My Night at The Midland

The Midland Hotel, Morecambe, at night

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 Seahorse emblem can be found throughout the hote

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.

Gleaming in the sunshine

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.

The Rotunda Bar friezes
The staircase

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.

The restaurant with views across the bay

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).

Website: https://englishlakes.co.uk/the-midland/

[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.]

Art Deco – a design style with enduring appeal

I was asked to contribute an article on an ‘art’ theme to the January 2018 edition of TopicUK magazine for Wakefield. With a deadline to meet and a free rein, it was an ideal opportunity to write about one of my personal interests – Art Deco – while also giving it a local flavour with a link to Wakefield’s history!

The term ‘Art Deco’ is something of a catch-all. It refers to a design style that really came to the fore in the 1920s, although its origins can be traced further back in time. It remains hugely popular today and there continues to be big demand for authentic pieces of the period. The Art Deco term can be applied to just about anything from architecture and decorative arts through to fashions in clothes and furniture and household wares. There were even fonts and a colour palette used in printing that came to typify the style (think of railway posters advertising streamline trains and glamourous destinations). The style persisted well into the 1930s and was revived again in the 1950s, albeit in updated forms

But I’m getting ahead of myself. World War I had changed everything and people were ready to break from the rather fusty traditions of the Edwardian era. Women had begun to find freedom, going out into the workplace and becoming self-supporting. Their skirts and hairstyles became shorter (material was expensive and the bustle didn’t really lend itself to working either in offices or on the factory floor). Corsets and stays were unfastened and discarded. Men’s fashions were changing too – the very formal tailoring (and tailcoats) of the Victorian and Edwardian periods were exchanged for a more modern line that still forms the basis of men’s suits and jackets today.

People wanted to put the memories of war behind them and those who had survived wanted to celebrate! This was the age of jazz, the age of swing: the beat grew faster, the rhythm was syncopated and folk were in the mood to party! Think Flappers, Gatsby, Josephine Baker and the Roaring Twenties!

Art Deco was originally about expensive objets, created for the very wealthy, in precious woods, metals and jewels. The name Art Deco was actually coined (although not until the 1960s) from an abbreviation of the title of the 1925 Paris exhibition, the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, intended to showcase the best of modern decorative art and international design. Art Deco took its cues from African, South American Aztec and European influences. In the USA and Western Europe, the style was developed further – the organic and naturalistic designs of the Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts movements were simplified and streamlined; unnecessary curls and twirls were replaced by more geometric motifs.

Meanwhile, Hollywood films such as the Busby Berkeley musicals were helping to spread this new style moderne around the globe, creating a demand from cinema audiences wanting to have some of the Art Deco magic in their own homes. That demand was met by mass manufacturers whose factories had turned from producing weapons and the machinery of war to creating household wares and goods for the popular market. They used chrome, glass and new materials such as Bakelite plastic to produce less expensive artefacts intended for everyday use.

I guess I fell in love with Art Deco long before I knew what the term meant: indeed, I can trace my fascination with the design style back to when I was a child in the 1950s. On my mother’s dressing table sat a dish, made in amber coloured glass, about 12 inches across and in the shape of a butterfly. There was something about the shape, the style and the colour that just appealed to me. I don’t know how my mother came by it but I later inherited it and for nearly 30 years it sat on a chest of drawers in my guest bedroom. Remarkably, although it must be somewhere approaching 70 years old, if not older, it’s still in perfect condition.

It was a trip to the opening of a new exhibition at Pontefract Museum a few years ago that made me re-evaluate the dish. The museum had a new display dedicated to Bagley Glass, a Knottingley bottle works originally established in 1871 by cousins William Bagley (1842-1924) and John William Bagley (1838-1897) and whose fathers were also glass makers from Yorkshire. The company used coal to fire the furnaces in which their glass was produced – following in the footsteps of an emerging glass-making industry: there had been a glass works in the Knottingley area since the 17th century and so much glass was produced in the area that the nearby village of Houghton acquired the name of Glasshoughton!

Bagleys, as Bagley Glass was to be known, went on to make decorative household glassware and, by the middle of the 20th century, they had become the biggest manufacturer of pressed glass in England, exporting their products all over the world, adapting their styles to meet the demands and expectations of their customers.* (Glass making continues in Knottingley to this day although the company is now part of Stölzle Flaconnage Ltd. under whose name the factory now trades.)

Anyway, back to the museum. On display that day was a butterfly dish, identical to mine but in green glass. My interest was kindled! In fact, on closer examination back home, quite a few pieces of glassware that I’d inherited from my parents turned out to be Bagley glassware; none of it particularly valuable (sadly): you can pick pieces up for around £12-£15 at antiques shops without trying too hard simply because it was so mass-produced and just about every home in the area would probably have had some in everyday use. Nonetheless, my butterfly dish has now been moved to the relative safety of a display cabinet!

A quick internet search revealed that other companies such as Davidson’s and Sowerby’s, both of Gateshead, and Jobling, of Sunderland, as well as European manufacturers such as Walther and Sohne of Germany were also turning out pressed glassware for the domestic market, again keeping up to date with the trend for Art Deco designs. There products have the style, and the look, of the 1920s and 30s but without the price tag of more illustrious names such as René Lalique and they provide a much cheaper starting point for anyone interested in acquiring a few pieces of their own. Of course, you can buy modern Art Deco glassware; manufacturers today are still producing goods that reflect the public interest in the style and I have purchased some 21st century examples myself. Perhaps, one day, they will be the sought-after antiques of the future?

(*) There is an excellent book detailing the history of Bagley glass and from which some of my notes above have been taken. If you’d like to learn more, do try to get hold of a copy of Bagley Glass, by Angela Bowey with Derek and Betty Parsons. Mine is the third edition published in 2010 but a fourth edition is now available.