The Parish Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Wigton, was built between 1785 and 1789 on the site of a previous church built in the year 1100. Unfortunately no records of the old church exist so there’s no documentation of its size or appearance though it’s known that round about 1330 a pele tower was added to the building to fortify it after it suffered considerable damage during the Scots raids in the early part of the 14th century.
The contract for the new church was awarded to Messrs Pattinson and Holmes (joiners) and masons Parkin and Nixons (the Nixons being father and son) with one of the conditions being that none of the old church should be incorporated in the new building, though it seems that this condition may only have applied to the exterior of the building as some of the oak beams in the new church tower appear to have been taken from the old church.
Constructed to the same design as St. Michael’s in Workington and St. Cuthbert’s in Carlisle St. Mary’s was built of red sandstone from Shawk Quarry, Rosley, with the tower being raised about nine feet higher than originally planned so it might serve as a landmark. A new bell was cast by bellfounders William Mears & Co and in June 1790 it was transported from London to St. Mary’s at a cost of £3 19s; still in use and weighing 12.5 cwt it’s the biggest single bell of any parish church in Cumbria.
To meet the changing needs of its congregation and the people of Wigton St. Mary’s has seen many repairs and improvements over the years. In 1880/1881 the floor was remodelled and relaid with blocks, two new stained glass windows and a new heating system were installed, and the high box pews with their doors and brass name plates were removed and taken to the workshop of John and Daniel Pearson where they were converted into the open pews seen in the church today.
The first organ in the church is believed to have been a small barrel organ, later exchanged for a larger instrument which was in turn sold for £30 in 1859 to Causewayhead Church near Silloth. Thanks to the generosity of George Moore from nearby Mealsgate who personally paid the cost of £240 the second organ was replaced by a new 12-stop organ built by Gray & Davison, one of the leading London organ builders. This was situated in the West Gallery, the traditional site for church organs, but changing fashions meant that fifty years later its position was considered to be inconvenient.
In 1912 Harrisons of Durham built the current organ which was sited at the south east corner of the church within the space occupied by the former vestry. At a cost of £800 it was built much larger than its predecessor with two manuals, twenty stops and more than 1200 pipes, some of which came from the previous Gray & Davison organ. Harrisons were advised in their work by influential organ designer Colonel George Dixon of St. Bees and thanks to their combined expertise the organ was remarkably versatile.
Harrisons have periodically maintained and tuned the organ since its installation, carrying out repairs in 1938, cleaning and renovation in 1977 and further repairs to the pneumatic action in 1994. Unfortunately in more recent years the organ became less reliable and a complete restoration was necessary; a scheme was proposed by Harrisons and approved by the Parochial Church Council and in 2011 the Centenary Restoration Appeal was launched. In 2012, 100 years after it was originally installed, the organ was granted a ”Historic Organ Certificate” by the British Institute of Organ Studies then in January 2013 it was dismantled and various parts were taken back to Harrisons in Durham. After extensive work and the meticulous cleaning of 1200 pipes the organ was rebuilt and returned to full working order in June that year, with the total cost of the rebuild standing at £120,000.
In 1928 the remaining original ornate box pew, formerly occupied by the owners of Highmoor House, was removed from the eastern end of the north aisle and twenty five years later a side chapel was installed in its place by the Reverend John Ford in memory of his mother. The chapel is dedicated to St. Catherine and behind the communion table is a reredos made of re-used carved oak panels of North German origin. In 1952, prior to the installation of the side chapel, the church interior was completely redecorated, with the midnight blue of the flat ceiling and the gold detailing on the decorative plaster roundels complementing the overall scheme.
In 1958 the whole of the church’s exterior, including the tower, was restored and improved with the work being carried out by Messrs John Laing of Carlisle, and during this time the bell was re-hung. Between 1973 and 1976 the vestries were modernised, the ceiling insulated and the whole building rewired which meant that further redecoration was necessary though this kept to the Reverend Ford’s original scheme. The following year a number of pews were removed from the back of the church to provide a space for social gatherings and informal activities then in 1985 the vicar’s vestry was repositioned to provide a space for a new kitchen.
Designed by R B Edmundson of Manchester and dedicated in 1865 the East window was donated by William Banks of Highmoor to celebrate the coming of age of his eldest son, though the centre section attracted widely differing opinions. Featuring Jesus blessing little children it was described as ‘fine Venetian glass’ by one person and ‘intensely ugly, portraying grotesque children’ by another, though William Banks had paid for the best which was available at the time.
Throughout the life of the church there was never any serious attempt to install a complete ringing peal of bells until discussions in early 1996 resulted in the Parochial Church Council voting to pursue the possibility. A structural survey of the tower proved positive, estimates were obtained and early in 1997 an application was made to the Millennium Commission for a 50% grant; work then started to raise the remaining 50% and by the end of that year the Millennium funding was in place. An order for a new set of eight bells was placed with John Taylor, bellfounders in Loughborough and work was started on preparing the tower.
In 1998 a band of novice ringers started training and on February 19th 1999 the bells arrived in Wigton, being initially displayed in the church before being installed in the tower and tested on March 3rd. On Easter Sunday that year the new band of ringers rang the bells for the first time for the morning service and on May 1st the first full peal of 5,088 changes was rung by members of the Carlisle Diocesan Guild of Bell Ringers. New Year 2000 was rung in by the new local ringers and since then the bells have been rung regularly for services and special occasions. The original 12 cwt bell, standing in a steel frame and ball bearings, remains in the top stage of the tower and continues to be rung for funerals and to sound the hours every day.
In 2006 broadcaster and author Melvyn Bragg (Lord Bragg of Wigton) who grew up in the town, offered St. Mary’s the gift of three new stained glass windows, not only remembering his relatives past and present but also with a theme of bringing Wigton into the church and showing St. Mary’s as part of the community. Brian Campbell, a well known local artist, was chosen to design the windows and after many meetings with church authorities the designs were approved. Alex Haynes of Albion Glass, Brampton, created the stained glass and the windows were installed on the north side of the nave in July 2009.
Each of the windows is filled with images of the town, the church and its people and the left hand window shows much of the commercial life of Wigton including the auction mart, mill, factory and a street with church. St. Mary’s church tower is the dominant feature in the centre window while the right hand window includes the George Moore fountain, Highmoor Tower, Nelson Tomlinson School, the cenotaph and the Caldbeck fells, and even though the windows are so modern they all contain Christian symbols.
During the first few years of the 21st century it became apparent that the church roof was raining in and wasn’t in a good state of repair. Following meetings with architect Elaine Blackett-Ord it was agreed to apply to English Heritage for grants to help towards the cost of repairs and fund raising began in 2007. The contract was awarded to local firm RMT Slating & Tiling and work on the nave roof was completed first, with completion of the tower roof in 2010.
