Review: Following in the footsteps of Ol’ Blue Eyes

Blackpool Winter Gardens Empress Ballroom Chandeliers - Images courtesy of Jill Reidy

What do I have in common with Frank Sinatra, Charlie Chaplin and the Beatles? The answer is: We’ve all stood on the Opera House stage. Granted, I just stopped and stared, open mouthed, at the 3,000 seats arrayed in front of me, but still, it’s something to brag about at my next swanky soiree (I wish!).

My moment in the limelight occurred in the midst of a behind the scenes heritage tour of the Winter Gardens, led by the immaculately turned out and extremely knowledgeable Shirley Matthews – one of a team of guides who bring the history of the place to life on selected dates throughout the year.

I’d previously visited the Winter Gardens to browse Dotty Delightful’s fine craft and vintage fairs, been to a show at the Opera House and even treated myself to a coffee in the Mazzei Café. But really, I’d only been scratching the surface of this most complex of complexes.

But before we could take a step inside, Shirley gathered us all together on the pavement and talked to us about the white faience façade. Surprise number one – stand with your back to the church, look to the left of the building and you’ll spot a bricked-up archway (some may remember it as a shoe shop). Shirley opened her folder of old photos and pointed to one of some delectable art deco maidens. They’re made of tiles, about 4ft tall, and still preserved behind MDF panelling in that very archway – which was once the grand entrance to the ballroom. They’re destined to see the light of day again soon, so watch this space!

It was the first of a dazzling array of gems revealed to us as the tour progressed. The romantic in me warmed to the brass plaque just inside the entrance, which commemorates all the couples who’ve found love within the confines of the Winter Gardens – in fact one of our number admitted he’d met his wife there! I also loved scouring the roll of honour for familiar names, and gawped in awe at the 120ft tall, 40ft wide glass dome.

Talking of gems, did you know the Queen and her tiara have visited the Opera House twice? On the most recent occasion, for the 2009 Royal Variety performance, she and her entourage sat in the first two rows of the dress circle – cue jostling as we sought the seat that had housed the royal derriere. Moving on, we found the Queen’s loo was locked (we assumed she wasn’t still inside).

On the day of our tour the Pavilion was closed, but Shirley hinted of great plans afoot for a Blackpool Museum. That’s one of the great things about the Winter Gardens, it never stands still – the new Illuminasia attraction is a shining example.

The ancient and modern theme continued as we stopped to admire the Empress Ballroom, where staff were working feverishly to prepare the space for a weekend-long dance festival. Ranks of lighting rigs were laid on the floor, while above them sparkled 13 chandeliers. I was amazed to learn that the ballroom had been commandeered into service as an airship testing station in the First World War. Two more Shirley facts stuck in my mind too – the dancefloor has 1,200 four inch springs, and loud music played by the likes of the Rolling Stones and the Stone Roses have contributed to damage to the ornate ceiling.

The disappointment of the Indian Room, made bland by modernist ‘improvements’ in the 1960s and 70s, paled into the background as we stepped into the madcap brilliance of the Spanish Suite. The journey began in a Spanish galleon, where the ornate wood panelling caught the eye. Wood? Scratch that – because this Alice in Wonderland-style place is full of trickery to deceive the eye and boggle the brain. Actually, everything was made of plasterwork by Andrew Mazzei – and even close up it looks like wood, down to the chisel marks and cracks!

Up the long, mirrored staircase and into the Spanish Hall, a place of fol de rol and frippery, with tableaux in the shape of Mediterranean villages – a fine example of atmospheric architecture, which is also in evidence in the baronial style Jacobean Hall, Renaissance Room and Sir Harold Room.

One of the tour members remarked that the Winter Gardens is like the Tardis, and as our tour ended, I certainly felt like I’d been time travelling. Those late 19th century holidaymakers who coughed up their hard-earned sixpences (2.5p in modern parlance) to visit the ‘best attraction in Blackpool’ must have had a fabulous day out!

Upcoming tour dates

6 June; 27 June; 18 July; 1 August; 15 August; 5 September; 19 September; 10 October; 24 October

Some tours may not include all areas of the building due to pre-booked events taking place in the Winter Gardens. Dates may also be amended due to subsequent bookings for events at the venue.

All tours start promptly at 11am ending at approximately 12.30pm. The meeting point is in the Floral Hall, Winter Gardens Blackpool. Booking is essential as numbers on each tour are limited.

£7 adults and £3.50 children. Children under 16 years must be accompanied by an adult. If you require any assistance to attend a tour please make your requirements known at the time of booking. Special tours for pre-booked parties can be arranged at preferential rates.

Tour dates: 5 June, 26 June, 8 July, 17 July, 21 Aug, 28 Aug, 11 Sep, 25 Sep, 9 Oct, 30 Oct

Book by telephone on (01253) 478222 or in person at The Tourist Information Centre, Festival House, People’s Promenade (opp. BlackpoolTower)

Images courtesy of Jill Reidy.






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