Monthly Archives: February 2024

This brave o’erhanging firmament

Abbeydale Picture House, Sheffield: auditorium ceiling (2013)

The legal stalemate over the leaking roof of the Abbeydale Picture House threatens to bring down the ornate plaster ceiling of the auditorium.

A recent press-release from the lessee of the cinema, CADS [Creative Arts Development Space], stated that the building must be made weatherproof without delay, and the financial loss from the closure of the auditorium is becoming unsustainable:  The uncertain future of a century-old Sheffield landmark (sheffieldtribune.co.uk) [scroll to ‘The Big Story’].

Subsequently, the Theatres Trust has added the Abbeydale to its register of theatres at risk:  Theatre at Risk Abbeydale Picture House, Sheffield (theatrestrust.org.uk).

An alarming incident at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, in London’s West End in 2013 [‘Apollo theatre collapse injures more than 80 people in London’s West End | London | The Guardian] injured over eighty theatregoers and raised concerns about health-and-safety issues with plaster ceilings in historic theatres across Britain.  The Society of London Theatres quickly established that at the time of the incident all the West End theatres were up to date with their safety inspection routines.  Further precautions led to a tightened, systematic routine of inspections:  No prosecutions over theatre roof collapse | Theatre | The Guardian.

A detailed examination of the damage showed that the Apollo ceiling was weakened by the deterioration of hessian ties, called ‘wads’, that anchored the plasterwork to the roof structure:  Apollo theatre ceiling collapse blamed on failure of old cloth ties | London | The Guardian.  Water ingress was apparently the basic problem, weakening the hessian and adding to the weight of the plasterwork.  There’s a partly redacted technical report on the Apollo collapse at Apollo-Theatre..pdf (abtt.org.uk).

There’s been no public statement to indicate exactly what is wrong with the Abbeydale Picture House roof, but it’s clear that if the ceiling collapsed its reinstatement would be costly and would delay plans for a full restoration.

In a recent blog-article I highlighted the successful restoration of Wingfield Station in Derbyshire after years of neglect.  This came about because of a combination of forces.  Local residents and the Amber Valley District Council worked with English Heritage and the not-for-profit Derbyshire Historic Buildings Trust to put the station back in excellent order which will enable it to earn its keep in future.

Sheffield City Council has already played that card by channelling Levelling Up funds from central government to make the Adelphi Cinema, Attercliffe suitable for a lessee’s occupation, but the Abbeydale Picture House is a different proposition.

Firstly, it’s much bigger than Wingfield Station and though it’s structurally complete its integrity is seriously threatened by the ceiling vulnerability.

Secondly, it’s not the only landmark building in the city that presents a major conservation challenge.  The Old Town Hall is older, more central, more complex, in far worse physical condition and extremely difficult to adapt to a practical future use.

Sheffield City Council is desperately short of money after years of budget cuts, and to finance non-essential services it’s forced to scavenge for ringfenced grants that can’t be spent on other priorities.

I spoke to someone who knows about such matters, and he said that the only solution was money – more money than ordinary individuals might raise in a hurry.

But the support of ordinary members of the public will help CADS, a not-for-profit organisation with a strong track record in repurposing redundant buildings for use in a variety of art forms.

And reminding local politicians that people care about landmark buildings like the Abbeydale wouldn’t go amiss.  The Council’s heritage champion, Councillor Janet Ridler, is at Councillor details – Councillor Janet Ridler | Sheffield City Council.

Update: Within days of this article going online, on February 22nd 2024 CADS announced the immediate closure of the Abbeydale Picture House for lack of resources to make the auditorium safe, though they retain the tenancy agreement and hope to restore the building in the future: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-south-yorkshire-68371502.

Jane Austen’s House

Jane Austen’s House, Chawton, Hampshire

I’ve always wanted to visit the house in Chawton, near Alton in Hampshire, where the novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) spent the last eight years of her life and finished the six novels that immortalised her name, Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815), together with Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (both published posthumously in 1818).

Of course, the house doesn’t look like I imagined it.  The building had been a pub, the New Inn, which closed in 1787, apparently following the second of two murders on the premises, after which it was adapted as the bailiff’s residence by Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen Knight (1767-1852), who had inherited the Chawton estate.

In 1809 Edward moved his widowed mother and two unmarried sisters, Cassandra (1773-1845) and Jane, into the house.

Here Jane Austen quietly wrote her fiction, in between domestic duties, letter-writing, socialising and being Aunt Jane to an extensive troop of nephews and nieces.

The insight, irony and elegance of her fiction-writing places her in the first rank of English writers, and her surviving letters have the same wit and charm.

My favourite is the comment in a letter to Cassandra written in 1800:  “I believe I drank too much wine last night at Hurstbourne;  I know not how else to account for the shaking of my hand today.”  I know the feeling.  (The complete letter can be found at I drank too much wine last night – Letters of Note.)

The house opened as a museum in 1949 and is a place of pilgrimage to admirers from all over the world.  One of the most precious items is the tiny twelve-sided writing table on which she worked.

It’s understandable that pre-booking is encouraged to prevent overcrowding of the tiny rooms, and the Museum website plays down the alternative of walking in: Plan Your Visit to Jane Austen’s House Jane Austen Museum | Hampshire Days Out Jane Austen’s House (janeaustens.house).

There is a phone-number, but the outgoing message offers no facility to speak to anyone at the Museum.  All the necessary information, we are told, is online. 

However, I discovered that if you hang on at the end of the message eventually someone might answer.

In fact, walk-ins are possible, but not encouraged:…