Story of the week: Art Deco in Lancashire

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There’s a wind of change blowing in off the bay in Morecambe these days.

The town boomed in the mid-19th century as a seaside resort and became an architectural pace setter in the 1930’s when the Art Deco movement influenced its architecture.

It has gone into hibernation in recent years. Its iconic hotel, the Grade II-listed Midland, was but a cherished memory.

But Morecambe is stirring from its slumbers. This summer the Midland reopened following a £11m regeneration by property developer Urban Splash and the new byword for the resort is urban regeneration.

The Midland first opened in 1933, featuring murals by the sculptor Eric Gill and rugs by textile artist Marion Dorn, both adorned with the famous seahorse motif that became the hotel’s trademark.

It was unabashedly chic, airy and light with the original architect, Oliver Hill, deliberately eschewing the clinical feel of some Modernist buildings to create a vision in chrome, marble and glass.

The curved structure hugged the contours of the Victorian promenade and the floor-to-ceiling glass windows offered maximum exposure to the legendary Morecambe sunset.

In its pre-war heyday, the glitterati from Coca Chanel to Wallace Simpson all came to sip cocktails with views across the sands to Cumbria. The Midland had become a destination in its own right.

Today the hotel retains the visual impact of the original incarnation but adds a 20th-century twist, combining the Art Deco facade with the contemporary interior of a boutique hotel.

Some locals may be unsure about the angular, modernist lobby furniture but everyone applauds the fact that Gill’s artworks have been restored to their original splendour and re-instated.

The stone mural of Odysseus once more stands proud behind reception and the elaborate ceiling medallion is the crowning glory of the sweeping, red-carpeted staircase.

Even Dorn’s mosaic seahorses again folic on the floors and fittings.

Of the 44 bedrooms, six are rooftop suites with individual features – the honeymoon suite features a hot tub on a private roof terrace.

My room was comfortable with a small balcony overlooking the sea, although some may find the central wood unit, containing pull-out slots for wardrobe, toilet and kettle, rather confusing.

“My personal reaction to it today is probably in keeping with the reaction of those first visitors,” smiles Peter Wade, a local historian who leads walking tours around Morecambe.

“The interior is very modern now but it was very modernist when it opened in the 1930’s and, initially, people were skeptical then too.”

That night, after a drink in the purple and fuchsia-hued booths of the Rotunda Bar, I took dinner amongst the minimalist white tables of the Restaurant.

Choosing from a menu of British seaside favourites, I opted for Morecambe Bay potted shrimps followed by Cumberland sausage and mash while the evening sun flooded the all-glass rear of the building with flame-hued rays.

The next morning I had a date with Evelyn Archer, head of the Friends of The Winter Gardens, the Grade II-listed theatre that is Morecambe’s other Art Deco gem.

Built in 1897, Laurel and Hardy graced the stage in its heyday. The Friends already secured £12m to revive the theatre’s faded façade and, with £11m and four years, they believe they can re-open as a multi-purpose venue for theatre, dance and events with a top-floor restaurant overlooking the bay.

“I’m a Morecambe lass and watched the town decline,” says Evelyn, guiding me up faded marble staircases and through Art-Deco lounges on a tour of the venue.

“Now we’ve got a blank canvas. We’re finding a new niche for Morecambe and highlighting the attractions of the bay.”

Leading the charge is Cedric Robinson MBE, the Queen’s Guide to the Sands, who has been leading guided walks across the potentially hazardous sands of Morecambe Bay since 1963.

The walks start from seaside village of Arnside, about 10 miles north of Morecambe, and finish at Kents Bank around – a journey of around eight miles.

En route are fine views of the South Lakeland hills and a chance to spot communities of wading birds.

It’s still early days to speak of a renaissance for Morecambe but the signs are good.

The next stage of the regeneration process is the £100m revival of the town’s West End, but more family attractions and improved infrastructure are needed to lure the design cognoscenti and upwardly mobile weekenders the Midland targets.

“My dream for Morecambe’s future is cocktails at the Midland followed by a show at the Winter Garden,” says Peter Wade.

He may yet sip that martini and take his seat for curtain up.

The re-opening of the Midland has brought a new confidence to Morecambe and, with a new generation of visitors forming a groundswell for the revival of classic British resorts.

Maybe Morecambe’s glory days are yet to come.

Get some sea air

Start with a trot along the promenade, Marine Road, to full the lungs with ozone. The comedian Eric Morecambe (he changed his name as a homage to his home town) is captured in bronze in classic Bring Me Sunshine pose [pictured above], and is now the focus point for day trippers – catch the statue as dusk for the light show.

Step back in time

The Winter Gardens is currently seeking major funding for regeneration. Meanwhile it opens on weekends for hard-hat tours of the building and a rousing pep talk from the Friends of The Winter Gardens on their grand plans for the iconic venue. Tickets contribute to the restoration fund.

Walk this way

The Echoes of Art Deco guided walk is two-hour walking tour of Morecambe, exploring the surviving Art Deco buildings and the history of the town. Tours start and end with the Midland Hotel, taking in the former Littlewoods department store building and the site of the former swimming baths complex en route.

Bird in the hand

The Tern Project kick started the regeneration bandwagon, erecting public artworks along the five-mile seafront based around the birdlife of Morecambe Bay, namely oyster catcher, curlew and turnstone. Follow the trail along the promenade from the stone jetty to the light gallery, tracing the stone-statue wildlife en route.

Shrimps and shells

Poulton Village, a maze of fishermen’s cottages, wrought-iron-facade shops and maritime murals, located just behind the promenade, is the town’s original settlement. Try browsing the specialist local shops – call in at the Shell Shop for sea shell-inspired jewelry, and stock up on potted shrimps at the Shrimp Shop on Poulton Square.

Catch it if you can

Morecambe celebrates Heritage Open Days each September with free entry to civic buildings. Otherwise, throughout October the RSPB Nature Reserve at Leighton Moss, Silverdale, located about ten miles from Morecambe, is hosting Bearded Tit walks to explore the wildlife of the region.

Where to eat

  • Artisan Cafe, 296 Marine Road Central. This non-smoking, non mobile-phone café for lunches and snacks has a front-parlour feel, good coffee and a Mediterranean motif to the menu.
  • Brucciani, 217 Marine Road West. An art-deco café, featuring the original oak paneling, Bakelite fittings, and Formica tabletops. Soak up the atmosphere over a knickerbockers glory
  • Chill, 229 Marine Road Central. Living up to its name, this friendly little café has smoothies, coffees and snacks with sea views.
  • The Smugglers’ Den, 56 Poulton Road. Morecambe’s oldest pub, dating from around 1600, is a traditional spot to chat with the locals over a pint of Cask Marque ale.
  • Pebbles at the Crown Hotel, 239 Marine Road Central. With a view across the bay and a menu of local produce, Pebbles is a solid option. Catch the special menu – three courses for £14.95, served 6pm to 8pm, Monday to Friday.
  • The Borough, 3 Dalton Square, Lancaster. Further afield in neighbouring Lancaster, The Borough is a no-nonsense gastropub for hearty pub fare and CAMRA-lauded, hand-pulled ales.

This story was first published in Coast magazine in 2008.

Liked this? Try also, Story of the day: Art Deco Blackpool.

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