Saving Tenbury Wells Regal – A Community Success Story

img_0930bwCommunity run projects staffed by volunteers seem to be becoming more and more common. Trust owned public houses, post offices, village shops and rural shuttle buses all appear to be on the rise as it becomes less financially viable to run them for profit. My dear old mother donates large chunks of her time to a little shop, set up when the village post office and convenience store closed its doors a few years back. It’s truly commendable, and I take my hat off to those willing to spend half a day or more sat behind the till on the off chance Mrs Kendle from Ivy Cottage unexpectedly runs out of Sheba. I’m not sure when I retire I’d be quite so keen to while away the hours in this fashion, but what if the community project wasn’t a little village shop? What if perhaps it involved re-commissioning and running a 1930’s cinema? I like to think I’d be first in the queue  to help, and thankfully I’m not alone, as that’s exactly what the good folk in Tenbury Wells have been doing.

advertOn July 29th 1937 this riverside town would see the opening of a brand new cinema; The Regal. Operated by local firm ‘The Craven Cinema Group’, who owned two other picture houses and managed a further three, Tenbury Regal was a costly project for the small company. Rather than purpose build a new venue, Craven chose to commission established theatre designer Ernest S. Roberts to convert an existing Victorian structure. Positioned in the centre of the town, the building originally housed a couple of shops with living accommodation upstairs. Alterations were made to the houses to create the projection room and foyer, while the 300 seat auditorium was built on land directly behind.

While it may be more common, not all cinemas built in this period had auditoriums decorated with modernist geometric designs and heavy plaster reliefs. Some, particularly smaller ones like The Regal used murals to enhance the escapism of a night at the flicks. Scenic artist George Legge of Bryan’s Adamanta was responsible for several cinema interiors across the Midlands, and Craven chose him for their trio of picture houses. The rear and side walls of the auditorium show Italian rural scenes with lakes, flowers, trees and mountains in the distance. Traditional buildings sprout up, the ventilation system neatly disguised in their arched windows. The odd monkey can even be seen perched on the dado that ascends the space in three horizontal waves.

Craven Group ran Tenbury Wells Regal until 1966 when it simultaneously closed it along with their Craven Arms cinema (below). The latter would become derelict 5 years later and be demolished in 1977. Following unsuccessful attempts to revive Tenbury’s Regal, it was put up for sale in 1970. On the brink of demolition Tenbury Town Council stepped in and bought the stricken building for £12,500 and adapted it to meet the needs of the community. The stage was extended to allow for theatrical performance, and a community centre with kitchen and toilet was built behind. For the next 30 or so years various groups used the two spaces to meet their needs, while film enthusiasts still continued to show movies in the main cinema.

Situated between two rivers, Tenbury is prone to the odd flood during heavy rainfall, but in 2007 the town (like much of the county) experienced catastrophic flooding and the Regal found itself partly underwater. The ingress was so bad that it completely covered some of the lower seats in the auditorium and caused serious damage to the flooring and walls. Rather than try to simply make good the damaged areas for a quick return to use, it was decided that the rather tired old cinema needed a complete restoration.

The funding, which came from a number of sources including a substantial Heritage Lottery Grant took four years to put in place before work began. This included completely restoring the mural, terrazzo flooring, artex wall coverings and reinstating the iconic neon signage outside. Vital structural works were carried out while a new roof was fitted to the auditorium.

Up until this point the cinema was still under council management, but ultimately limited resources resulted in the venue being closed more often than open. To coincide with the post refurbishment grand opening in 2012 The Regal Trust was founded. A not for profit organisation run entirely by volunteers aiming to bring the cinema back into regular use. The Regal is now open daily, with films or live events every evening with community and private use during the day.

I recently visited to take some photos for my Streamline Worcestershire project and was instantly won over by this charming little cinema. In addition to the wonderful auditorium, the foyer is an Art Deco delight, with its original curved glass paybox and gold banding spanning the space. Original light fittings, doors, illuminated signage, balustrades and poster frames are all present and correct, just as they were 80 years ago.

The delightfully friendly lady in the booking office also pointed out their free museum upstairs. Full of old film reels, interactive displays, artefacts and framed prints it’s a wonderful addition to the venue. In a small back room you can see the old 35mm ‘Peerless’ projector on display (it’s now all digital) and there’s even a wall of fame for all the projectionists who have served since it opened.

With a mixture of live and celluloid events, many of which I’m told are sell outs, it looks like this little 1937 venue is going to be the beating heart of the town for many years to come. Well done Tenbury Wells, you’re doing both the community and us Art Deco obsessives proud, I salute you!

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 A huge thanks to Ian and the trust for giving their permission to photograph the building and for being so accommodating. For further information please visit their website www.regaltenbury.co.uk

Heatherdale: A Machine For Living In

“A house is a Machine for living in. A famous French architect said this a few years ago and a great many people did not understand him. They thought he must mean that a house ought to look like a piece of machinery – hard, shining, and certainly uncomfortable to live in.  But he was quite right really. He wasn’t talking about what a house looks like.  He was telling us what it is made for.” Geoffrey Boumphrey 1937

Geoffrey Maxwell Boumphrey (1894-1969) may not be a name many are familiar with, but back in the mid twentieth century it adorned the jacket of many a wholesome coffee table reference book. ‘The Shell Guide to Britain’ series, ‘Engines and How They Work’, ‘Along

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Accompanying booklet for the BBC’s Broadcasts to Schools Spring 1937

The Roman Roads’, ‘Sea Farmers’, ‘Down River’ are all titles featuring Boumphrey’s wisdom. For a period he even sat in the editors chair at ’The Listener Magazine’ (Radio Times meets Points of View). ‘Your Home & Mine’, from which the above quote is taken, was an accompanying booklet for the BBC’s Broadcasts to Schools in the Spring of 1937. It aimed to educate children in the development of our homes, from the earliest settlements through to the present day modernist movement, and even speculate as to what changes might occur in the future.

