Category Archives: Fun Palaces

New cinema history

Former Odeon Cinema, Flat Street, Sheffield (1993)

It pleases me to have books on my bookshelf that were written by people I know.

I met Sam Manning at the 2015 Picture House Revival weekend that Hand Of created to relaunch the Abbeydale Picture Palace as a cinema after it had been closed for forty years.

Sam was at the time doing postgraduate research into cinema-going in Sheffield and Belfast between 1945 and 1965, and asked me to contribute an oral-history interview to his PhD thesis.

That research is now published as Cinemas and Cinema-Going in the United Kingdom:  decades of decline, 1945-65 (University of London Press 2020), and I couldn’t resist buying a paperback edition. You can preview it as a .pdf file at https://humanities-digital-library.org/index.php/hdl/catalog/book/cinema-going.

I’ve never been to Belfast, so that aspect of his writing was new territory for me, but the Sheffield sections relate to my childhood memories and my more recent local-history research.

Sam writes as part of the “new cinema history” movement [https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/9781137337016_7], which seeks to place the contemporary experience of going to the pictures in the wider context of social history in the first sixty-five years of the twentieth century.

This extends the ubiquitous nostalgia accounts of the generation that knew or worked in cinemas until the 1960s and the analyses of cinema architecture, the business history of the industry and the endless literature of films and film-makers that have appeared in recent decades.

On the local level, I learned a great deal because Sam has done the legwork of surveying the surviving archives of individual cinemas against city-wide data from local newspapers, government and industry records and oral-history evidence.

He revises the long-held view that suburban cinema-going was killed by the advent of television.  There were other significant factors in play – increasing affluence, flight from inner-city slums to new housing estates and the rise of a generation of young people who thought they’d invented “teenage”, the generation commemorated in Cliff Richard’s hit ‘The Young Ones’ (1962).

He also explains a counterintuitive feature of Sheffield’s post-war cinema history, the building of one of the few post-war Odeon cinemas on Flat Street, later followed by a luxurious ABC on Angel Street.

In the 1930s, when three major chains – Odeon, Gaumont and ABC – dominated the national industry, Sheffield’s cinemas were largely owned by local companies.  Gaumont British Theatres took over the Regent in 1929, two years after it opened, and in 1931 ABC leased the Hippodrome, a variety theatre dating back to 1907, which they gave up in 1948.  Neither invested in the sort of super-cinema that is the villain of the piece in the film The Smallest Show on Earth (1957).

The Odeon chain leased a site at the junction of Flat Street and Norfolk Street in 1933, and after a five-year delay the architects Harry Weedon and W Calder Robson designed a 2,326-seat cinema, four shops and a three-storey office block.  Construction began in March 1939 and quickly came to a halt at the outbreak of the Second World War.

The post-war realignment of Sheffield’s proposed inner ring road, later known as Arundel Gate, meant redesigning the Odeon on a smaller footprint. 

When building restrictions were removed in 1954 the pre-war steelwork was dismantled and the new cinema, without the intended shops and offices, was built to a completely fresh design by Harry Weedon and Robert Bullivant.

This design featured a 55-foot screen and seated 2,319 – 1,505 in the stalls and 814 in the balcony. Lighting in the auditorium was by three rows of fittings hanging close to the ceiling and from concealed lights in the two decorative panels each side of the proscenium.  Sheffield had seen nothing like it before.

The new Odeon opened on July 16th 1956 with the newly-released Kenneth More feature-film Reach for the Sky, attended by the Deputy Lord Mayor, Ald Joseph Curtis, the managing director of the Rank Organisation, John Davis, and his wife, film star Dinah Sheridan, accompanied by the Dagenham Girl Pipers, state trumpeters from the York & Lancaster Regiment and a contingent of service personnel from RAF Norton.

In November 1958 the Odeon was equipped to show Todd-AO wide-screen films with stereophonic sound so that it could specialise in long runs of blockbuster movies. 

