Oh, we do like to be beside the seaside. Or we did. Nowadays, the majority of Britons opt to spend their summers abroad, basking in guaranteed sunshine-and how our coastal architecture has suffered as a result. Half a century of minimal investment and cack-handed planning has left what were once truly splendid resorts looking seriously the worse for wear. Margate, Turner Contemporary aside, is forlorn and unlovely. Blackpool, in its heyday a grandly curlicued wonderland, has been tragically diminished. Meanwhile, Saltdean’s beleagured Lido, perhaps the finest in the country, soldiers on, the threat of closure casting a permanent shadow over its waters. All along our shoreline stand historic buildings that brought inestimable pleasure to millions of holidaying families, and we have shamefully neglected them.
The Midland, that Modernist masterpiece on the Morecambe seafront, has been one of the lucky ones. It closed its doors in 1998, the umpteenth victim of the decline in British bucket-and-spade tourism. For almost a decade, the building stood derelict and at the mercy of the elements, before being rescued by Manchester developers Urban Splash. It reopened in 2008, and thanks to the sympathetic stewardship of management company English Lakes, it remains a sight to gladden the heart of conservationists (and Poirot fans-it featured in a 1989 episode) everywhere.
Opened in 1933, the present Oliver Hill-designed building (which replaced a gloomy Victorian railway hotel) was built to blend harmoniously into its surroundings, with a façade that followed the line of the new municipal promenade and marine-themed artworks by Eric Gill. It was quite unlike anything that had come before, and within a season it had become the place to be seen on a summer’s day.
Society high-flyers flocked there in search of seaside seclusion (the roof allowed high-profile guests to sunbathe away from prying eyes), rubbing shoulders with the stars who were performing at Morecambe’s Winter Gardens. On any given evening, you might have found Noël Coward sipping a Bullshot on the terrace while Laurence Olivier held forth in the restaurant, and George Formby, Jimmy Clitheroe and a brace of big-band leaders swapping stories about the night’s show in the American Bar. Winston Churchill, Gloria Vanderbilt and even Edward VIII were said to have passed through the doors, and the impromptu parties held at The Midland went on until dawn. Think Chateau Marmont-on-Sea.
The critics couldn’t get enough of The Midland, either. Writing in the Architectural Review, Lord Clonmore (a steady fellow not usually given to whimsy) described the building as ‘rising from the sea like a great white ship, gracefully curved’. Architecture Illustrated devoted an entire issue to it. And a Country Life correspondent was so delighted by the dramatically cantilevered central stairway that he likened it to ‘a fairy staircase that one would willingly climb ‘til it reached to heaven’.
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Following in said correspondent’s giddy footsteps, my fellow traveler and I set off from London on a cheerless, drizzly day, hoping for some restorative sunshine. When we arrived in Morecambe three hours later (having changed onto a fun-sized train at Lancaster), we weren’t disappointed. The Midland sparkled invitingly on the seafront, and just across the water rose Cocklaw Fell, Warton Crag and the Fairy Steps. If you’re keen to see the Lake District but don’t fancy bedding down among Beatrix Potter memorabilia, this would make an excellent base.
Inside, The Midland makes good its aesthetic promises. The lobby was all shining marble and ocean-liner chrome, and somebody was playing Cole Porter songs on a grand piano. I couldn’t have been more delighted if Bertie Wooster had bounded up and asked me whether I’d seen Jeeves. My Country Life predecessor was right about the main staircase-spiraling elegantly upwards towards an Eric Gill ceiling mural, it’s one to glide down in a bias-cut satin dress and diamonds. Lacking either of these, but still keen to change for dinner (given our surroundings, it felt only proper), we headed for our room. The fittings and fixtures were bang up to date, but still very much in keeping with the spirit of Streamline Moderne-clean lines and soothing sea-spray hues prevailed.
The long, curving dining room, with its glass frontage, commands what must be one of the finest views in England, if not the world. With the sun setting in spectacular fashion before us, my companion and I worked our way through a menu that made excellent use of locally sourced Lancashire ingredients. Potted shrimp, Morecambe’s signature dish, was impeccably executed, soused in mace-flecked butter and served with warm, crusty sourdough. Mains of monkfish and salmon were, as you’d expect, beautifully fresh. And sticky toffee pudding-which, I’m told, was invented across the bay in Cartmel-rounded things off in stonking style. The staff couldn’t have been nicer, and they all seemed as buoyed-up as we were by the surroundings. After planning the next day’s adventures-a trip to Lancaster Castle, fish and chips for lunch, a gentle wander through the fields inland-over a nightcap in the chic Rotunda Bar, the two of us made our way back to our room, full and contented. There, we fell asleep with the windows open, listening to the sea.
The Midland is a special place. Were I, like little Eloise in Manhattan, to be given the run of a hotel of my choosing, I would pick it in a heartbeat. Long may it serve as a shining example of best practice to those with dominion over our waterfront buildings. To paraphrase Philip Larkin (himself keenly appreciative of the ‘miniature gaiety of seasides’), we should be kind to them, while there is still time.
The Midland Hotel, Marine Road West, Morecambe, Lancashire, LA4 4BU (0845 850 1240; www.englishlakes.co.uk). From £47 per person per night B&B
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