victoria Square, Anita Street and George Leigh Street have been adapted to modern standards and look attractive.  Some architecturally interesting buildings remain, and the canal-side locations are at last being developed for 21st-century work and living.

Gentrification is often derided, but it’s better than living in a slum.

The Manchester’s Heritage (June 3rd-7th 2019) tour includes a walking-tour of Ancoats.  For further details, please click here.

Layers of Manchester’s history

Hanging Bridge, Manchester Cathedral Visitor Centre

Hanging Bridge, Manchester Cathedral Visitor Centre

Deep beneath the streets around Manchester Cathedral the tiny River Irk flows towards the River Irwell.

Some of the nearby buildings date only from the rebuilding after the 1996 IRA bomb attack.  Others were part of the post-war redevelopment that followed the Blitz.  Very little of the central Manchester streetscape dates back before the Victorians.

The Cathedral, itself heavily restored after the Blitz, is largely a Victorian building, enlarged after the diocese was established in 1847 and repeatedly embellished between the 1860s and 1933-34.

As the parish church it had been refounded in 1421 by Thomas de la Warre, Lord of the Manor, as the Collegiate Church of St Mary, St Denys and St George, a thank-offering for the victory at Agincourt in 1415.

Its predecessor dates back to 1215 and stood next to a fortified manor house that probably occupied the site of the present-day Chetham’s School of Music.

These archaeological layers of history are vividly apparent if you eat and drink at the Manchester Cathedral Visitor Centre, where the arches of the Hanging Ditch Bridge over the River Irk have been uncovered (though current building work makes them temporarily inaccessible):  http://www.manchestercathedralvisitorcentre.org/the-hanging-ditch-bridge.

Though the Roman Castlefield is more apparent as a modern tourist attraction, this is the heart of modern Manchester, dating back to the time in the late tenth century, when the more prosperous settlement was on the opposite bank of the Irwell and Manchester was a subsidiary manor within the hundred of Salford.

A visit to Manchester Cathedral and lunch at the Visitor Centre are included in the Manchester’s Heritage (June 3rd-7th 2019) tour.  For further details, please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Manchester’s Heritage, please click here.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 tour Manchester’s Heritage, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

 

Manchester’s first free library

Chetham's Library, Manchester

Chetham’s Library, Manchester

Twenty-first century concerns about social inclusion and lamentations about the decline of local-authority amenities such as schools and libraries are nothing new.

Chetham’s School and Library was a seventeenth-century attempt to educate the underprivileged and give access to learning to members of the public.

Humphrey Chetham (1580-1653), a prosperous bachelor cotton-merchant and banker, made provision in his will to benefit the sons “of honest, industrious parents and not of wandering or idle beggars or roagues nor that any of the said boyes shal bee bastards nor such as are lame, infirme or diseased at the time of their ellection” by founding the school that still bears his name.

(In comparison, the older Manchester Grammar School, – which stood nearby until it moved out to Fallowfield in 1931 – was founded in 1515 by Hugh Oldham, Bishop of Exeter, “for boys who, having pregnant wit, have been for the most part brought up rudely and idly.”)

His trustees bought the decayed college buildings that had been built by Thomas de la Warre, Lord of the Manor, when he refounded and rebuilt the parish church, now the Cathedral, in 1421.

They spent £400 on buildings and £1,000 on the books which were to be available to the general public free of charge.

Naturally, the books stayed firmly chained to the shelves, and readers had to move to the location of the book they wanted, using oak stools with S-shaped hand holds that remain in the library.

Stepping into the Library, which is accessible to tourists or readers alike, is a journey back in time.

Though the catalogue is now digitised, the books are still arranged in presses, secured by wooden gates instead of chains, and are brought to readers by library staff.

The table where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels researched and wrote in 1845 is still beside the stained-glass window which, Engels later remarked, “ensures that the weather is always fine there”.

Nowadays the school is a specialised music school, open to boys and girls, and some of the medieval buildings are off-limits to the public for much of the time.

