Monthly Archives: June 2023

Heart of the Tower

Blackpool Tower Circus

Blackpool Tower is the epitome of entertainment-industry entrepreneurial genius, owing its origin to Alderman John Bickerstaffe (1848-1930), who started life as a seaman and lifeboatman before he became pub landlord, and as Mayor of Blackpool saw off the speculators who wished to build one of a series of steel towers at resorts in the north-west.  John Bickerstaffe led the locally based company that created one of the most consistently profitable of all Blackpool’s attractions.

Blackpool Tower is a half-size replica of Gustav Eiffel’s Parisian tower, but the key to its financial strength has always been the building which encases the legs.  It initially incorporated restaurants and bars, a menagerie, an aquarium, an assembly hall that quickly became a ballroom, and at its heart a circus.

The complex first opened to the public on Whit Monday 1894, a rainy day on which 70,000 visitors immediately demonstrated the Tower’s full money-making potential by pouring through the doors to keep dry.  Admission to the building cost sixpence, with a further sixpence for the tower ascent and another sixpence for the circus show.

The centre-piece of the whole structure is the Circus, built between the four legs of the tower itself, with stabling for horses and other animals beneath the auditorium-rakes.  The Circus offered a succession of animal and acrobatic acts, culminating in a water-spectacle finale in which the circus floor sank within a minute into a 35,000-gallon water-tank.  For many years, holidaymakers on the promenade were regularly entertained by the sight of the Tower Circus elephants processing down to the beach for exercise.

Only in the circus can you see – encrusted within Frank Matcham’s Moorish plasterwork – the arches that brace the four legs which sit in deep concrete foundations.  In a 70mph gale the top of the Tower deflects no more than an inch, and there’s never been any likelihood that the Tower would end up – as Lord Haw-Haw claimed in a Second World War radio broadcast – lying on the sands beside the Central Pier.

The ceiling of the Circus, 55 feet above ground level, forms the floor of the elevator-hall from which the Otis Elevator Company’s lifts ascended the tower.  The hydraulic accumulators and jiggers which originally powered the passenger lifts, several small goods lifts and the circus water-spectacle were located within the tower-legs. 

In July 1897 an electrical short-circuit set fire to the wooden decking at the top.  The resulting spectacular blaze, which luckily began about 11pm after the lift had closed down, proved completely inaccessible and eventually burnt itself out.  The only permanent damage arose when a lift counterweight plunged down the north-west leg into one of the boxes in the circus auditorium, where it remains to this day, hidden behind mirrors.  The tower-top and the lift-service were restored in time for the 1898 season.

Animal acts at the Tower Circus ceased at the end of the season in November 1990.  Now the entertainers are clowns and acrobats, and the circus floor descends into the tank at the end of the show:  The Blackpool Tower Circus | The Most Famous UK Circus.

The only other place you can see this happen in Britain is the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool’s Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire’s Seaside Heritage, please click here.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire’s Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Topless towers

Piazza della Cisterna, San Gimignano, Italy

I’d always wanted to visit San Gimignano after reading about it, and then seeing the film Tea with Mussolini (1999). 

I wonder if the towers [torri] of Tuscan hill-towns inspired Christopher Marlowe to give Faustus the line about “the topless towers of Ilium”. 

The fourteen existing medieval skyscrapers in San Gimignano, erected in a race for status between rival families, are astonishing, though there were once seventy-two such towers on the skyline.

On my first short visit in 2018 the only historic site I visited seriously, in the 30°C heat, was the Collegiate Church [Duomo] where in Tea with Mussolini Judi Dench protects the frescoes. 

They form a spectacular sequence, vividly illustrating the Old and New Testaments, the Last Judgement, the Annunciation, St Sebastian (who seems to have a high profile in this part of Tuscany) and the life of St Fina (otherwise St Serafina), whose shrine is in a side chapel with, in a gilded frame, the rough plank on which she lay for the last five years of her life.

The Chiesa di San Lorenzo di Ponte which stands at the end of the Via del Castello, contains precious frescoes that Judi Dench’s character would certainly have respected.

The early medieval images are indeed fine, but the church had been neglected and then shut down by disputes between rival religious orders, and the interior repeatedly suffered what the English translation of the Italian Wikipedia article calls “water infiltrations”.  By the end of the eighteenth century the building was an oil mill and wine cellar.  The church was eventually restored in the early twentieth century and reopened in 1937.  It’s a remarkable survival.

When I returned in 2022, San Gimignano was the raison d’être of the entire holiday, a time to enjoy simply being there, with optional tourism. 

San Gimignano is a place of serious historic significance that’s worth of study, but more than that it’s beautiful and atmospheric.  There’s a golden hour in San Gimignano around 10.00am, after which the tourist buses unload.

I felt no need to keep up with what Philip Larkin called “ruin-bibber[s], randy for antique”.  It’s enough simply to be there.

On my last evening I walked up to the Piazza della Cisterna and sat down at the Ristorante La Cisterna [Ristorante – Hotel Cisterna (], looking past the actual cisterna, or well-head, to the cluster of buildings in front of the Torre Grossa, the biggest tower of all in the town, 177 feet high. 

I had plenty of time to admire the view, which I took as a sign that real cooking was taking place.  My dinner, when it arrived, was delicious.

You don’t have to walk far to eat your way round San Gimignano.

Old Dorothy Cinema

Former Old Dorothy Cinema, Llangollen, Denbighshire

On visits to Llangollen, my gateway to holidays in North Wales, I’ve several times found my way into a legendary second-hand bookshop that I quickly realised had once been a cinema.

Its history is not typical of small-town picture houses.

The Horspool family had been seedsmen and nurserymen in Chirk and Llangollen since the 1870s and opened the Dorothy Café alongside their confectionery shop on Castle Street, Llangollen in 1918.  There is no explanation of where the name Dorothy originated.

By the early 1930s the shop next door to the café was Norman Horspool’s greengrocery.

The Dorothy Cinema building utilised the back land behind two shops within a longer terrace.  It opened in 1931 or 1932 (whichever source you believe) as a direct competitor to the Town Hall Cinema across the road.

The building consisted of a café and dance hall on the ground floor with an auditorium above, approached by a wide staircase that still exists.

The cinema seated four hundred:  there was no balcony as such, but the back rows were raised, stadium style, facing a sixteen-foot proscenium.

British Acoustic sound was installed at the outset.

The Town Hall cinema across the road closed at the beginning of World War II, and the Dorothy became Llangollen’s only picture house.

As such, it seemed to weather the early decline of cinema attendance in the 1950s, and in 1955 the proscenium was extended to accommodate a wide screen twenty feet by eleven feet.

By the early 1960s, however, the game was up and the last film, Sammy Going South, was shown on October 16th 1963.

An experiment with bingo failed, and while the café and dance hall downstairs continued, the former cinema became a market and then an inimitable second-hand bookshop, Maxine’s Cafe & Books, now trading as Books Llangollen.

The place is piled high with 100,000+ volumes on every subject imaginable, stacked on the steps of the back rows, and clustered round the decorative proscenium frame.

On July 15th 2015 films returned to the Town Hall under a brand-name that pays tribute to the former competitor – the New Dot Cinema.

The dance hall and café is now S&G Bistro.