By the mid-1960s, cinema-going habits had changed radically.  The Sound of Music on first release ran from October 3rd 1965 until February 1967.  It was immediately followed by Khartoum (1966). 

For a short period of slightly less than two years, there were four high-quality 70mm screens in the city.  The new ABC had a 60ft screen from its opening on May 18th 1961.  The 70ft screen at the Gaumont was first used on July 23rd 1969 and the smaller screen at Gaumont 2 followed in October of the same year.

The Odeon closed on June 5th 1971 at the end of a further fourteen-month run of The Sound of Music and reopened in September of the same year as a Top Rank bingo hall, later rebranded as Mecca.

The Gaumont closed on November 7th 1985, followed by the ABC on July 28th 1988.  Both buildings were demolished.

Happy resort

Felixstowe, Suffolk

Over years of driving into East Anglia I have only associated Felixstowe with processions of container trucks hammering down the A14.

When I stayed at the Woodbridge Station Guest House I took the train to Ipswich and then on to Felixstowe to a happy surprise.  “Felix” is, after all, Latin for “happy”.

The mouth of the River Orwell has been strategically important, both for trade and defence, since Roman times at least, and grew markedly after the arrival of the railway in 1877 and the opening of the port in 1886.

The passenger train-service now terminates at the latest of the town’s three stations, Felixstowe Town (1898), which was built in response to an upturn in tourism after the 1891 visit of Princess Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein (1858-1921), Queen Victoria’s great-niece and the wife of Germany’s last Kaiser, Wilhelm II.

The walk down Hamilton Road, now partly pedestrianised, leads to a clifftop view of the Pier (1905;  rebuilt 2017) [http://www.felixstowe-pier.co.uk], with the cranes of the distant docks to the right, and the promenade to the left.

On the way, you pass the former Ritz Cinema (1937;  still operating as the Palace) [http://www.palacecinemafelixstowe.com].

The seafront is dotted with opulent former hotels, of which the Felix Hotel (1903) is the most prominent.  This is where Princess Victoria and her family stayed in 1901 and, coincidentally, where Wallis Simpson took rooms while her divorce took place in nearby Ipswich in 1936.  (This was the occasion of the legendary American newspaper headline “KING’S MOLL RENO’D IN WOLSEY’S HOME TOWN.”)  The Felix closed in 1952 and became the headquarters of the fertiliser company Fisons Ltd for thirty years.  It is now, predictably, converted to apartments.

Landguard Fort [http://www.landguard.com] introduces visitors to the long history of Felixstowe’s defences.  This was the location of the last opposed invasion of England in 1677, and four of the original seven Martello towers in the town survive.

I had a typical seaside lunch, fish and chips at Fish Dish [http://www.myfishdish.co.uk].  When I told the guy behind the till that the place reminded me of Whitby he smiled and said he’d trained and worked at Whitby for thirteen years before setting up in Essex.

The pleasures of Felixstowe are simple.  On a sunny day you can sit on a promenade bench and watch vast container ships, loaded to capacity, making their way out of the port at surprising speed.

And, because Ipswich is a significant rail hub, you can visit Felixstowe from far afield without using a car.

Castello con un teatro annesso

Castello di Meleto, Tuscany, Italy: theatre

One of the delights of my Great Rail Journeys ‘Highlights of Tuscany’ holiday [https://www.greatrail.com/tours/highlights-of-tuscany] was a life-enhancing visit to the Castello di Meleto [http://www.castellomeleto.it/eng/castle/castle.php].

This is an intriguing place, a medieval hill-top castle documented from 1256 and for centuries owned by the Ricasoli-Firidolfi family, who sold up only in 1968.  The interiors, on the ground floor at least, are entirely baroque, with an unrestored patina of faded splendour.

We were treated to a cookery demonstration by the chef, Elena, who spoke only Italian, translated (or perhaps explicated) by the hostess Geraldine, who extolled the quality of the Castle’s extra virgin olive oil, which we were invited to smell and taste.