Since it was built in the late 18th century each generation has contributed in some way to the present church and it’s hoped that those latest roof repairs will keep St. Mary’s waterproof for the forseeable future. It’s a lovely old building with many interesting features and after discovering it while I was doing the Wigton Heritage Trail in September I was glad I was able to look round and uncover some of its history.
After spending a very comfortable, cosy and quiet night in the van (it wasn’t worth putting the tent up just for two nights) the morning of the second day arrived with a mixture of sunshine and showers and grey clouds similar to the previous day so I decided to stay on site for a while and wait to see if things cleared up. By lunch time it was looking a bit more promising so not wanting to waste the day completely I took myself off out, though staying fairly local.
My first stop was Rhuddlan Castle, just over two miles along the road from the camp site and the second castle in King Edward I’s ‘Iron Ring’. At the outbreak of the First War of Welsh Independence Edward had established an advance base at Flint in July 1277 and building work immediately began on the castle, but just one month later he moved his forces to Rhuddlan where construction of his second castle started. Initially under the control of Master Bertram, an engineer from Gascony in France, in 1282 the castle was handed over to master mason James of St. George who transferred from Flint and remained in charge until its completion later that year, four years before Flint Castle was completed.
Although Flint Castle was being built on the coast Rhuddlan was several miles inland so during the castle’s construction Edward conscripted hundreds of ditch diggers to divert and deepen the course of the nearby River Clwyd to enable troops and supplies to reach Rhuddlan by ship if hostile forces or a siege were to prevent overland travel. The castle itself was the first of many concentric ‘walls within walls’ castles and was built as a unique diamond-shaped inner stronghold with twin-towered gatehouses at opposite corners, set inside a ring of lower turreted walls beyond which a new plantation town was created to the north. The half-timbered walls of the inner ward contained a great hall, kitchens, private apartments and a chapel while the outer bailey had a granary, stables and a smithy, with a deep dry moat protecting three sides of the castle and the River Clwyd protecting the fourth.
Edward’s eighth daughter Elizabeth was born at the castle the same year work was completed then two years later, in 1284, the Statute of Rhuddlan was signed following the defeat of Llewellyn the Last, Prince of Wales from 1258, who had attacked the castle unsuccessfully. Ten years later, during the 1294/95 Welsh revolt, the castle was attacked for the second time but it wasn’t taken; it remained in English hands and was one of the places where Richard II stopped in 1399 on his way to Flint Castle. In 1400 the castle was attacked again, this time by the forces of Welsh leader Owain Glydwr, and though it held firm the town was badly damaged. In the latter 15th and early 16th centuries the castle’s strategic and administrative importance waned and because of that its condition gradually began to deteriorate.
During the English Civil War of 1642/51 the castle was garrisoned by Royalist troops and remained a stronghold of King Charles I of England until it was taken by Parliamentary forces under Major General Thomas Mytton after a siege in 1646. Two years later, in accordance with Cromwell’s orders, Parliamentarians partially demolished the castle to prevent any further military use. Over the next century time and the elements took their toll and by 1781 it was mostly a ruin, but more than two centuries later and now managed and maintained by Cadw it still looks like a castle that was worth moving a river for.
To get the shots of the castle from across the river I had to walk down to the nearby main road; the road bridge itself was very narrow with single file traffic controlled by lights but there was a footbridge/cycle way running next to it and across the far side was St. Mary’s Parish Church which I thought may be worth a look. The appropriately named Church Street took me past an attractive row of stone cottages to the church but disappointingly it wasn’t open to the public so I retraced my steps.
Round the corner and set a few feet up from the pavement was an attractive little garden with a wooden sculpture as its centre piece and a bench set in the wall. The Knight’s Sculpture by artist Mike Owens was created in an ambiguous style to represent the medieval history of Rhuddlan; it was carved from 380-year old oak from Nannerch and the larch to make the bench was grown in Rhuddlan by the artist’s own grandfather.
Heading back to the castle car park I came across a rather unexpected surprise. A detached cottage with an ivy covered end wall adjacent to the street, and nestling among the red and green leaves was a name plaque – The Mouse House. It may seem silly but it was such an unexpected find that I felt childishly thrilled that there was a house named after this blog, although in reality the house was probably called that long before I thought of the blog name. I’d love to know who gave the cottage its name and why but unfortunately there was no-one I could ask so it may forever remain a mystery.
From Rhuddlan I drove the few miles down to Abergele and after a quick visit to the local Original Factory Shop – where I didn’t find what I was looking for – I crossed the railway line and parked up overlooking the promenade and beach with the intention of having coffee and a snack in the nearby cafe. Unfortunately the cafe was only serving stuff to take away so I scrapped the snack idea and just got the coffee which I drank in the van while watching the world go by.
While I’d been up at the castle the sky had alternated between patches of bright blue with white clouds and grey clouds all over but down on the coast it was much clearer and getting better by the minute, however while I was having my coffee a sudden brief rain shower arrived and with the sun still shining a lovely, if rather pale, rainbow appeared over the sea.
Coffee finished and takeaway cup duly disposed of in a nearby bin I headed three miles along the coast road, past the many huge static caravan holiday parks of Towyn to the harbour car park near the mouth of the River Clwyd and close to the Harbour Hub cafe and bike shop. A walk back along the road took me past the local yacht club premises to the main road where a left turn led me across the Blue Bridge over the river and another left turn took me towards the new pedestrian/cycle bridge.
The Pont y Ddraig bridge (Dragon’s Bridge) is part of the 15-mile traffic-free cycle route across the counties of Conwy and Denbighshire and was opened on October 22nd 2013 by Welsh cyclist and London 2012 Paralympic Champion Mark Colbourne MBE, with the name having been suggested by a local pupil in a schools’ competition. Technically a modern version of a medieval drawbridge, the central mast is 45 metres high while the bridge deck is 32 metres long and made of polymers reinforced with glass fibre. The underside is illuminated at night by lights which change colour and both sections are designed to be raised from the central tower with the mechanism being controlled from the nearby harbour office.
Just to the right of the bridge entrance was a bench and three not-quite-life-size local figures. Chosen for their individual contributions to the life of the community were Sir John Houghton, the Nobel prize winning climate scientist, musician Mike Peters, lead singer of rock band The Alarm and founder of the Love Hope Strength cancer charity, and Rhyl FC’s Don Spendlove, who achieved a record of 629 goals during the 1940s and 50s; all have been immortalised in the metal artwork but I have to admit I’ve never heard of any of them.
Across the bridge and a right turn took me almost immediately onto the oddly-named Horton’s Nose nature reserve, a small area of sand dunes and beach on the spit of land between the river mouth and the sea. The tide had gone out quite a distance, leaving a fascinating expanse of ridged and patterned sand interspersed with shallow pools, and out near the water’s edge were literally hundreds of seagulls, far too many to count – I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many seagulls on a beach before. Through the dunes a boardwalk took me onto a tarmac path running past the back of a caravan park and a boatyard and a few minutes later I was back at the harbour car park.
