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INTERVIEW: Winter Gardens chair lays out plan to restore theatre to its heyday

Professor Vanessa Toulmin showing King Charles around the Winter Gardens in 2022

The chair of the Winter Gardens has laid out the plan for the total restoration of the theatre following news of a £2.7m government grant.

Professor Vanessa Toulmin was speaking to Beyond Radio as the Winter Gardens was awarded £2.7m towards the continuing work to bring the 126-year-old venue back to its former glory.

The funding will be used to build a new two-storey extension on the side of the grand old venue, as well as install a new lift and toilets, pay for electrical rewiring and a top-class lighting and sound system for the first time since the 1960s. 

Professor Toulmin said work on the latter could begin in the summer so the Winter Gardens could start to welcome "bigger bands" from July.

The plan is to increase the theatre's seating capacity to 1,600 - making it the largest concert venue in North Lancashire and the South Lakes.

A further £5m would then be needed to completely restore the building as a 2,500 capacity music venue, as well as money for ongoing running costs.

The Winter Gardens is due to open to the public for regular tours and events at Easter, before shutting for six months at the end of September for other upgrade work to begin in October.

"We believe the work of the trust over the past four years has left the building in a far better state and it's ready for the future," she said.

LISTEN to the full interview with Professor Toulmin, chair of the Winter Gardens Preservation Trust.

First opened in 1897, the theatre was one of the largest in the North West of England, welcoming some of the biggest names from the world of showbusiness.

However, the venue closed in 1977 as Morecambe’s economy, like seaside towns across the UK, began to collapse.

A group of dedicated volunteers formed the Preservation Trust in 2006 and have worked tirelessly on cleaning, restoring, and fundraising to try to bring the building back so it can once again be at the heart of the region’s entertainment, culture and economy.

Professor Toulmin said the plan is now to open the Winter Gardens for restoration work for half the year for each of the next three years, so building work can take place in the winter months.

"We're trying to manage the building work so we can keep running in the summer to cover our costs," she said.

She also spoke about plans for the development of a 'Young Creatives' scheme, in partnership with Lancaster and Morecambe College, to give young people a chance to learn production skills at the theatre.

The Winter Gardens will also be teaming up with From the Fields, known for the hugely popular Kendal Calling and Blue Dot festivals, as well as More Music and Deco Publique on a programme of music and events inside the theatre.

The grant of £2,743,002 has come from the government's Cultural Development Fund which was announced on Monday.

More than 70 cultural organisations across the country will receive a financial boost from the fund.

The funding is the largest single investment the venue has received in over 100 years and will be used to make the Winter Gardens one of the best music venues in the North of England once again.

The money will bring a cash injection of £2.5m of capital to the building, alongside £700,000 of additional funding including £200,000 from the UK Shared Prosperity Fund. 

Professor Toulmin grew up in Morecambe in a family of travelling showpeople who worked on the fairground behind the theatre during its heyday.

She said that seeing how the Grade II* listed building is continuing to recover under her leadership made her "emotional" as she reflected on her life growing up in the town.

"I didn't have a great time growing up and at school," said Professor Toulmin, who is also Director of City & Culture at Sheffield University.

"It is quite strange when people come in and tell me they were at school at me, and I just try to think were you the one I beat up when I was 15 because you called me (names)?

"Those memories hurt.

"I am so proud of my fairground background and my heritage, travelling communities and showpeople in particular can get a lot of prejudice against them.

"Professor Vanessa, chair of the Winter Gardens and the University of Sheffield's director of city and culture is a completely different person to the 15 year old who had to defend herself because of people calling her names.

"And I could defend myself and I will. And I will defend the building with that same passion.

"My family are proud sand grown 'uns and proud showpeople. All of my family, in different ways, have connections to the building.

"It's a very wonderful story and journey that I've been on over the last three or four years. Coming back to the Winter Gardens has made me love Morecambe again."

Related Story: Morecambe Winter Gardens gets £2.7m boost for major expansion plans - Beyond Radio



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