Visitors are made very welcome, and guided tours are available.  There’s no charge but donations are appreciated.  It’s advisable to make an appointment simply to be sure of a place:  http://library.chethams.com/about/visiting.

A visit to Chetham’s Library forms part of the Manchester’s Heritage (June 3rd-7th 2019) tour.  For further details, please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Manchester’s Heritage, please click here.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 tour Manchester’s Heritage, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Another gap in the Promenade

Imperial Hotel, Douglas, Isle of Man:  demolition, August 31st 2018

Imperial Hotel, Douglas, Isle of Man: demolition, August 31st 2018

Photo:  John Binns

Just because a building doesn’t reach the criteria for listing and protecting as a historic structure doesn’t mean it isn’t worth saving.

Nearly a year ago I wrote about to the loss of the Tudno Castle Hotel, Llandudno, which, though listed Grade II, was completely demolished after an inadequate survey failed to show that a scheme to retain only the façade was in fact impractical:  http://www.mikehigginbottominterestingtimes.co.uk/?p=5311.

More recently, my Isle of Man friend John spotted the demise of the long-derelict Imperial Hotel on Douglas Promenade at the end of August 2018:  http://www.iomtoday.co.im/article.cfm?id=38524&headline=The%20end%20is%20nigh%20for%20Victorian%20hotel&sectionIs=news&searchyear=2018.

The Imperial dates from 1891, one of a number of imposing sea-front hotels by the Manx property-developer Alexander Gill (c1852-1919).  Others still remaining include the Hydro (1910) and the Empress Hotel.

The Imperial closed in 2006, and remained unused except as an occasional training site for police sniffer dogs.

Douglas Promenade is actually a series of promenades, built 1875-1890 to take advantage of the broad sweep of Douglas Bay by providing building land for the island’s growing tourist industry.

The whole extent of the Promenade is designated as a conservation area:  https://www.gov.im/media/633077/douglaspromsconsarea.pdf.

It’s a magnificent sight despite regrettable gaps where ungracious modern structures have replaced Victorian originals such as the Palace Pavilion & Opera House (1889 onwards, demolished 1965 and 1994), the Promenade Methodist Church (1876, demolished 1975) and the Villiers Hotel (1879, demolished 1995).

The late Gavin Stamp wrote about the insidious threats to the island’s built heritage when the Villiers Hotel was at risk in 1994:  https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/news/the-isle-of-mammon-is-ripping-out-its-soul-the-manx-governments-indifference-nay-hostility-to-1448732.html.

The Isle of Man’s parliament, Tynwald, has its own system of Registered Buildings, without the grading that applies in the UK.  Manx registrations began in 1983, and so far cover only 275 buildings, with another 250 under consideration.

Consideration of extending the list has not been energetic.  According to Wikipedia – there seems to be no online version of the official list – there were four registrations in 2014, one in 2015, four in 2017 and so far only two in 2018:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Registered_Buildings_of_the_Isle_of_Man.

An Alliance for Building Conservation (ABC) was formed in 2016 to co-ordinate campaigning to protect the island’s built heritage:  http://www.abc.org.im/index.php/abc-background-and-history.

One of the Alliance’s achievements has been a regular series of articles in the Isle of Man Examiner highlighting causes for conservationist concern.  A recent article reviews the glacial process of changing Manx attitudes to historical conservation:  http://www.iomtoday.co.im/article.cfm?id=40533.

Because it takes so long to list worthwhile Manx buildings, it’s no surprise that less distinguished places like the Imperial Hotel come to grief, yet their group value is invaluable, and when the gaps they leave are replaced by mediocre substitutes, or left empty, the effect diminishes the whole.

Though the Isle of Man is small in extent, it’s rich in history.

In many places in the UK and across the world the historic heritage is seen to be good for the local economy.

Unfortunately, in the Isle of Man investment and commercial development tend to be at odds with the good of the environment.