We were shown how to make an Italian stew, which seemed to me exactly how I would make an English stew with Italian ingredients. 

The pasta-making demonstration was more entertaining, and a great deal of pasta was passed hand to hand around the group. 

We were invited out for antipasti on the terrace, where a classical wing of the house (with a medieval turret on the end) faces a flat lawn and a wall, from where expanses of hillside vineyards are visible. 

No sooner had we wandered outside than a misty rain began to fall, and within ten minutes the waitresses shifted the antipasti back into the castle and a loud clap of thunder heralded a downpour that lasted no more than half an hour.

We tucked into the antipasti indoors while Geraldine gave lectures first on the Castle’s white wine and then on the rosé, all the time pouring wine into everyone’s glasses and interrupting her flow with “I’ll fetch another bottle.”  There was no sniffing or spitting.  This was a straightforward invitation to get trollied.

We weren’t formally shown the downstairs rooms, but instead trotted off to the cellars which are tricked out with barrels and racks of bottles.

Geraldine took us from the cellars to a surprise – a tiny, intact private theatre, dated 1741, complete with perspective scenery and a balcony.  I can find nothing of any significance about it online, and I’ve never come across it in the theatre-history literature. 

Indeed, I wonder if its provenance and history have been seriously researched.  It is at any rate a great rarity. 

A three-course dinner followed, liberally lubricated with red chianti and a dessert wine.  I sat back from the conversation and watched the sunset through the trees outside the window. 

Then predictably, “pat,…like the catastrophe in the old comedy”, came the buying opportunity.  My fellow guests queued up to buy bottles of wine and olive oil, while I sat in an armchair and watched.

Eventually we began the journey back, of which the first seventy minutes were simply a succession of hairpin bends and a few small villages.  We joined the motorway south of Florence, and it took another three-quarters of an hour to reach our hotel in Montecatini Terme.

I reflected on the considerable appeal of the Castillo di Meleto.  It’s now owned by a joint-stock company and you can stay there, at rates which are high but not outrageous.  However, it’s so remote that it would be impractical to go anywhere:  it’s simply a place to enjoy, with extensive gardens, an infinity pool and a restaurant down the drive for lunch and dinner:   https://translate.google.co.uk/translate?hl=en&sl=it&u=http://www.castellomeleto.it/&prev=search.

Organ transplant

Abbeydale Picture House, Sheffield: fly-tower (2017)

Before Christmas I was the live act at the launch of photographer Darren O’Brien’s new book about the Sharrow Vale area of Sheffield:  https://www.sheffieldtelegraph.co.uk/news/people/new-book-uncovers-hidden-charms-sheffields-sharrow-vale-community-1325708.

The launch took place in the fly tower of the Abbeydale Picture House, and Darren asked me to explain to his guests the history of this unique piece of cinema heritage.

The Grade II listed Abbeydale Picture House was always a gem among Sheffield’s suburban cinemas, and thanks to a succession of sympathetic owners it’s survived to entertain new generations of patrons nearly a hundred years after its opening.

One of six Sheffield cinemas to open in 1920, its original proprietors were local businessmen, led by a professional cinema exhibitor, seeking to capitalise on the demand for entertainment after the First World War.

They hedged their bets by instructing the architect, Pascal J Steinlet, to build a full-scale theatre fly tower, enabling the cinema screen to be flown out of the way of stage performances, and to use the sloping site to include a ballroom and billiard hall beneath the auditorium and stage, with a café to serve cinema patrons.

The directors considered that moving pictures alone might not generate enough trade, and when post-war inflation ate into their original budget of £50,000 they changed plans and installed an organ by the Sheffield firm Brindley & Co.

Because Pascal Steinlet had not been briefed to include an organ chamber, the instrument stood immediately behind the screen, centre stage, making it impossible to use the stage and dressing rooms for performances.

Anxious to generate income, they opened the cinema as soon as they could, on December 20th 1920.  The Lord Mayor, Alderman Wardley, attended the first film-performance, a costume romance, The Call of the Road, starring Victor McLaglen.

