I’ve just been on a guided tour of Morecambe Winter Gardens. Its not the first time I’ve visited, but it is more than five years since my last visit. Morecambe Winter Gardens was a place of music hall entertainment, with a grand ballroom next door, and was designed to give holidaymakers a taste of luxury away from their lives at home. Many of the visitors were on day excursions from the industrial towns of Leeds or Bradford, and would be looking for place to eat, drink, be entertained – all without going outside on a wet day. The Winter Gardens provided an indoor place to promenade, and a ballroom next door for dancing.
Once with a rolling programme of all day entertainment – ballet, mime, comedy, pierrots, song and dance – the stage is mostly empty now apart from the odd ghost hunt or music event.
Stephen, our guide, took us up near the roof to see the iron girders supporting the elaborate ceiling. The infrastructure is built like a railway station with massive ironwork suspending moulded plasterwork. Unused since the 1970s the building fell into disrepair and has since been looked after, and restored, by a small team of volunteers. The task is enormous. The walls have been damp and crumbling, the roof unsafe. The volunteers have painstakingly removed hundreds of nails from the original parquet floor and replaced the missing pieces with appropriate period wood. They are now restoring parts of the grand circle. Stephen freely admits that the task of restoring this building will take generations, and that they are looking to the future one step at a time.
It is such a shame that our seaside heritage doesn’t attract the sort of funding that would allow the refurbishment to progress faster, and before more crucial infrastructure is lost. During Covid people have been flocking to our seaside towns again and it is a shame when an iconic building like the Winter Gardens can’t be shown off in all its original glory. Of course it is interesting to speculate what the building could be used for, now that the thousands it could accommodate prefer to holiday elsewhere.
But a building so spectacular could be used for many different things – retail, food hall, marketplace. Personally I would love to see it as a museum or exhibition of the seaside life as we used to know it. There is a tendency to ignore the art of the seaside funfair, circus, arcades and other pier-head attractions, which are a vital and interesting part of our history, with their own particular visual language.
For the volunteers who are bringing this building back to life, it is a real labour of love. They give up their weekends to show visitors around, when they are not painting, plastering or cleaning. They are raising money to put the seats back in the Grand Circle, one seat at a time. You can find all the information you need about how to support their work and their ongoing labour of love on their website www.morecambewintergardens.co.uk Do book a tour too, its fascinating and gives a real window into seaside culture in its 1930s heyday. Tea and cake can be had in the foyer.
The pictures below show the spectacular Burmantoft tiles in the entrance to the Grand Circle and in the foyer, and the outside of the building with its magnificent arched window overlooking what must be one of the most spectacular views of the bay and the Lake District hills.