The success of this particular project led him to expand the text into 1938’s full book ‘YOUR HOUSE and MINE’. 250 pages of easy to understand architectural basics charting the rise of the spaces we live in. To illustrate the striking differences between multiple eras of architecture plenty of glossy black and white plates are included. So when it came to showcasing ‘the modern home’, there could be no better example than his own minimalist mansion: Heatherdale.

Geoffrey was a keen out-and-out modernist. So much so that in 1933 he had gone into partnership with fellow author, and stalwart of the twentieth century design reform movement; Philip Morton Shand. Together they founded Finmar, importers of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto‘s groundbreaking pressed plywood furniture. Boumphrey waxes lyrical about the benefits of ply in YHaM: “Plywood never shrinks and so does not need to be held in a grooved panel, a form of construction that was invented purely to allow for the shrinkage in solid wood… Thick plywood can be built up of as many as thirteen laminations, and designers realised that they might use this new unshrinkable wood in a new way. Why should not a whole carcass be built of sheets of plywood, stiffened internally with battens where needed?”. He goes on at some length on this subject including photographs of items of furniture from his own abode.

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“A Luxuious Modern Armchair” from Your House and Mine

Presumably looking for the perfect setting to showcase Finmar’s latest imports, in 1935 Geoffrey, with the help of consultant architect F.R.S. Yorke (one of the most celebrated modernist British architects of this period) set to work designing his own streamline masterpiece.

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Axonometric Diagram by Nikoulaus Pevsner from Pevsner Architectural Guides: Worcestershire

Completed in 1937, Heatherdale was Geoffrey’s home for about 10 years before he moved on. At some point, presumably fairly early on in its life, the name was changed to Conigree and now has a covenant preventing it from ever being called Heatherdale again. The house still stands and I was lucky enough to recently be shown around it by its fifth and current custodians.

Situated on the top of a hill in Bredon, Conigree overlooks the Avon and its surrounding common land.  Looking West the views stretch almost as far as the eye can see with the Malvern Hills sitting proudly on the horizon. This exposed location works both ways, as the house is visible to passers by from miles around (you can clearly see it while travelling up the M5, look East between junctions 8 & 9, you can’t miss it).

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Conigree in 2016

It’s an imposing robust property with a flat roof. This comes as no surprise as again, Geoffrey talks enthusiastically about the benefits of flat roofs in ‘Your House and Mine’. “There is nothing experimental about flat roofs, there are examples up and down the country that have needed no repair for over 100 years. But it is only within the last few years they have become cheap as well as reliable”. He talks about the reduced stress on the walls, the option of overhead natural lighting, easy maintenance, and reduction of the ‘over turning effect of wind’.  “A flat roof gives the owner an extension to his garden, where he and his family may sunbathe, play or rest without being overlooked. In the summer he can sleep out there, secure from interruptions”. 

There are no fancy curves or towers that often feature in 1930s moderne houses, just clean lines and straight edges. Laid out in an L shape, it originally featured two single story sections at either end with tubular railings. Black metal framed ‘Crittal’ windows contrasted the smooth white render. Render that was unfortunately stripped off in the 1950’s exposing the bare bricks. Then followed a spell in pink, and then green masonry paint (what where they thinking?!). The current owners painted it cream in the mid 1990’s, but are considering a return to the pale render of its heyday.

While it’s clearly the same property Boumphrey designed in the ‘30’s, changes to its layout have taken place. The single story North balcony has been lost in a second floor extension, while a kitchen extension has been added in a matching style to the West. A further section has been added to the Northern single story area, but doesn’t feature railings. A modern conservatory also sits on the West side which was added a few years back to replace a crumbling mid-twentieth century lean-to.

The plot has also shrunk over the years with a row of bungalows sat in what was originally the lower reaches of the garden. Apparently responsibility for this is shared among the previous owners, each building a couple more to sell off during their tenure.

The most noticeable change on the exterior is the lack of original windows. Modern UPVC double glazing may add thermal efficiency and ease of maintenance, but fail to create the charm of the original metal frame casements.

img_0743Inside Conigree is a modern family home with little sign of its minimalist past. The original reinforced concrete staircase with tubular banister, some internal doors, and the fitted wardrobe and dressing table photographed in YHaM (now painted white with different handles) are the only original features remaining. That said, we can’t all live in museums, and it’s still a lovely space to be in. Should a future owner wish to revert to Geoffrey’s vision of clean smooth lines and ply, it could easily be done.

I’d like to say a huge thanks to current owners Roger & Di for taking time out of their Sunday afternoon to show me around and let me take photographs for my Streamline Worcestershire project.