Their fear that film alone would not support the company proved correct.  In June 1921 the original board was replaced by the directors of the Star Cinema, Ecclesall Road, who quickly took out debentures to complete the café, ballroom and billiard hall before the end of the year.

In 1928, probably as a response to the imminent arrival of talking pictures, the organ was moved to the back of the stage, where it was barely audible, to make way for cine-variety performances, which continued until the first sound film, Janet Gaynor in Sunny Side Up, played on March 10th 1930.

The organ continued in use until 1940, and the last organist, Douglas Scott, complained that “the volume was poor, due to the fact that the organ chambers were placed as far back as possible on the stage and…at least 20% of the sound went through the stage roof.  The screen and tabs took their toll of sound and when the safety curtain was lowered nothing could be heard in the theatre.”

There’s evidence for this on the back wall of the fly tower, where two rows of holes for the joists of the stage floor are visible, the higher row showing a clear gap where after 1928 the organ would have stood on the original stage floor.  The position of the organ meant that only the downstage half of the stage was usable, so presumably the rake was increased to maintain the sight-lines Pascal Steinlet had intended.

I hope that when the building is comprehensively restored the stage floor will be reinstated so that it can be used for performances.

But I’d think twice about reinstating an organ.

Darren O’Brien’s book Sharrow Vale and the Antiques Quarter (History Press 2019) is available from https://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/publication/sharrow-vale-and-the-antiques-quarter/9780750989329.

Park Palace Ponies

Park Palace Ponies (the former Park Palace Cinema), Dingle, Liverpool

The Park Palace Theatre in Toxteth was built for James Kiernan, a Liverpool theatre proprietor and designed by J H Havelock-Sutton, a Liverpool architect.

The auditorium is a simple rectangle, with the balcony (now removed) around three sides.  There were two boxes (also now gone), decorated with tall oval bevelled mirrors and lit with brass gas brackets.  Corinthian pilasters with acanthus-leaf bases flank the proscenium and support a broken pediment.  The proscenium is thirty feet wide.  Backstage there were four dressing rooms but no fly-tower.

Some accounts mention a gallery, and the Royal Arms mounted above the proscenium following a visit by King Edward VII in 1903, but there is no present-day evidence of either.

The original audience capacity was 1,100 (600 in the pit and stalls, 500 in the balcony) and it opened on December 4th 1893 as a variety theatre.

Though it retained its music-hall licence, the building was used as a cinema from 1905.  For a time the Sheffield cinema impresario Jasper Redfern ran it, and the Weisker Brothers took it over and renamed it the Kinematodrome in 1910.  

In 1911, Peter Dunn acquired it and ran it as cine-variety for nearly twenty years.  During the 1920s there was a seven-piece orchestra.  The variety acts and the orchestra ceased abruptly with the introduction of sound movies on January 8th 1930.  By then the capacity had reduced to 961. 

After Peter Dunn’s death in 1934, the proprietor was Miss Sheila Dunn, presumably his daughter.

The final film show – Russ Tamblyn in The Young Guns and John Payne in Hold Back the Night – took place on March 11th 1959. 

After its demise as a cinema the Park Palace was successively used as a factory, a chemist’s shop and a store for motor-vehicle spares.  For a period from 1984 it became the Mill Street Chapel. 

Subsequently the building was largely left to deteriorate. 

It was briefly revived as a performance space in 2008, and was once used as a location for the Channel 4 soap-opera Hollyoaks, but from 2010 onwards it was advertised to let. 

It remained unused until 2017, when Keith Hackett and his daughter, Bridget Griffin, set up Park Palace Ponies, to provide a riding school aimed at local children under ten, bringing them the benefits of spending time with horses and the perception that horse-riding isn’t only for the affluent.  Hundreds of children from south-central Liverpool (defined as postcodes L8, L17 and L18) have since taken part in riding lessons at the Palace:  http://www.parkpalaceponies.com

The community benefits of this scheme are palpable, and not confined to the children and their families.  The horses graze at the local allotments, where their manure is much appreciated.

