Anyone with an interest in Art Deco will probably already know the story of the Midland Hotel in Morecambe and how, after years of decline, neglect and dereliction, the building, which originally opened in 1933, was brought back into use in 2008 by Urban Splash following a five-year restoration programme. Today, this four-star luxury hotel is managed on behalf of Urban Splash by English Lakes Hotels.
Being a fan of Art Deco myself, I’ve long wanted to stay at the hotel and a recent holiday on the Isle of Man afforded me the perfect opportunity (excuse) to book myself a night at the Midland as a stopover en route to my Manx adventure. One sunny afternoon in August, therefore, my partner and I headed west and, rather fittingly as the hotel was originally built by the Midland Railway Company as their ‘station hotel’, we travelled by train.
The building today is the second ‘Midland Hotel’ on this site as it replaces an earlier hotel which opened in 1848. That first hotel was called the North Western after the North Western Railway company that built it to provide accommodation and facilities for people arriving in Morecambe by train, either for a seaside holiday or to catch one of the ferries that sailed from the newly opened harbour there. As the harbour was tidal and boats could only enter and leave at high tide, passengers waited at the hotel for their sailing, taking rooms or just relaxing and possibly having some refreshment.
The name of the hotel was changed to the Midland Hotel sometime after the North Western Railway Company amalgamated with the Midland Railway Company in 1871. When, in 1904, the Midland Railway transferred first its freight and then its passenger operations to a new deep-water port at Heysham, not subject to the vagaries of the tide, it could have been the end of the hotel but in fact, the hotel continued to attract business and remain profitable. However, structural repairs became necessary and it was eventually decided to demolish and re-build rather than repair and refurbish but the new hotel was to be in the ‘modern style’.
The hotel’s distinctive modernist design, sometimes referred to as ‘International’ or ‘Liner’ style, but more commonly grouped under the ‘Art Deco’ label, speaks the language of glamour and elegance. The architect was Oliver Hill who commissioned sculptor Eric Gill to create the distinctive seahorse sculptures that stand high up on either side of the entrance tower as well as friezes and a ceiling medallion while Marion Dorn created a mosaic image of a seahorse for the floor of the lounge area as well as designing rugs for the lounge and lobby areas. (The seahorse was adopted as the emblem for the hotel and is to be found throughout the building.)
The hotel was an instant sensation and appealed to a well-off clientele which included not just holidaymakers, but businesspeople and celebrities of the day, including actors and musicians appearing at the nearby Winter Gardens. However, the hotel’s fate was sealed with the outbreak of World War II when it was requisitioned by the government to provide offices for the RAF and also to serve as a military hospital. Although it was derequisitioned in 1946, it was not until extensive repairs were completed that the hotel re-opened in July 1948. The hotel continued to trade but was sold off by then owner British Railways in 1952 and gradually lost its way due to the rise of the package holiday. By the end of the 20th century, after a number of changes of ownership, the building was looking very run-down and a failed restoration proposal led to the building standing empty with the prospect of demolition being mooted until Urban Splash acquired it in 2003.
But back to the present and my own stay at the hotel.
When the hotel was first built, the station was just across the road but today the line stops short, the original station building having been turned into a visitor destination with shops attached, and there is now a walk from the new station to the hotel of approximately a quarter of a mile. Nonetheless, as we walked out of the station that afternoon, the hotel could easily be seen, glistening white in the sunshine against a clear blue sky – an ocean liner awaiting its passengers. Walking up to the hotel, my excitement mounted: entering through the double glass doors into the spacious foyer and lounge area is like simultaneously stepping back in time while also walking onto the stage set of a Hollywood movie. The refurbishment has retained the look and feel of the hotel as it was in its heyday even though some of the components have been re-arranged. Art deco-style furniture, fittings and artwork are complimented by more contemporary pieces, but the overall effect is definitely classy and welcoming.
Having checked in and dropped off our luggage in our room, we headed to the Ravilious Rotunda Bar for something to eat. The bar takes its name from artist Eric Ravilious whose talents were employed to create murals on the walls of the original café. Sadly, they were lost only a few years after they were completed having been painted onto walls whose plaster had not fully dried out and problems with damp caused the murals to deteriorate. Although repaired by Ravilious himself, they were eventually painted over. Today, modern interpretations take their place.
Later that evening, having freshened up, we descended the grand spiral staircase which cantilevers out from the wall (it is impossible not to feel a little like a film star as you make your way down to the lobby!) and entered the Sun Terrace Restaurant where we were shown to our table. It was dazzlingly bright in there as the full-height windows allowed light from the setting sun to stream in. Many of the diners were in fact wearing sunglasses as they sipped their wine, giving a certain ‘Riviera feel’ to the occasion.
We had a delicious and leisurely three-course meal with wine, as we watched passing promenaders taking the evening air. Some smiled and waved – almost as if we were indeed on an ocean liner waiting to set sail from the quayside. The tide was slowly coming in as the sun gradually lowered itself in the sky, turning from bright yellow to amber and then deep red before setting behind the distant mountains of the Lake District across the far side of the bay.
After dinner, I went for a stroll around the outside of the building in the still warm air, looking in at people drinking in the bar and the last diners lingering over their post-prandial brandies in the dining room. By night, the building is every bit as impressive as in the daylight: the whiteness of the walls tinged slightly yellow in the streetlamps but still bright and unmistakable. It had been a perfect evening: I almost needed to pinch myself to confirm that while I might well have been living the dream, I was by no means dreaming!
The following morning, after breakfast served in the Sun Terrace Restaurant, it was time to check out, an ambition fulfilled, and to make our way back to the station to catch the train to Heysham and our awaiting ferry to the Isle of Man, but I’ll save that story for another time.
Need to know:
The Midland Hotel, Morecambe – LA4 4BU. Tel: 01524 424 000 (direct) or 03304 042 677 (for reservations via English Lakes).
[If you’d like to read more about the hotel’s history and redevelopment, there’s an excellent book that I can recommend: The Midland Hotel: Morecambe’s White Hope by Barry Guise and Pam Brook published by Palatine Books.]