The historic naval city of Plymouth is said to have been one of, if not THE worst, victims of bombing in this country during WWII. In an attempt to obliterate the Royal Docklands at HMRN Davenport, the Luftwaffe relentlessly targeted the area between 1940 and 1944, reducing large areas of Britain’s ‘Ocean City’ to rubble, and taking the lives of 1172 civilians.
Plans for redevelopment were drawn up even before the conflict had concluded, with a bold vision of low density suburban accommodation, paired with a modern zonal city centre. Much of what hadn’t been destroyed by the raids, was cleared to deliver a blank canvas to build from. The result was a coordinated, proportioned, and well laid out city centre fit for the optimistic post-war era, and it still stacks up pretty well to this day.
But what of those pieces of architecture that escaped the explosives and bulldozers? When examples of Plymouth’s pre-war architecture come under threat from development, should their remarkable escape be taken into account, or should sentimentality be put to one side in the name of progress? Personally speaking, I’m too romantically involved with nostalgia to give a sensible unbiased answer, but finding myself in the city with some time to spare, I decided to hunt down some examples of Plymouths Art Deco survivors, several of which are currently under threat.
The Royal Cinema
Opening in July 1938, the Royal Cinema was one of eight city picture houses operating at the outbreak of war, and is the only one still showing films today. Built by the ABC chain, and designed by their in-house architect William Riddle Glen, it possesses a rather odd appearance from certain angles. Approach from the east and the slab-like reconstituted stone façade smoothly dovetails into a curved corner wing (currently painted sky blue), wrapping around the side of the building. Approach from the west however, and the impression is given of said façade, being simply stuck on to the front of the foyer, overhanging the edges in a rather awkward fashion. Since the ‘90’s, a bingo hall has been present in the stalls area, it’s shabby separate entrance lurks off to one side, while the remaining multiplexed circle continues functioning as a cinema (run by the independent REEL chain). Love it or loathe it, the ensemble is an unmistakable slice of Art Deco architecture, and is adored by passionate local film-goers and nostalgic dreamers alike.
Despite this, last year the owners of the site unveiled plans to demolish the building, replacing it with student accommodation. A hard-fought campaign ensued, including a petition with over 5000 signatures supporting retention of the venue. Several attempts have been made to list the cinema over the years, but its interior is too heavily altered to warrant sufficient merit with Historic England. The most recent development in the saga involved the local council listing the building as a community asset, ensuring the public are awarded the right to buy, if the freehold is put on the market. I’ll be following developments closely….
A mere shuffle from The Royal, is the former Gaumont Palace, a much grander structure, also currently in a state of limbo. Opening in 1931 on the site of an earlier theatre, the Gaumont was the creation of West Country architects Percy Bartlett and William Henry Watkins. Taken over by the ODEON chain in the early 1960s, it was subdivided to include a dance hall, before morphing into a roller disco in 1980 (now there’s a phrase I wish I got to type more often!), seeing out its final days as a nightclub (closing in 2013).
While standing in front of its impressive brick and stone façade, a couple scurried up to me, grinning like Cheshire cats. “Are you from GOD TV”? they asked. When my nonsensical bumbling reply concluded with a “no”, they proceeded to fill me in. Both, it seemed, had ‘wasted’ much of their youth within the building, indulging in one euphoric drug addled rave after another, only later to be saved by the grace of our good lord. God then shone his yellow face upon the tired old Gaumont, forseeing a £multi-million restoration to transform the site into a state of the art prayer centre and studio for the aforementioned Christian channel. Now this all sounds very promising indeed, a number of old cinemas nationwide have been reborn as churches, many receiving a full restoration in the process, but dig a little deeper and concerns start to arise. The initial completion date was set for 2014, then postponed until 2015, before the married directors of GOD TV got themselves caught up in an infidelity scandal. Following a resignation of one, due to “moral failure”, the project is reported to continue with a 2020 launch date. God himself is apparently funding the work, estimated to be between £5-7 million, but donations are, of course, always welcome. Rather worryingly though, no work has apparently taken place to date, not a jot, and the building looks in a rough state. I would be delighted if the scheme came to fruition, but I’m not holding my breath.