Park Palace Ponies is included in the itinerary of the rescheduled Unexpected Liverpool (June 7th-11th 2021) .  For further details of the tour, please click here.

Montecatini Terme

Montecatini Terme, Italy: Tettuccio Spa

Montecatini Terme, Italy: Tettuccio Spa

I’d never have found my way to Monticatini Terme if I hadn’t booked a Great Rail Journeys ‘Highlights of Tuscany’ holiday [https://www.greatrail.com/tours/highlights-of-tuscany] which was based in the excellent Hotel Francia & Quirinale [https://www.franciaequirinale.it/en], providing four-star quality with individuality and amenity, meticulously efficient service, an elegant lobby, a spacious lounge with many settees and a grand piano and an equally spacious restaurant with a separate area for private parties.

Two minutes’ walk from the hotel is the Parco delle Terme, which contains the spa from which the town takes its modern name, strongly reminiscent of Buxton or Harrogate and utterly enjoyable:  https://translate.google.co.uk/translate?hl=en&sl=it&u=http://www.termemontecatini.it/&prev=search.  Open courtyards with columned arcades open one into another, with fountains and an apsidal concert stage for music.

Baths on this site are documented back to 1201, and were reported by the Montecatini physician Ugolino Simoni in 1417.  In modern times the spa was developed by Grand Duke Peter Leopold, who sponsored the construction of the Bagno Regio (1773), the Terme Leopoldine (1775) and the Terme Tettuccio (1779).

The heyday of the resort was the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Though some parts are in need of restoration they evoke the time when the composer Verdi lived in the town, with such neighbours as Pietro Mascagni, Ruggero Leoncavallo, Beniamino Gigli and Luigi Pirandello.

A series of elaborate marble counters offers a variety of waters through labelled taps:  Rinfresco, which “promotes the elimination of waste through the renal pathways and restores lost salts in sports training”, was the only water that was actually flowing and for lack of a cup I couldn’t drink any of it.  It wasn’t very warm.  Behind the counters a series of tiled pictures show the ages of man, voluptuously suggesting how water improves health at every age.

I had lunch – smoked salmon and remarkably tasty white bread accompanied by a litre of aqua naturale – in the high, domed, dignified Caffè Le Terme, far too grand to be called a café in any language but Italian.  On a very hot day the air conditioning was natural and effective – huge doors wide open on three sides of the high-ceilinged room.

Elsewhere in the park from the main complex are other spa buildings, the Terme Torretta (1904), the Terme Excelsior (1907) and the Terme Tamerici (1911).

At the edge of the park, I booked a table for dinner at the Profumo Garden Bistrot [https://www.thefork.it/ristorante/profumo-garden-bistrot/307299?cc=18174-54f] and later enjoyed a superlative five-course meal in an open-air setting, as the hot day cooled to warm and the sun dipped lower in the sky.  Perfect.

Opera on tap

Opera House, Royal Tunbridge Wells

Tunbridge Wells was a staid and respectable spa town, not over-supplied with theatres in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Mrs Sarah Baker’s Tunbridge Wells Theatre, opened in the Pantiles in 1802, was used as a theatre for about fifty years and then converted into a Corn Exchange which still exists.

In the decade when the borough became Royal Tunbridge Wells, thanks to the merry monarch, King Edward VII, the Opera House was promoted by Mr J Jarvis and opened in 1902.

It was designed by John Priestly Briggs (1869-1944) who among much else built the Grand Theatre, Doncaster (1899, with J W Chapman).

The splendid Baroque exterior includes a range of shops on three sides and a balcony above the entrance leading out of the dress circle bar.  The central dome was originally surmounted by a nude statue of Mercury which was removed after the First World War.

The intimate auditorium, originally seating 1,100, is lavishly decorated with a dress circle and  balcony , and a central saucer dome above the stalls.