The weather had turned out so nice that while I was doing this circular walk I contemplated doing a second one, a circuit of the nearby Marine Lake, but at gone 5pm I was already losing the best of the sunshine so I put that one on hold for another time and headed back to the camp site – and being the only person there I was certainly guaranteed another very quiet night.
A Saturday morning in late October saw me heading off to North Wales for a 2-night mini camping break though this time I was on a mission, making a long overdue visit to Eileen, a special blogging friend. My usual route into North Wales would be down the A55 but there were a couple of places I wanted to stop off at on the way, the first one being Flint Castle, so I took the A548 coast road instead. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t exactly brilliant, it was dull with some very dark clouds in places though the sun did make a few brief appearances so I kept my fingers crossed that it wouldn’t rain on me while I was looking round the castle.
Flint was the first castle in what would later become known as King Edward I’s ‘Iron Ring’, a chain of fortresses designed to encircle North Wales and oppress the Welsh. The site was chosen for its strategic position just one day’s march from the walled English city of Chester, and being on the western shore of the River Dee estuary supplies could be brought to the castle by sea or along the river itself. Building work started in 1277 using millstone grit, ashlar and sandstone then in November 1280 master mason James of St. George, from the Savoy region of France, was brought in to oversee and accelerate the initially very slow construction pace; he remained at Flint for 17 months before moving on to oversee the completion of Rhuddlan Castle in the neighbouring county of Denbighshire.
It took a total of 1,800 labourers and masons nine years to build Flint Castle and when work ended in 1286 it had an inner ward and an outer bailey separated by a tidal moat but connected by a drawbridge and gatehouse. The inner ward had three large towers while a detached keep with walls 23ft thick protected the inner gatehouse and outer bailey, beyond which a plantation town was laid out. The design of the castle was based on medieval French models and as it was never repeated in any other castle built by Edward it remains unique within the British Isles.
During the 1294/95 Welsh revolt against English rule Flint was attacked and the constable of the castle was forced to set fire to the fortress to prevent its capture by the Welsh, though it was eventually repaired and partly rebuilt. In 1399 it became the location of a turning point in history when Edward’s great, great grandson Richard II came face-to-face with his cousin and rival to the crown Henry Bolingbroke. Richard was captured and escorted by Henry to London, where he abdicated the throne and King Henry IV’s reign began. Richard later died in captivity and two centuries on his sad fate was forever immortalised in the words of Shakespeare’s play Richard II.
During the English Civil War of the mid 17th century Flint Castle was held by the Royalists but was finally captured by the Parliamentarians in 1647 after a three-month siege, then to prevent it being reused in the conflict it was destroyed in accordance with Cromwell’s orders. It was never rebuilt and the ruins are those which remain today.
Most parts of the castle, including the isolated keep, are accessible to the public, and I was quite surprised to see that since my previous visit there four years ago a spiral staircase had been added to the centre of the north east tower. It was just begging to be climbed up but I couldn’t do it with the dogs so I had to leave them back in the van for a short while.
Since 1919 the castle has been managed as a public monument and is maintained by Cadw, the Welsh-government body which protects, conserves and promotes the heritage buildings of Wales. It’s an interesting place and I actually spent longer in there than I intended so I abandoned my plan to go elsewhere and headed straight for Eileen’s. Unfortunately Sod’s Law decreed that I should be delayed for a while by roadworks and single file traffic on the outskirts of Prestatyn but I got there in the end even if I was a bit later than I intended. It was really good to see Eileen, her hubby and new little dog Tilly and I spent well over two hours in their company but eventually it was time to head off to the camp site just a few miles away – and the camp site itself is a story on its own.
Going home day arrived with more blue sky and glorious sunshine making me wish I could extend my holiday but unfortunately all good things have to end sometime. After a leisurely breakfast I started on the even more leisurely packing up process and eventually left the site at 2.30pm, though as a final part of the holiday I was stopping off somewhere on the way home.
The village of Greystoke, just five miles west of Penrith, was featured in my ”111 Places” book and it sounded interesting enough for me to want to take a look, though when I got there I was disappointed to find that the castle isn’t open to the public. Surrounding a small green with an ancient market cross dating back to the early 1600s the village was a very pleasant mix of old stone cottages and more modern houses, with a small shop-cum-post office, an outdoor swimming pool, St. Andrew’s Parish Church and the Boot & Shoe public house, while on the outskirts were racehorse trainer Nicky Richards’ racing stables, breeders of two Grand National winners in 1978 and 1984 respectively.
Greystoke Castle began life as a timber pele tower built by Llyulph de Greystoke. After the Norman conquest it was replaced in 1069 with a stone built tower then in 1346 King Edward III gave permission for the building to be castellated, resulting in the creation of the castle proper. In the early 16th century the Greystokes married into the wealthy Dacre family and in the 1560s Thomas Howard, the 4th Duke of Norfolk, met and secretly married widow Elizabeth Dacre who had inherited the castle and its land on the death of her husband Thomas, 4th Baron Dacre/Baron Greystoke. With Thomas Howard’s three sons marrying Elizabeth’s three daughters the castle and its estate passed into the hands of the Dukes of Norfolk and the subsequent Howard family.
In 1660 the castle was destroyed by Cromwell and lay dormant for a generation, with a small manor house being built on the site from reclaimed stone. The castle was later rebuilt and enlarged in the 1840s to a design by renowned Victorian architect Anthony Salvin and the extensive estate land was converted into a modern farm. In 1868 a disaster occurred when a maid left a lighted candle in a cupboard full of linen, with the resulting fire destroying large parts of the castle. It was then rebuilt by Henry Howard, with Salvin being brought in to oversee the reconstruction using labour and materials from within the estate. Henry even returned some money to his insurance company saying that he had been over-compensated for his losses.
In 1912 author Edgar Rice Burroughs, who was a regular visitor to Greystoke Castle, wrote Tarzan of theApes using the little-known place as Tarzan’s ancestral home, though the work was purely fiction as all previous 18 generations of the Greystoke family had been accounted for and none of them were ever raised by apes in the jungles of Africa. In 1939 the estate was commandeered by the army and the land became a tank-drivers’ training ground, while the castle itself later became a prisoner-of-war camp largely for Polish men who had been fighting for the Germans, with the prisoners providing labour to run local farms where the men-folk were away fighting.
In 1949 the army decided that it no longer wanted to retain the Greystoke estate but by that time the damage done to the castle and the estate itself was overwhelming and the compensation fund had been exhausted. So began the long slow process of restoration and modernisation, started by Stafford Howard and which has continued in some form ever since. Of course a castle isn’t a castle without an obligatory ghost or two and Greystoke supposedly has nine, including the statutory white lady, a monk who was bricked up within the walls and a butler who likes to play tricks on people down in the wine cellar where he drowned in a huge barrel of the stuff.