Colin Campbell House
Colin Campbell Court, adjacent to the main city shopping area, is a sizable parking lot, surround by a series of run down 1960’s retail and office units. Slap bang in the middle, at a rather awkward angle, stands a potential stunner: Colin Campbell House. Built by E. G. Catchpole, this streamline beauty was constructed in 1938 as a garage and showroom for the Austin Motor Company. They must have been planning on shifting a fair few vehicles, as this four storey complex far outweighs any similar dealerships I’ve encountered from the period. Information is sketchy, and I’ve not been able to uncover how long it fulfilled its original purpose, but in recent years it has served as a Mothercare, Habitat, Chinese supermarket, and now, a discount furniture outlet.
In 2001, an unsuccessful attempt was made to list the building by C20th society, but there are rumblings of second application being put together. The present external condition is utterly depressing, peeling paint, crumbling render, rusting windows, and naff adverts all insult the heritage of the place. A faded Habitat sign (closed in 2011 I believe) protrudes from the pavement, like some aged sentry trying to trick the unsuspecting shopper. Currently open as CFS (not D), only the first two floors are accessible to the public (so I’m told, I didn’t have enough time to explore), and all original internal features have either been covered up or removed.
Having originally signaled it was to be demolished as part of a redevelopment of the whole site, the local council later bowed to public pressure, calling for the building to be retained in the plans. This has subsequently been modified from a requirement, to a merely a suggestion, and the site remains available, should a suitable developer be willing to take it on.
Having plumbed the depths of Plymouth’s neglected inter-war structures, I was keen to leave the place on a high by calling in on Ocean City’s crowing jewel, the grade II* listed Tinside Lido. Designed by borough engineer J Wibberly in 1935, Tinside was built in the dream situation for any outdoor pool: on the coast. The large circular pool is literally built into the sea, a swimmable pier if you like. Closed in 1992 due to falling numbers, it remained empty for a decade, before being fully restored, reopening in 2005.
Plans for a swim were put on hold due to the unseasonably cold, windy and wet conditions, but the team were kind enough to let me look around and take some photos.
Entering from the cliff top level, one walks down a sloping covered parade overlooking the pool. A spiral staircase takes you down one storey to the entrance (unless you take the lift from the coast road, it’s a fully accessible pool). After negotiating your way in by purchasing a keyring and post card, you’re met with the most gorgeous stairwell. Lit from above, and in front, by glass bricks, one is transported into the 1930’s by an abundance of period features including azure tiles with red hgihlights, stylised signage, and a sleek bronze banister with geometric railings. I wasn’t allowed into the changing rooms with my camera (why ever not?), but I hear they’re equally special.
Emerging on the ground floor to the sound of roaring waves, you’re met with a sizable area for sun lounging, a raised walkway, where one might pause, gazing out to the ocean liners yonder, and a glorious fountain in the centre of the pool. The head life guard insisted on cranking said fountain up to maximum, before I commenced shooting, a move that rather perplexed the one swimmer present, who was confined to a lane running right past the darn thing! I just chuckled and adjusted my camera.
Despite the obvious limitation of appeal thanks to the unpredictable British weather, Tinside remains one of Plymouth’s key tourist attractions, drawing in huge numbers each year. With the potential possessed by the other survivors, a real possibility of a 30’s heritage trail, or Art Deco quarter, presents itself. As always though, the small issues of funding and feasibility will probably be the deal breakers. The appetite amongst the community for retention, restoration, and reuse certainly appears to be ravenous though, and god’ll presumably lend a hand with painting a few walls too. Ocean City might well relive the Jazz Age once again!
For further information and updates, please visit the following links:
70 images of Plymouth during the Blitz with editorial: http://www.plymouthherald.co.uk/plymouth-blitz/story-28762897-detail/story.html
Gaumount Palace: no dedicated site on the refurbishment, but if desperate… https://www.god.tv
Colin Cambell House: https://www.facebook.com/SAVE-Colin-Campbell-House-589415457874302/
Tinside Lido: https://www.everyoneactive.com/centre/tinside-lido/