The proscenium is 28 feet wide and the stage is 32 feet deep, with a grid 44 feet high.  The proscenium arch has brackets in the upper corners and is surmounted by relief figures representing Music and Drama.

The eccentric local landowner John Christie (1882-1962) reopened the Opera House as a cinema in 1925.  He had taken over the organ-builder William Hill & Son & Norman & Beard Ltd in 1923, and installed an ambitious five-manual organ with pipework located on stage and the console in the enlarged orchestra pit.

He produced a wide range of shows, including musical comedy and Gilbert & Sullivan, before he set up his own celebrated opera house on his nearby estate at Glyndebourne:  https://www.telegraph.co.uk/opera/what-to-see/glyndebourne-the-love-story-that-started-it-all.

The organ was sold to a New Zealand buyer in 1929 but the stage remained in use for annual amateur operatic performances from 1932 to 1966.

The history of the building after John Christie’s time is conventional – refurbished in 1931, bomb-damaged but repaired and reopened in 1949, taken over by Essoldo in 1954.

In 1966 the local council refused a bingo licence and listed it Grade II.  After a couple of years of controversy, the final film-show (Paul Schofield in A Man for All Seasons) took place on February 3rd 1968, and the Opera House reopened as a bingo club in July the same year.

The bingo club, successively operated by Essoldo, Ladbrokes, Top Rank and Cascade, eventually closed in 1995, and after a public campaign to prevent demolition, the Opera House was taken over by the J D Wetherspoon chain in 1996 and adapted as a public house that can be used for opera one day each year.

J D Wetherspoon has an outstanding reputation for transforming redundant historic buildings into enjoyable places to eat and drink.  By combining business acumen with sensitivity to the localities in which it trades, the company enables heritage structures to earn their keep and bring enjoyment to customers.

At the Tunbridge Wells Opera House the seating remains in the dress circle and, unused, in the gallery.  The boxes are practical but cramped, and the stained glass panels in the doors to each box and the vestibule at the back of the dress circle are restored.  The stage house retains its fly floors and bridge, and the original lighting board and the counterweights for the house tabs remain in situ.

Though there’s nothing scheduled in the calendar at the time of writing, it’s easy to set up an alert for the next Tunbridge Wells opera experience:  https://www.ents24.com/tunbridge-wells-events/wetherspoon-opera-house-pub.

And in the meantime, any day of the week, breakfast to suppertime, anyone can walk in and enjoy a complete Edwardian auditorium with good pub food, beverages and a wide range of drinks at very reasonable prices.

The Church of King Charles the Martyr, Royal Tunbridge Wells

Church of King Charles the Martyr, Royal Tunbridge Wells

The site of Tunbridge Wells was empty fields until Dudley, Lord North (1581-1666) came upon a chalybeate (iron-bearing) spring in 1609 while staying at a lodge in nearby Eridge for his health.

He publicised the therapeutic powers of the waters –

These waters youth in age renew,

Strength to the weak and sickly add,

Give the pale cheek a rosy hue

And cheerful spirits to the sad.

– and attracted royal approval when Queen Henrietta Maria, consort of King Charles I visited in 1630.

The Lord of the Manor, Donagh MacCarthy, 1st Earl of Clancarty (1594–1665), enclosed the spring and built a meeting hall “to shelter the dippers in wet weather”.  Nevertheless, when Queen Catherine of Braganza took the waters in 1664, her court was accommodated in tents.

The spa’s first assembly room was in fact the Church of King Charles the Martyr, built as a brick chapel of ease in 1684.  Its unusual dedication memorialised the executed monarch, whose death was until 1859 remembered as an Anglican feast-day on the anniversary of his execution, January 30th.

The land for the church was given by Viscountess Purbeck and the fundraising and subsequent building programme was supervised by the MP and entrepreneur Thomas Neale (1641–1699) as part of his nearby development of shops and inns.

The fine plaster ceiling of five domes was installed in 1678 by John Wetherell, who had worked for Sir Christopher Wren at Greenwich.  Five years later a further dome was installed to the north, opposite the original doorway.