Fourteen generations of the Howard family have lived in the castle so far, with the current owner being Neville Howard, and though the place isn’t open to the general public residents of the village are allowed to walk in the parkland and the grounds can be hired for charity events, concerts and off-road driver training, especially for mountain rescue teams, while some of the rooms in the castle can be hired for conferences, civil weddings and receptions.
Under the pretence of being a resident I decided to take a walk up the long driveway to see if I could get within photo distance of the castle, and not too far along was an extensive garden with several colourful beehives dotted about among the trees and bushes. Another couple of minutes and I was within sight of the castle but I could see a couple of people up ahead so not wanting to be noticed I took a quick shot from the safety of some nearby foliage then retreated back down the driveway to the road.
Across the other side of the village green was The Boot & Shoe Inn, originally an old coach house dating from 1511. According to my ‘111 Places’ book a very informative board describing the history of the village could be found on the way into the pub garden but though I looked all over I couldn’t find it anywhere. The large courtyard garden was very attractive though, with tables and seating on paved terraces and a raised grass area at the end with a couple of 3D murals between the trees.
Across the road from the pub was the village shop and post office while round the corner was the outdoor pool and small cafe, both now closed, and at the far end of the street St. Andrew’s Church. It was open to visitors so I spent quite a while looking round, though there was so much of interest it deserves a future post of its own.
Making the church the last stop on my walk round the village I headed back to the car park; time was getting on and I didn’t want to be too late back home. With no traffic delays on the roads it was a good drive back and the sun staying with me all the way made the perfect end to another enjoyable Cumbrian holiday.
A day where I go looking for a new tv and find a lovely church….
After the sunshine of the previous day the second morning arrived cloudy and grey though still very warm. Activities around the farm started just after 8am and when I took Snowy and Poppie for their morning walk I found a large agricultural wood chipper making short work of a gigantic pile of tree trunks, with a couple of tractors and trailers running in relay taking the chippings up to the big barn at the top of the farm track.
The grey sky and low cloud seemed to be fairly widespread with no sign of clearing so I decided to stay on site, read a few chapters of my book and maybe indulge in a bit of daytime tv, something which I rarely do at home, however the tv itself had other ideas. As I moved it round to avoid the light reflection from the tent window the aerial connector came out of the back of the set and when I looked the connection port itself had broken off inside the set and there was no way of fixing it myself.
Later information from the site owner told me that there was a tv repair shop in Wigton, about 12 miles away; I’d been intending to visit the town at some point during the holiday anyway as I wanted to check out the heritage trail so it seemed like this day was as good as any even if the weather was still dull. I found the tv repair shop with no problem and while the tv could probably have been fixed it couldn’t be done for a week or so and the cost of the repair could possibly be more than the small 24″ set was worth. It looked like I would have to search out a new one from somewhere but not before I’d had a walk round the heritage trail.
Starting from where I left the van the first building I came to was St. Mary’s Church. It dates from the late 1700s and was modelled on St. Michael’s in Workington, though I’m saving any other details for another time as it really deserves a post of its own. In front of the church, between the building and the road, was the old cobbled Corn Market, while on the south side was a row of traditional Georgian cottages built in the 1700s. On the north side was a row of cottages known as the Widows’ Hospital, built in 1723 following a bequest from the Rev John Thomlinson, Rector of Rothbury, for the widows of six Protestant clergymen from across the county of Cumberland.
Along the road and across on the other side was Wigton Methodist Church, built in 1883 and modernised inside in 2005, then back past St. Mary’s I came to Market Place and the George Moore Memorial. Built in 1872 and dedicated to Moore’s first wife Eliza Ray each of the four sides features a sculpture by the pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner, showing scenes of the Acts of Mercy with Eliza’s face above each one.
Across from the memorial was the former Kings Arms Hotel, originally a coaching inn where authors Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins stayed while on their Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices during the wet winter of 1857. Apparently they didn’t enjoy the town very much as Collins had previously fallen on Carrock Fell and twisted his ankle. The hotel was renovated in 1987 and when the wallpaper was stripped off it was found that Dickens had put his autograph on one of the walls.
Along the road to the left of Market Place was the Hare & Hounds, a pub and former shop which is now just one property. Built in the late 17th/early 18th century it’s one of the oldest pubs in Wigton and has been Grade ll listed since November 1984.
Back past the George Moore Memorial and down Station Road I came to the John Peel Theatre, built in 1884/85 as a barracks for the town’s Salvation Army corps. Wigton Theatre Club was formed in September 1952 by the head of Wigton Secondary School and the members spent the first ten years putting on plays, usually four each year, in the school hall, then in the Parish Rooms. In 1964 Redmayne’s Bespoke Tailors bought the barracks from the Salvation Army and rented the building to the theatre club, giving them substantial help in converting it into a theatre which was named after the John Peel of the well known song, then when the land around it was to be redeveloped in 1988 the club purchased the building in order to ensure its continued use as a theatre.
Round the corner from the theatre and on the way to the next building on the trail I came to a short alley leading to a couple of houses with unexpectedly pretty gardens. They weren’t connected in any way to the Heritage Trail but they looked so bright on such a dull day that I couldn’t resist taking a couple of photos.
The next building on the trail was the premises of Wilkinson Joinery on the site of the Old Corn Mill. Part of a 1775 rebuild of a much older building the current building served as a water-powered mill until the late 1920s; on the side wall are three original mill stones and a bronze plaque detailing the building’s history.
Across from the joinery place was a cottage with a large mural painted along its gable end wall. Steps at the side of its boundary wall led up to an open alleyway where part of the wall had been replaced by glass panels giving a view of the mural. It obviously depicts life in the past but so far I’ve been unable to find out what it signifies and why it’s there; it isn’t even mentioned in the heritage trail brochure.
At the end of the alleyway, which was quaintly named Birdcage Walk, I came to two more buildings with murals on their walls. Now home to the Free 4 All environmental charity they had once been part of the Old Cotton Mill, buildings which originally housed workers from the town’s thriving cotton industry in the 18th century.
At one corner of the car park where I’d left the van I came across The Pump and The Lamp. Originally situated in Market Place they had replaced a cross with a bell which was rung on each market day but which had burned down during a bonfire to celebrate Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar in 1805. The Pump and Lamp stayed in Market Place until 1872 when they were taken down to make way for the George Moore Memorial; after being stored for many years they were re-erected in their current spot in 1998. Heading back to the van my final shot, which had nothing to do with the heritage trail, was of a brightly coloured mural in an alleyway between the car park and one of the main streets.
There were actually 22 points of interest on the heritage trail but I didn’t photograph all of them as many of them now bear no resemblance to what they once were – while they may each have a bit of interesting information attached to them I don’t think shop fronts and takeaway places look particularly exciting.
Having spent quite some time walking round the heritage trail, and with no sign of the cloudy grey sky giving way to any sunshine, I decided to abandon my quest to find a new tv and return to the camp site. I could still watch a dvd if I wanted to and I had a couple of books to read so my tv search would continue another day.
