Sowing the seeds for the rebirth of the Winter Gardens

Renaissance: The auditorium at the Morecambe Winter Gardens, which is a the centre of a �3m fund-raising drive to get the building restored
Renaissance: The auditorium at the Morecambe Winter Gardens, which is a the centre of a �3m fund-raising drive to get the building restored

In the relative warmth of a room that serves as an office, Evelyn Archer lays out the plans for Morecambe Winter Gardens.

They were prepared, at great expense, in order to bid for a grant, which would have helped pay to restore this remarkable building to its Victorian splendour.

Evelyn Archer

Evelyn Archer

The ultimate failure to secure the money had nothing to do with Evelyn, who chairs the Morecambe Winter Gardens Preservation Trust. Instead, the attempt fell at the final hurdle when Lancaster City Council was unable to provide a three-year subsidy for the theatre.

Evelyn, a no-nonsense woman of 73 with a steely determination in her eyes, was sorely disappointed; gutted. It meant a potential £12.5m was lost and she and her trusty team of volunteers were back to fund-raising and piecemeal restoration efforts.

Despite this disappointment in 2009, Evelyn is surprisingly buoyant when I meet her and there is a sense of pride as she smooths her hand over page after page of plans, showing how the auditorium of this magnificent theatre could be transformed.

“We’ve lost the opportunity to do everything, so now we’re looking at getting the money together to do the ground floor; about two to three million,” she says, almost casually.

She seems undaunted, not just by the numbers involved but also by the magnitude of the task. While she is desperate for the project to be finished on the one hand, on the other she demonstrates admirable patience and an acceptance that each small step takes the Grade II listed building closer to its original glory.

The most recent of those steps cost £33,000, money raised by the Friends of the Winter Gardens, founded in 1986 by, among others, Evelyn, a Morecambe lass through and through. “We don’t spend money until we’ve raised it first,” she says, showing off the entrance and bar area, recently refurbished by volunteers.

Here, modern furniture and bright paintwork contrast with the dark wood partition and bar, and the beautiful original, but damaged, stained glass panels. Work on each of the panels is likely to run into hundreds of pounds.

Evelyn’s tour of the breath-taking venue is peppered with tales; of its popularity, of the headliners who have appeared there – including Shirley Bassey and Matt Monro,

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of her childhood visits, of its decline and closure in 1977 and of its changes in ownership.

“When I was seven my mum brought me and my sister to see Cinderella and we sat up in the gods on forms. When the coach came on stage it was pulled by two Shetland ponies and that stuck in my mind. The building looked so big to a seven-year-old,” she says.

“Later I was in the school choir and performed on the stage and then in the late fifties and sixties I would come here to see the big stars such as Alma Cogan, Ronnie Hilton and Emile Ford – he was my favourite, I saved up to sit on the front row; he was so handsome.”

Her more recent tales have less of the rosy glow and tell of the theatre’s slow decline into disuse and disrepair. It wasn’t until 2006, after various owners and a £1.1m investment by Lancaster City Council to address the most serious structural problems, like wet rot, that the Friends bought the building for £250,000. A bequest from former Morecambe resident Pat Burnett of £140,000 gave them a head start, but they still have £80,000 outstanding. “It’s just another obstacle, but we’ll overcome it,” Pat says with characteristic optimism.

She describes the building affectionately as “a sleeping giant” but swiftly adds: “But it’s coming alive now.”

While the restoration proceeds, albeit painfully slowly, thanks to the efforts of Evelyn and enthusiastic teams of volunteers, the theatre is already playing host to various shows and events, with about 16 scheduled this year. And Evelyn is convinced that its restoration could be the making of her home town.

“My childhood was so wonderful with all the facilities in Morecambe,” she says. “At one time there were eight cinemas and five theatres and I’ve slowly watched them go, but I have wonderful memories.

“I think this building could be the start of Morecambe’s regeneration and if I can contribute towards that I’ll feel like I’ve done something.

“If I believe in something I see it through, so I’d like to say I’ll see it finished in my life time … but I don’t think I will.”