This building quickly became too small for either an assembly or its congregation.

In 1688-1690 Henry Doogood, Sir Christopher Wren’s chief plasterer, took down the west wall, replacing it with the tall columns that still stand in the middle of the nave, and doubled the size of the interior, duplicating the plaster ceiling with, as Pevsner remarks, “more bravura” than the original.

Strict social separation was maintained between the high-status worshippers in the body of the church and the tradespeople and servants above:  the oak-panelled seventeenth-century galleries were originally accessible only from outside.

Ironically, when the then Princess Victoria, aged sixteen, with her mother, the Duchess of Kent, visited in 1835 she sat in the north balcony which was at the time close to the pulpit and the altar.

St Charles the Martyr became a parish church – with an unusually small area, 65 acres, much of it common land,– only in 1889, when for the first time the interior was oriented to the east by the architect Ewan Christian.

The three-decker pulpit was removed and the seating reversed to face the present-day chancel, removing the anomaly that the communion table stood at the side of the church, out of sight of most worshippers.

In this refurbishment the Credo and Paternoster boards by William Cheere were brought from the church of All Hallows, Bread Street, in the City of London (built 1681-84;  demolished 1878).

The Church of King Charles the Martyr is a highly unusual building and well worth a visit.  The greeters are particularly welcoming:  http://kcmtw.or

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:  https://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.

Bognor Pier

Bognor Pier

Bognor Pier

King George V famously didn’t like Bognor, where he was sent to recuperate after surgery in 1929.  After his stay at Craigwell House in nearby Aldwick, he received a petition to grant the town the suffix “Regis” – literally, “of the King”.  I can’t possibly tell the story better than Wikipedia, citing Antonia Fraser’s The house of Windsor (2000):

The petition was presented to Lord Stamfordham, the King’s Private Secretary, who in turn delivered it to the King.  King George supposedly replied, “Oh, bugger Bognor.”  Lord Stamfordham then went back to the petitioners and told them, “the King has been graciously pleased to grant your request.”

Like many small seaside resorts at the ends of branch lines, Bognor is a rather sad place today, but it has a proud history as a genteel place to relax, founded in the late eighteenth century by the local landowner Sir Richard Hotham, and more energetically developed after the arrival of the branch railway in 1864.

It’s hardly an accident that Bognor Pier was begun in the same year, designed by Sir Charles Fox and his cousin J W Wilson and opened in 1865.  Originally a thousand feet long, it cost £5,000, but was subsequently bought for £1,200 by the Local Board in 1876.

The Board’s successor, Bognor Urban District Council, were glad to offload it to a private operator, who spent £30,000 dealing with dilapidations and constructing an entertainment complex at the shore end, comprising a theatre with a fly-tower, a picture theatre, an amusement arcade and a roof-garden restaurant, all of which opened in 1912.

During the Second World War, from 1943-45, the pier was HMS St Barbara, a naval observation station armed with anti-aircraft guns.

Its history became vexed from the 1960s onwards:  repeated changes of ownership meant that maintenance failed to keep up with onslaughts of storm damage.

Though it’s listed Grade II and the pier head building remains in part, only 350 feet of the pier itself survives, and repeated attempts to attract lottery funding for a major restoration have fallen apart.

Most recently, the energetic friends’ group, Bognor Pier Trust, learned that the current owners, Bognor Pier Leisure Ltd (BPLL), would not support a £5,000,000 lottery bid but were committed to maintaining the structure:  https://www.bognor.co.uk/news/future-of-bognor-pier-plunged-into-uncertainty-after-owners-withdraw-support-for-5m-funding-bid-1-7653934 and http://www.bognorpiertrust.co.uk/news-articles/no-lottery-bid-bognor-regis-pier.

The Trust has made a dignified decision to concentrate on other conservation projects in the town, and to remain ready to purchase the Pier if the current owners decide to sell.

Where that leaves the long-term future of the Pier itself remains to be seen.