While I was on my 2-week stay-cation last September, and on one of the area’s Heritage Open Days, I visited St. Augustine’s Church in Pendlebury, eight miles from home and an easy 20-minute drive heading towards Manchester. I’d never been there before but it had come to my attention the previous day and it sounded interesting so off I went.
Known locally as the ‘Miners’ Cathedral’ because of its vast cathedral-like proportions and its location in the heart of a one-time coal mining community St. Augustine’s came into being thanks to the generosity of one man, Edward Stanley Heywood, one of the family of Heywood Brothers who were influential Manchester bankers. Situated about five miles from the centre of Manchester the church was designed in 1870 by architect George Frederick Bodley (1827-1907) assisted by Thomas Garner, and construction started in 1871 with the foundation stone being laid in September that year. The completed building was consecrated in May 1874 and the total cost including decoration and furnishings was borne by Heywood himself. The church’s first vicar was Heywood’s brother-in-law Dr. Alfred Dewes who devoted his life to St. Augustine’s and remained there until his death in 1911.
George Frederick Bodley served as an apprentice architect for five years then at the age of 23 set up his own practice in 1850, eventually setting up a partnership with Thomas Garner in 1869, and it was during the later years of the 19th century that some of his finest churches were built. In designing St. Augustine’s Bodley had also designed a bell tower which was to be a free-standing structure linked to the church on the south side and standing higher than the main roof, but the ambitious project to build a church of cathedral proportions was extremely expensive and as Heywood considered the bell tower wasn’t essential the plan was abandoned and the money was used to provide a vicarage, school and gatehouse. The church itself was built of red brick, with a clay tiled roof and dressed stone for the windows and doorways, and the building’s dimensions measured 160ft long from east to west, 50ft wide and 80ft 2ins high at the ridge of the roof.
Above the main west doorway three niches contain the statues of St. Augustine flanked by the Angel Gabriel on the left and the Blessed Virgin Mary on the right, and high in the wall below the apex of the roof is a recess housing the single church bell. Above the porch doorway on the south west corner, which was originally the main entrance, are another three niches housing statues, with the centre one being Our Lord with his hand raised to bless those entering the church, and at each side are the carved 1874 date stones.
Below the window in the east wall is a memorial showing the Risen Christ and commemorating the 178 men and boys, the youngest only 13 years old, who lost their lives in a devastating underground explosion at the Clifton Hall Colliery on June 18th 1885; the bodies of the victims were buried in the grounds of several local churches with 64 of them being interred at St. Augustine’s. The churchyard also contains the war graves of twelve service personnel from WW1 and four from WW2 and is a favourite spot for tortoiseshell butterflies who continue to make the grounds their home.
Before opening for public worship it was Bodley’s express wish that St. Augustine’s was provided with chairs for the congregation rather than pews. This was not only from an appearance point of view but also to prevent the system of paid pew rents whereby the wealthy could have exclusive use of a particular pew for themselves, their family and friends. This system in other churches had often discouraged the poor from attending services as they could find themselves having to either stand up or sit on cold bare floors; there are seven rows of pews towards the front of the nave but these were later additions.
At the north west corner of the nave is the octagonal font, standing two steps above floor level. Each of its eight sides has an arched recess containing a shield, with four of the shields bearing the IHS monogram while the others have roses and fleur-de-lys. The font cover is a finely crafted piece of woodcarving and has a traceried lower section with three tiers above and an angel at the top.
High up on eight of the internal buttresses in the nave are a series of elaborately carved and gilded frames containing paintings depicting several saints, and of these eight the front two on each side of the nave have been restored. The four on the north wall are saints Paul, Peter, Gregory and Augustine while those on the south wall are the Venerable Bede and saints Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine of Hippo; unfortunately bright sunlight shining on the paintings of Gregory and Augustine made them difficult to photograph successfully so I only got six out of the eight.
The square pulpit is carved in the 16th century style with ‘linen fold’ panelling on the three sides. A later addition was a shell-shaped ‘sounding board’ suspended above it from an iron bracket, this was to project the speaker’s voice into the nave; in 1929 it was described by a writer (unknown) as “an American contraption – very effective but also very ugly”. Church records show that it was installed during Bodley’s lifetime and it was known that its appearance reduced him to tears; fast forward to 1996 and it was removed after extensive consultations with everyone concerned.
Spaced at intervals along the walls of the nave and continuing into the north and south choir isles are a series of carved wooden plaques, possibly later additions, telling the story of the Crucifiction; I photographed them all but there were far too many to include them all on here so I’ve selected just two.
Dividing the nave from the chancel is the oak rood screen, an elaborately carved design of Bodley’s with a wide central arch and six open sections with delicate tracery, surmounted by the base of the (incomplete) rood loft forming a deep canopy to the screen itself. Just in front and above the screen on the north side of the nave is the organ loft with its richly coloured and gilded organ case, again designed and crafted by Bodley; the organ itself was originally built by Brindley & Foster of Sheffield, later rebuilt with pneumatic action by Ernest Wadsworth & Co of Manchester then rebuilt with a detached console in the mid 1990s.
The doorway to the organ loft is on the opposite side of the nave to the organ and the door itself has large hinges depicting leaves and acorns, another example of Bodley’s meticulous attention to detail. Before the organ was rebuilt in the 1990s access to the console was gained by walking across the top of the rood screen, hazardous enough but made worse with the installation of a bank of heating pipes covering most of the canopy top. Although very effective in combating the cold down-draught they also prevented the use of the safety handrail, making the journey to the console doubly perilous, although a certain Dorothy Morris, St. Augustine’s organist for over 30 years, regularly made the hair-raising journey until she was well into her eighties.
On both sides of the chancel the ends of the rear choir stalls incorporate ten carved creatures, five on each side, and include a cockerel, a dog, and several mythological beasts. In the north choir isle behind the stalls is a small shrine while in the south choir isle is a permanent Lady Chapel with its own altar and seating for eight people, both created in the mid 1990s. The richly painted chancel ceiling was restored and repainted in 1971 but some later damage to the external roof resulted in water ingress which caused the paint to peel in several places, which seemingly hasn’t so far been rectified.
Bordered by gold vine leaf trail and completed with gilded cresting at the top the huge reredos fills the centre of the east wall while at each side the wall is lined with ‘linen fold’ oak panelling. The reredos itself is made up of 19 compartments containing a series of richly coloured paintings; each compartment has a traceried canopy and parts of some of the paintings are in relief. On the shelf at the bottom are six large candlesticks, four of which were dedicated in 1930; made in Milan they are copies of some 300-year old candlesticks situated where St. Peter’s Chair stands in Rome.
