Home Lifestyle Searching for Victorian ghosts in Britain’s seaside resorts

Searching for Victorian ghosts in Britain’s seaside resorts

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West Pier, Brighton - Getty

West Pier, Brighton – Getty

Having shined a light on Britain’s Victorian piers, palaces and icons, Chris Leadbeater goes in search of lost wonders.

West Pier, Brighton

There are many in Brighton who would like to see its most famous ruin restored to its original glory – the West Pier Trust (westpier.co.uk) continues to campaign and fund-raise for the return of a landmark which raised its head in 1866. It was not the city’s first such structure (the now-vanished Royal Suspension Chain Pier preceded it in 1823), nor its last – the Palace Pier, which popped up in 1899, is still going strong a short distance to the east. But it is surely the most romantic – a tragic figure brought low by circumstance and ill-fortune.

Falling revenue saw it shut down in 1975, a storm in December 2002 caused a partial collapse, and two fires in 2003 – probably arson attacks – finished what was left of the job. Yet the West Pier has taken on a remarkable beauty in death. Indeed, glimpse it on a cold East Sussex morning, its charred skeleton skulking in the mist, and it makes the Palace Pier – with its funfair and Carry On film appearance – almost gaudy in comparison.

Winter Gardens, Great Yarmouth

As with the West Pier in Brighton, time has not been kind to this Grade II-listed feast of cast iron. In fact, it has slumped into a sorry condition in two centuries, in two towns, on two different sides of the country. It was built in Torquay between 1878 and 1881 – and should have been a sound investment as the Victorian tourism boom gathered momentum; a theatre for song and dance in an era when tickets for such shows could barely be printed fast enough. But it bankrupted its owners in Devon, and was transposed to Yarmouth by barge in 1903.

It fared considerably better in Norfolk, where it was the main venue for much of the 20th century. Alas, changing tastes have seen it shuttered since 2008. Attempts to restore it are dedicated and genuine, though still at an early stage.

The Winter Gardens, to the right of the Ferris wheel - GettyThe Winter Gardens, to the right of the Ferris wheel - Getty

The Winter Gardens, to the right of the Ferris wheel – Getty

Winter Gardens, Morecambe

The name is the same on the Lancashire shore, and so is the sorrowful tale. Morecambe’s Grade II-listed theatrical temple was crafted in 1897, and was busy for many years. But, as with many institutions of its kind, it saw its popularity wane, and it shut in 1977.

A preservation society, the Friends of the Winter Gardens, was founded in 1986, and has been able to effect a partial reopening, though this brings only irregular events. However, a restoration campaign is in full swing, and interested parties can help by sponsoring a seat. Even the quickest glimpse of the website (morecambewintergardens.co.uk) reveals the grandeur of the building, its auditorium dreaming under its gorgeous sculpted ceiling.

Morecambe has seen better days - GettyMorecambe has seen better days - Getty

Morecambe has seen better days – Getty

Southwold Railway

There were but eight miles and 50 years to the story of this Suffolk phantom. The railway carried tourists to the titular seaside resort from the main line at Halesworth – with stops in the villages of Wenhaston, Blythburgh and Walberswick – between 1879 and 1929. For the most part, it has been excised from the map – even Southwold Station, the terminus where those holidaymakers would arrive, has been demolished (the town’s police station now stands on the site).

One can no longer reach Southwold by rail - GettyOne can no longer reach Southwold by rail - Getty

One can no longer reach Southwold by rail – Getty

But memories are fond enough that there has been regular talk of reviving at least some of it, and a restoration group (southwoldrailway.co.uk) keeps the flame alive at an old steam-works on the east side of town. The route of the track largely shadowed the River Blyth, and part of it can still be walked – a local rambling society even provides a detailed route (waveneyramblers.org.uk/guides/Guide_Southwold.pdf).

Osborne House, Isle of Wight

Not, per se, the palace just outside Cowes where Victoria spent the Isle of Wight summers of her middle and later years – a firmly inked dot on the trail of her life – but the bathing machine from which she took her regal dips.

Where Victoria slipped into her costume - GettyWhere Victoria slipped into her costume - Getty

Where Victoria slipped into her costume – Getty

Like the beach hut, these curious contraptions became a common sight at the Victorian seaside. Not only did they allow beach-goers to strip off unseen – they could be towed out into the water, where the swimming session could be conducted without anyone looking on. The monarch had her own. And it is still there at Osborne House, at the edge of the estate, on the cusp of the Solent; a green-planked, black-wheeled echo of a strange period when women (even queens) tended to be neither seen nor heard (english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/osborne).

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