Let’s go to Morecambe, Lancashire. And why not? Its football club is nicknamed The Shrimps. But that’s not why. Maybe it’s for the railway station then. Let’s have a look:
Um, no. That appears to be the unfortunate offspring of an ill-starred liaison between an out-of-town retail shed and a bandstand. The pitiful infrastructure provision at Morecambe station is the result of that all-too-common British Rail practice of cutting short the very end of lesser-used branch lines to sell off the original station and trackbed. That practice made a quick buck, quickly lost in the railway coffers, but left the new stations less conveniently placed further away from the town centre, just as is the case in Morecambe, where the new and a bit rubbish station opened in 1994. Bear that in mind the next time someone tells you everything was better when the railways were nationalised.
Maybe the reason is the old station, Morecambe Promenade. Well, that’s certainly a bit more like it:
What used to be the platforms behind this fine Edwardian station building is now an indoor market. Well done British Rail. But it’s still not the reason we’re here. The real reason is on the opposite side of the road, its proximity giving away its connection to the rail industry. It’s this piece of absolute architectural wonderment:
It’s the Midland Hotel, built by the London Midland & Scottish Railway (LMS). They knew a thing or two about eye-grabbing hotels at the LMS, having inherited the Midland Grand at St Pancras from predecessor the Midland Railway. The Midland Hotel at Morecambe is in a rather different architectural milieu, being of that favourite style of mine, Streamline Moderne.
It is the single most fabulous building in Morecambe, and a reminder of the days when a railway company’s job wasn’t merely to dump you in a town to make your own arrangements for the rest of your stay, but to look after you to the extent that it would provide bed and board in a railway-owned hotel too. Time was when any self-respecting place had a railway hotel outside its railway station, even small towns. My local station at Haslemere, a little market town the chief claim to fame of which is that hardly anything ever happens there, still had a station hotel on the opposite side of the road.
Morecambe’s Midland Hotel came late to this game, a 1933 replacement for an earlier and smaller hotel built by the North Western Railway, which later passed to the Midland Railway and eventually the LMS as British railway companies consolidated and grouped together. That meant that rather than being in the (admittedly fussy) Gothic Revival style that characterised many older railway hotels, the Midland Hotel swept in on a wave of the latest and most Moderne fashions.
It simply screams inter-war elegance, cocktail dresses, ties and tails, Jeeves and Wooster, Poirot and Hastings. In plan, the building curves gently, presenting its concave side to arriving railway passengers. In the middle is the main entrance, at the bottom of a convex stair tower glazed from top to bottom. The left hand end of the building has a rounded corner, though the right hand end doesn’t, giving it an air of jaunty asymmetry. Here, instead, a circular ground floor extension houses a bar/restaurant, originally a cafe.
On the sea side, the hotel has its convex side facing out so that rooms have the best possible view of the water without looking into other rooms. Windows of many of these rooms are set back behind balconies, liner-style, in Nautical Moderne fashion.
The Midland Hotel stands at the intersection of a range of talents who have featured earlier in this blog. It was designed by Oliver Hill, who would later be responsible for the design of Newbury Park bus station in London. He told the Midland that he planned to build the “first really modern hotel in the country”, an ambition he achieved in part because he wanted a ‘complete’ design, not just an exterior to be fitted out internally by other hands. He commissioned sculptor Eric Gill (whose work also adorns London Underground headquarters 55 Broadway, and anything which uses the Gill Sans typeface) to produce several pieces of art for the hotel. The mullions which divide the windows on the central stairway tower over the main entrance are topped by seahorses sculpted by Gill.
Moving inside the hotel through that same entrance brings you into a fabulous lobby, dominated by one of the most impressive Modernist staircases you’ll ever find. Right at the top of the staircase, on the ceiling, is a circular panel designed by Gill, showing Triton, Greek messenger god of the sea. Behind the reception desk is a Gill relief sculpture ‘Odysseus being welcomed from the sea by Nausicaa’.
The cafe/restaurant was decorated with frescoes by artist Eric Ravilious (who worked on London Transport publicity, painted transport art, and featured in this earlier article) and his wife Tirzah Garwood, though the frescoes depicting morning and evening deteriorated in just a few years because the plaster wasn’t properly prepared for the work (see them at the RIBA photo archive, here).
Like many early 20th Century buildings, the Midland Hotel struggled to retain its original purpose as the world changed around it in the latter part of the century. The newly nationalised British Railways sold it off and while it survived in the private sector for a while, it later fell into decline and eventually disrepair as the leisure market changed.
Although the hotel starred in an episode of the ITV series Poirot in the 1980s, for which the Ravilious murals were recreated, by the Millennium it was verging on the derelict. Fortunately, development company Urban Splash bought the Midland and completely refurbished it, adding an extra floor on the top to make the hotel a more viable proposition. It reopened in 2008, and is now managed by English Lakes Hotels. It was listed at Grade II* by Historic England as long ago as 1976, and the building has finally caught up with its own importance. The recreated Ravilious murals in the cafe/restaurant were lost during the Urban Splash restoration, but were re-recreated in a slightly different location by artist Jonquil Cook in November 2013 in what is now called the Ravilious Rotunda Bar.
The Midland Hotel is one of those buildings that has anchored itself firm in the affections and conciousness of its local community. So it is that it was the launchpad for a cuddly dog which was recently lofted into space (I don’t make this stuff up, you can read about it here) but lost on its return to (probably) Burnley. The hotel also holds regular special events such as Vintage by the Sea and 2016’s Celebration of Seafood. I hope a player from The Prawns was in attendance.
How to Find the Midland Hotel, Morecambe
Bibliography and Further Reading
Historic England listing record for the Midland Hotel, here
Urban Splash Midland Hotel factsheet, here
English Lakes Hotel blog article on the Ravilious murals and their recreation, here
Friends of the Midland Hotel website, here
The Midland Hotel’s official website, with 360° views of some areas, here
…and anything linked to in the text above