The design of the windows was closely supervised by Bodley, with the stained glass being done by Burlison & Grylls, a partnership set up in 1868 with the encouragement of Bodley himself and Thomas Garner. By the 1890s Burlison & Grylls was one of the most highly regarded stained glass firms in the country; thousands of their windows appeared in churches throughout Britain, with their most spectacular being the large rose window installed in 1902 in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey.
Bodley’s opinion was that much of the stained glass of his period was spoiled by having too great a variety of colours so for St. Augustine’s he chose colour schemes to provide each window with just one dominant colour. The windows themselves are set high in the church walls, with their bases some 16 feet above floor level, and being so high it was impossible to get good clear shots of them; apparently the only way to fully appreciate the detail in each window is through binoculars.
Tucked in the south west corner of the nave and near the south porch door is a very small single window depicting the entrance of St. Augustine into Canterbury, and with the addition of a votive candle stand in 1996 this corner has become the Shrine of St. Augustine. Most of Bodley’s original furnishings and adornments remain largely unchanged and any alterations or additions which have been made over the years are very few.
George Frederick Bodley was a remarkable man. Architect, poet, musician and deeply religious he was remembered for his courtesy, his gentle personality and his amazing memory for detail – many years after visiting other churches he could still sit down and accurately draw detailed sketches of them. Pendlebury has changed greatly since 1874 and its generations have changed with it but St. Augustine’s remains in regular use, still standing at the heart of the community and a testament to the most accomplished and refined architect who designed and created it.
After seeing some photos a while ago showing part of the ornate interior of Morecambe’s Winter Gardens theatre I decided I just had to see this place for myself so during my 2-week staycation in September I booked a place on a ‘behind the scenes’ guided tour; unfortunately dogs weren’t allowed on the tour so this was one occasion when I had to leave Poppie at home.
The Morecambe Baths and Winter Gardens Company was formed in 1876 by a consortium of businessmen from Bradford who developed an unoccupied piece of land on the sea front into a site for new public swimming baths, surrounded by the gardens which gave the Winter Gardens complex its name. In 1877 a proposal was made for three restaurants to be erected next to the baths – a first and second class restaurant and behind them a third class restaurant for ‘excursionists’ who would, for a payment of 2d, be able to enter without being required to buy anything. There was also to be a 30ft long grand aquarium with fish, ferneries, fountains and plants, a ballroom and a fine arts gallery, and the complex opened in June 1878.
As a later extension to the existing Winter Gardens complex the Victoria Pavilion Concert Hall and Variety Theatre was built at a cost of nearly £100,000, opening its doors to the public in July 1897. It was designed by Mangnall & Littlewood of Manchester, with noted theatre architect Frank Matcham as consultant. Interiors were by Dean and Co and the tiling which covered the walls and ceiling of the lavish foyer was by Burmantoft of Leeds. With its audience capacity of 2,500 the theatre was one of the largest concert halls in the North West and quickly became known as the Albert Hall of the North; over the years it was the home of the internationally renowned Morecambe Music Festival and played host to Sir Edward Elgar, the Halle Orchestra and many other well known performers from variety, music and theatre.
In the 1950s the Winter Gardens were taken over by Moss Empires, the largest UK chain of variety theatres and music halls. By the mid-1970s however, the theatre’s fortunes were in decline and in 1977 the decision was taken to close the whole complex, culminating in the demolition of the original Winter Gardens in 1982, leaving only the theatre remaining and with an uncertain future. In 1986 the Friends of the Winter Gardens group was formed to represent the interests of the building, campaigning for its restoration and preservation, then in 2006 the Friends formed a charitable trust company, The Morecambe Winter Gardens Preservation Trust (Ltd) to purchase the theatre. The years since then have been spent in cleaning, repairing and restoring various parts of the building and fundraising to enable the ongoing and never ending work to continue.
The tour was limited to a group of five visitors plus the guide and started off from the front of the auditorium, where visitors can pop in for coffee and a bite to eat accompanied by music from the resident organist. The auditorium has a roof span of 118ft and a height of 65ft and is still one of the largest in the country; the fibrous plaster ornamental ceiling is hung from a skeleton of girders originally supplied by the Widnes Foundry and is a masterpiece of Victorian engineering.
Up a short flight of steps and through a door on the left of the auditorium the guide led the group along various passageways and up and down different stairs, stopping in different rooms to point out various interesting features. It was actually quite difficult taking photos and absorbing all the information and history at the same time, with hindsight I should have taken a notebook and pen to jot things down.
While the auditorium itself looked fairly decent the same couldn’t be said for behind the scenes. Almost everywhere I looked there were signs of the deterioration and delapidation which the theatre had fallen into over the years; with holes in ceilings, flaking plaster and bare brickwork in many places it was going to take a lot of man hours and many years to restore the theatre to its former glory.
Originally reserved for the highest priced tickets the Grand Circle is currently undergoing restoration and was out of bounds, with viewing only allowed on a tour with an experienced guide. From the centre of the circle shallow steps led up through double doors to a long and wide corridor which would once have been a very pleasant carpeted seating area with a bar and toilets at each end. With tall wide windows along its length there were good views over the promenade to the South Lakeland hills across the bay.
Back in 1982, five years after the theatre closed its doors to the public, several hundred seats were removed from the Grand Circle and sold on, with the later presumption that many had been sent to Australia and would therefore be lost for ever, however in 2019 the Winter Gardens trustees were contacted by the Theatre Trust with the news that more than 400 of the seats had been listed for sale on an online auction site and were actually only 35 miles away in the Leyland Masonic Hall. After confirmation that the seats had originally belonged to the Winter Gardens the owners cancelled the auction and offered them back to the theatre trustees who launched a seat sponsorship campaign to raise funds towards their purchase. Behind what was once the Grand Circle’s bar area were two unrestored rooms full of these seats, well covered for protection but with just a couple on show as part of the tour.
Down a few stairs and along a short passageway was the double-sided staircase leading to the Upper Circle, known in theatrical terms as ‘The Gods’. This was reserved for the cheap seats, with the original bench seating only being replaced by the current folding seats in 1953, though the walls, floor and ceiling of the staircase were just as ornate as those down below.
On a side wall close to the top of the stairs and just inside the door to the Upper Circle itself was a small folding wooden seat, this was where the usherette would sit while on duty. Unfortunately the dizzying height of the top row of seats was out of bounds but I was able to get a detailed look at the ornate ceiling and the top of the highly decorated two-tier boxes at the side of the stage.
Back down at Grand Circle level I was able to look in one of the upper boxes with its once-lavish curtains and decor. Being set at an angle it mostly looked out over the auditorium and the view of the stage was very limited unless you craned your neck, but back in the day (and maybe still today) private boxes were really all for show – if you could afford the expense of a private box then you were considered to be ‘somebody’.
