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Morecambe Winter Gardens gets £2.7m boost for major expansion plans

Morecambe Winter Gardens has been awarded more than £2.7m to help with the theatre's restoration and expansion plans.

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.

Over the three years of the grant the Winter Gardens will be transformed into a fully functioning 1600 capacity music venue, the largest in North Lancashire and the South Lakes and hopes to be a mecca for the UK touring circuit.

The money will also be used to launch a new work experience initiative to help young creatives from Lancashire get access to and develop careers in the arts industry.

Professor Vanessa Toulmin, chair of the Winter Gardens Preservation Trust said: This is a historic day for the Winter Gardens and marks the single biggest investment in the theatre for over 100 years.

LISTEN to our full interview with Professor Vanessa Toulmin

"I am overjoyed for the residents of Morecambe who have shown such love and loyalty to the building over the many years of disappointment, thankful for the support of my board, our partners, our donors and funders and of course our wonderful volunteers.

"We still have a long way to go, but this funding gets us nearer to our ambition of making our building sing and be known once again as the people’s palace – the Albert Hall of the North.”

Professor Toulmin, professor of Entertainment History at the University of Sheffield, was born and grew up in Morecambe. For the past three years she has been chair of the Morecambe Winter Gardens Preservation Trust – a group of volunteers who are trying to restore the building, which was once the centre of culture and entertainment in Morecambe, the wider Lancashire region and one of the most popular venues of any British seaside town.

First opened in 1897, the theatre was one of the largest in the North West of England. With lavish interiors and striking architectural features, it quickly became the heart of a thriving seaside resort and played host to some of the most famous stars of music and variety culture. It helped Morecambe develop into one of the country’s most loved resorts, attracting visitors from all over the UK.

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 since 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.

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. Proposed work includes a two-storey extension including toilets, accessible lifts and new fire escape, full electrical rewiring, essential AV and lighting equipment, including an acoustic shell for the fly-tower and other essential conservation work.  

Alongside the capital works, the Preservation Trust will work with partners, including From the Fields – known for the hugely popular Kendal Calling and Blue Dot festivals – and Morecambe and Lancaster arts groups to programme new events and music activities over the next three years. 

Crucial to the development of the building is a Young Creatives Initiative in partnership with Lancaster and Morecambe College, which will see a cohort of 75 young creatives from Morecambe and Lancaster given the opportunity to have work experience, paid training from national bodies with local and regional cultural partners.  

David Morris, MP for Morecambe and Lunesdale, said: “It is absolutely fantastic news that the Winter Gardens has been awarded £2.78 million by the government.

"It was a fantastic bid, which I was proud to support and it is a testament to how strong a bid the team at the Winter Gardens, led by Professor Vanessa Toulmin put in. I believe it is the first time that an award of this type has been awarded to a Trust running a project and not a council or larger organisation.

"Well done to everyone at the Winter Gardens who put this bid together and I know what a huge impact this funding will have at restoring the building to its former glory and protecting the wonderful Winter Gardens for generations to come.”

The Winter Gardens will additionally fundraise a further £200,000 – 7.5 per cent – of the remaining funds towards important conservation of the Grade II* interiors including the impressive ceramic tiles in the main foyer.

Caroline Jackson, Leader of Lancaster City Council, said: “Huge congratulations to Professor Toulmin and her team for gaining this outstanding funding for the Winter Gardens in Morecambe. It will enable an amazing building to come back to life to provide entertainment to audiences from across the region. More than that it will provide a boost to the cultural sector and hope for local young people who dream of entering it.”

Dean Shakespeare, Head of Touring for From the Field (Kendall Calling and Blue Dot Festivals) said: “We are extremely excited to working with Vanessa and her team to transform the venue into the premier destination for North Lancashire and Cumbria.  We have already worked prior to this with the Winter Gardens with our successful Levellers Gig in 2021 and we look forward to bringing the best to the area.”

The Winter Gardens has also received £1.6 million of funding over the last three years from Historic England Theatres Trust, Architectural Heritage Fund, the University of Sheffield, Lancaster City Council, Morecambe Town Council, Lancashire County Council and over 500 individual donors from the public.

A spokesperson for Morecambe BID (Business Improvement District) posted on Facebook: "Huge congratulations to Prof Vanessa Toulmin and the team at the Winter Gardens for winning a huge £2.8 million cultural grant from the government for transforming the building into a 1,600 capacity venue, adding lift access, a new two story extension, audio visual and lighting system that will enable the venue to host international acts.

"On top of the Eden news earlier this year this is a transformational development for Morecambe. Over the last few years Vanessa and the team have raised over £5 million to restore the building."

In November last year, Professor Vanessa Toulmin, chair of the Winter Gardens Preservation Trust, spoke to Beyond Radio about the bid for government cash.

She said at the time that the bid could kickstart a "huge amount of work on the building" if successful.

Professor Toulmin (pictured below showing King Charles around the theatre in 2022) said at the time that the aim was to increase the theatre capacity, first to 1200, then to 1600, enabling the venue to attract big-name live music acts.

Then, she said, the Winter Gardens would be the "biggest venue between Preston and Cumbria".

Professor Toulmin said that a positive decision would lead to "a massive change, the biggest in the Winter Gardens since the 50s".

"We hope it will be a gamechanger for the Winter Gardens," she said.

Related Story: INTERVIEW: Winter Gardens chair aims for venue to become "biggest between Preston and Cumbria" - Beyond Radio

A government spokesperson said today: "The Cultural Development Fund aims to level up through investment in culture.

"The fund unlocks local growth and productivity, promotes economic and social recovery from the impact of Covid-19, and regenerates communities through capital investment in transformative place-based creative and cultural initiatives.

"More than 70 cultural organisations across the country are to be given a financial boost so they can improve people’s access to arts, support local economic growth through culture and safeguard vital local collections for future generations.

"They will share a pot of £58.8 million which will see arts venues transformed, upgraded and created as part of the government’s plans to make sure everyone, no matter where they live, can access the UK’s world-renowned culture."

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