Having already looked in the general dressing room, which was very spartan and basic, down at stage level was the star’s dressing room though even that wasn’t particularly lavish. Then it was onto the stage itself with its huge steel safety curtain raised above; I didn’t quite catch all the writing with the camera but right in the very top left corner of the curtain and difficult to see was the signature of a little-known comedian and the words “Archie Ore died here autumn 1974”. Presumably he was the warm-up for a more well-known act but he mustn’t have been very good if the stage crew didn’t want him back.
The tour ended where it began, at the front of the auditorium, and as I made my way back towards the entrance I took my last few shots of the stairs to the Grand Circle and some of the features in the foyer before emerging from the dim light of the theatre into the bright afternoon sunshine.
The tour had been extremely interesting and standing on the stage itself looking out into the auditorium had brought back memories of my own days in local theatre many years ago. I’d done it all, from painting scenery flats and sourcing props to makeup, lighting, costumes, special effects, providing animal ‘actors’, singing, dancing and acting, and standing there I could almost get a whiff of the distinctive smell of greasepaint.
The theatre tours ended on the last weekend in October but I enjoyed that one so much that I’ll certainly go on another one sometime next year – and next time I’ll take a notebook with me to jot down all the interesting information.
Corporation Park covers an area of 44.5 acres and is situated on a very steep hill about quarter of a mile north west of Blackburn town centre. I’d never previously been there until the day last month when I went in search of the Colourfields panopticon and though I felt distinctly underwhelmed with Colourfields itself I was quite impressed with the park as a whole, so my Monday walk this week features many of the photos I took while wandering round there.
The park area was once a quarry known as Park Delph, containing large areas of millstone grit which was used for building the majority of Blackburn’s churches and cotton mills. The first steps towards establishing a park were taken in 1845 when money was raised towards the purchase of the land which was secured ten years later in 1855 by the then Mayor of Blackburn, Thomas Dugdale. Work started that same year with landscaping done by William Henderson and the building of the Triumphal Arch and its east and west gatehouses as the main entrance on the southern edge of the park.
In 1857 three of the park’s four fountains, including the largest one situated by the main entrance, were built and paid for by Mayor William Pilkington and two Russian cannons which had been captured from Sevastopol during the Crimean War and presented to the town by the then Secretary of War were mounted on a stone-faced battery at the top of the park, which is where the Colourfields panopticon is now situated.
The grand opening of the park was performed on October 22nd 1857; shops in the town were closed and factory bosses gave their employees leave to attend the event. Mayor William Pilkington led a procession from the town hall and the Sevastopol cannons were fired as part of the celebrations. An estimated 60,000 people were in attendance with 14,000 of them having arrived by train – paths were overcrowded and there were thousands of people outside the park. Four years later the park was the scene of another massive gathering when eleven brass bands performed on the upper terrace in 1861 and more than 50,000 people congregated to listen.
Although the park itself has no dedicated car parking area there’s plenty of free parking available on the roads at each side so I left the van on the east side and went back down the hill to start my walk from the main entrance. Just inside the arch and on the left was the war memorial and Garden of Remembrance, originally laid out in 1922/23 but refurbished and updated over the years. On the right of the arch was the large ornamental fountain originally powered by gravity and with a water jet shooting 75ft into the air. After being in continuous operation since 1857 it was turned off in 1905, partly due to the nuisance caused by spray drifting from the water jet and also the £30 annual cost of maintaining it and the other three fountains.
Heading northwards up the steep main path I came to the statue of Flora, the Roman Goddess of flowers and spring. Created by Thomas Allen of Liverpool, who moved to the town in 1870, it was presented to the park by T H Fairhurst in 1871. Unfortunately the statue hasn’t survived through the years completely unscathed; in a 1952 act of vandalism the bun at the back of Flora’s head was knocked off and she sustained a chip out of one shoulder after being knocked off her pedestal, then in 1960 she was attacked with paint in a protest against apartheid in South Africa.
Close to the statue was a pretty cascade flowing down from the large lake above. Known locally as the ‘Big Can’ the lake was formed from a pre-existing reservoir created in 1772 and which served as the town’s water supply until the installation of the water mains in 1847. Just to the west was a much smaller lake with a restored fountain in the centre, and both lakes are home to several species of waterfowl including ducks, swans and moorhens. South of the lakes was an open area where a bandstand was erected in 1880; it was replaced by a larger model in 1909 but this was dismantled in 1941 and along with various gates and railings the iron was used as salvage towards the war effort.
From the smaller lake the path veered westwards and I emerged through a small copse to a wide expanse of lawn and the Victorian Palm House, commonly called The Conservatory, up a double flight of steps ahead of me. Supplied by W Richardson & Sons of Darlington and built of cast iron it was opened in 1902 and has a double height atrium for exotic palms and plants with a single height wing on each side for more northern fauna. With its ornate ironwork it would once have been a beautiful building but unfortunately time, neglect, bad weather, continued vandalism and council cutbacks have all taken their toll; it’s been closed to the public for quite some time and after part of the roof collapsed during a storm in 2019 it was deemed unsafe so had security fencing erected all round it.
In 1950 a timber aviary was built close to the west side of the conservatory then in 1958 it was replaced with a better and more permanent structure. It’s still inhabited by a handful of small birds but looked rather worse for wear and was nothing to write home about so I didn’t bother taking any photos of it, then heading east past the conservatory I came to the Italian gardens with a wide path and steps leading between two lawned areas to the Broad Walk.
The Broad Walk was laid out during 1863/64 as part of park improvements undertaken by local unemployed cotton mill workers during the depression known as the Lancashire Cotton Famine. The path, which runs east to west across the width of the park, was paved with stone taken from the upper slopes and a row of lime trees (I’ve been informed there are 72 of them) was planted on the southern edge. According to the Blackburn Times newspaper in 1936 ‘crowds of young men and maidens would walk four or five abreast, promenading from end to end between 3 o’clock and 4.30 in the afternoon’.
From the Broad Walk several paths and steps climb between rocky outcrops and lead up the steeply sloping land to the top level of the park where a wider path runs east to west. Along the path was the Colourfields panopticon sited on the old cannon battery which is 213m above sea level compared to the park’s main entrance at just 130m. At the east end were several tennis courts dating from the early 20th century and terraced into the hillside, with a small pavilion dating from 1921. Unfortunately they all looked rather unkempt and unused though a modern children’s cycle track situated nearby did look quite pleasant.
In the 1960s a children’s play area and paddling pool were added to the park then in 1974 the park itself and its adjacent residential streets were designated a conservation area; in 1996 this was extended to the south and the park was given a Grade ll listing by English Heritage on the register of Parks and Gardens. In 1999 a Historical Restoration Management Plan was submitted to the Heritage Lottery Fund and in the years since then many improvements and refurbishments have taken place.
After eventually finding the Colourfields panopticon (and in some ways wishing I hadn’t bothered) I made my way back down through the park via various steps and pathways, taking general photos as I went and ending up back at the main entrance where a large bed of brightly coloured flowers at each side of the arch attracted several butterflies.
When my mum was young she lived in Blackburn and would often go to Corporation Park when she was a child; sadly she’s no longer here but I do wonder what she would think of it now compared to how it was back then. Admittedly a couple of areas do look a little shabby but on the whole it’s a lovely place so a return visit another time is definitely on my list.
The life of Southport pier began in 1859 when the Southport Pier Company was formed with a capital of £12,000 in March, with construction work starting in August that year. Designed by James Brunlee, a Scottish civil engineer, the pier took a year to complete with the final cost being in the region of £8,700, the equivalent of just over a million pounds at today’s prices. The pier’s primary purpose was to be a promenade rather than a sole place for ships to dock; it was considered to be the country’s first iron-constructed pleasure pier, the second longest after Southend pier and was opened with fireworks and a grand procession on August 2nd 1860.
During the pier’s first few years waiting rooms for boat passengers were added and by 1865 a cable-operated tramway had been installed. In 1868 the pier was extended from its original 3,600ft length to 4,380ft and was used by various steam packet ships with services operating to resorts including Fleetwood and Llandudno. Visitors to the pier originally had to pay a toll of 6d (2.5p) priced deliberately high so only the most affluent people could go there, but with an increase of working class visitors during the 1870s the toll was reduced to 2d.
In September 1897 a fire destroyed the pier’s original pavilion; its replacement was opened in January 1902 and with the inclusion of an auditorium it was considered to be grander than the original. In 1905 the tramway was electrified and from 1906 the new pavilion was leased to a variety of entertainers including Charlie Chaplin and comedian/singer/music hall performer George Robey, then following WW1 it was renamed The Casino with its main attraction being dancing.
By the early 1920s silting up of the water channel towards the landward end of the pier led to extensive land reclamation but this made it difficult for steamer ships to dock so the service ended completely in 1929, then in 1933 a large fire in July that year destroyed the pier head. The cost to put right the damage was estimated to be £6,000 – almost £433,000 today – which was unaffordable to the Southport Pier Company so in 1936 the pier was sold to Southport Corporation for almost £35,000, or nearly £2.5 million today, and during repairs the tramway rolling stock was rebuilt.
During WW2 the pier was closed to the public while it housed and operated the searchlights used to detect enemy aircraft en route to Liverpool docks and it didn’t reopen until 1950. By then the tram line had been moved from its central position to the side of the pier and the track gauge had been changed, with new diesel trains known as ‘Silver Belle’ running from 1954, then in 1959 another significant fire destroyed 5,000 sq ft of decking, reducing the pier’s length to the now present day 3,633 ft.
In 1973 the ‘Silver Belle’ trains were replaced with ‘English Rose’ trains and in 1974 the newly formed Sefton Council acquired ownership of the pier but in spite of being in a state of deterioration it was designated as a Grade ll listed structure in August 1975. Deterioration continued through the years with a storm in 1989 causing extensive damage; due to the rising cost of repairs and maintenance, and in spite of its listed status, Sefton Council sought to demolish the pier in December 1990 but the proposal was defeated by a single vote.
After operating at a loss for several years and with unaffordable upkeep costs, a charitable trust was formed in 1993 to maintain the pier’s operation but in 1997 a structural survey confirmed its poor condition and recommended its closure. After receiving a grant of £1.7 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund restoration work started in 2000 and was completed in 2002 with the pier reopening to the public in May that year. The modern pavilion structure at the pier head was designed by Liverpool architects Shed KM and houses a cafe with airport-style floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the beach and a ‘penny arcade’ with a collection of vintage amusement machines using pre-decimal old pennies which can be bought on site at £1 for ten.
The 2000/2002 pier restoration also provided a new 3ft 6ins narrow gauge tram track running along the centre of the widened deck and in August 2005 a new twin-section battery powered articulated tram started operating, running a half-hourly service from each end of the pier every day except Christmas Day. In July 2013, following the discovery of cracks in the supporting columns, the tram service was suspended, then due to rising maintenance costs and council cost-cutting measures it stopped running entirely in June 2015; it was replaced by an extension of the pre-existing land train which runs to this day.
On my visit to Southport last month I’d noticed a couple of what seemed to be sports-themed sculptures on top of tall poles near the pier. The person featured on one of them seemed to have half a leg missing – was this deliberate or had the leg somehow been damaged and removed for repair? There was nothing anywhere to explain the significance of either of the statues but some later internet research provided some very interesting information.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Pier Diving was a seasonal phenomenon which kept the crowds entertained in several seaside resorts around the country and a popular attraction at Southport for many years from 1903 was a succession of divers who would dive into the sea several times daily from the roof of the tea house at the end of the pier. Although some of these men did have true academic qualifications many of those who didn’t would still take the title of ‘Professor’ and the two most associated with Southport were Professor Gadsby and Professor Powsey.
Professor Frank Gadsby, the one-legged diver, was born in Nottingham in 1882 and after dislocating his hip as a very young child had to have his leg amputated. An early photo shows that the full leg had been removed so I can only assume that whoever did the sculpture wasn’t working from a photo, or it was purposely made to be more aesthetically pleasing. Frank learned to swim at the age of 12 and in spite of only having one leg he enjoyed success in many swimming championships, then after a succession of different careers he became a travelling showman, performing dare-devil high dives at many seaside resorts during the summer seasons. His acts included diving 100ft from a special mast into the sea or a water tank, he was often to be seen diving from Southport pier and he would always perform his final dive wrapped in a burning sack. He died at the age of 76 in 1958.
Professor Albert Edward Powsey was born in Sheerness in 1866 and at the age of 14 he was awarded the Humane Society Medal for rescuing a local woman from the sea. After working in a grocer’s shop then as an apprentice steam pipe fitter and works foreman he spent ten years as a swimming instructor at Marlborough College, Wiltshire, where he devised his high diving act which he eventually took to the pier at Herne Bay in Kent. From Herne Bay he moved on to Brighton pier and then Clacton before starting an 18-year run at Southport pier where he evolved and perfected his ‘dive of flames’ and his ‘terrific bicycle dive’ from a specially constructed platform which was the inspiration for the sculpture.
From the pier Professor Powsey went to the old fairground (now Pleasureland) and started his greatest act of diving – plunging from an 80ft tower into a tank containing just 4ft of water. His only break from the fairground before his retirement was when he was booked to perform six dives, at £50 per dive, in Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall. To make the dive from the required height would have meant removing part of the roof so the local corporation vetoed the act; Professor Powsey sued the corporation and following a long legal wrangle he was awarded £150 damages. At the age of 75 he made his last dive at a Southport gala for the Soldiers’, Sailors’ and Airmen’s Charity funds then spent his retirement living locally before passing away in a Liverpool hospital in 1956 at the age of 89.
When I took a ride on the pier land train just a month ago I didn’t realise then that I would end up researching the history of the pier itself and its divers but although quite time consuming it’s proved to be a very interesting exercise – and as the saying goes, you learn something every day.