The Isle of Mammon is ripping out its soul: The Manx government's indifference, nay hostility, to conserving its capital, Douglas, is jeopardising a Victorian gem, says Gavin Stamp

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The Independent Culture
In the middle of the Irish Sea is a place as extraordinary and as fascinating as anywhere in Europe, an island some 30 miles long with a peculiar history and character of its own. 'It is a bit of Ulster set down in the sea, a bit of England, Scotland, Wales and Cornwall, too, a place as ancient as them all, a separate country, Norse and Celtic at once,' wrote John Betjeman, who loved it. 'The Isle of Man, like Shakespeare, has something memorable for everyone.'

For transport buffs, Man is heaven. The island had its own narrow-gauge steam railway system and one line survives, running southwards from Douglas, the island's capital. Horse-drawn trams ply the long, curving promenade in Douglas to connect with Edwardian electric trams which take you north to Ramsay and even 2,000ft up to the top of Snaefell, the island's highest peak. For those who like to go a little faster, there are, of course, the annual TT Races.

For Victorian buffs, the island is a marvel. Douglas is still an old-fashioned and rumbustious seaside resort, full of stuccoed terraces of boarding houses. Betjeman wrote how 'the distant effect is of white paper folded into a concertina and perched here and there and everywhere along the shore.'

These, and lots of cheerful villas, were built by local architects, but talent was also imported from the mainland. There are churches by Pearson, by Clutton, by Caroe and a wonderful one by the young Giles Scott; there are enchanting Arts and Crafts buildings by Baillie Scott who, according to legend, was so seasick on the way to the island that it was a decade before he could bring himself to leave. And then there are earlier buildings: handsome Regency terraces and a few works by George Steuart, architect to the Dukes of Atholl until their interest in the island was bought out by the British government in 1828.

The visitors who will be disappointed, however, are those who hope to see good modern architecture, unless they enjoy taking perverse pleasure in its opposite. For the Isle of Man can boast the worst, the tawdriest, the most insensitive and inept new buildings to be found anywhere in the British Isles. And these are combined with the crudest and most damaging town planning decisions. All that is missing, fortunately, are urban motorways, roundabouts and superstores to complete the picture, for the size of the population cannot justify that level of destruction. Even so, what goes on in Douglas should be studied as a model of what can happen when the planning controls we enjoy in Britain are removed.

To understand this it is necessary to know something of the Isle of Man's peculiar history. Man is not part of the United Kingdom. It has its own parliament, the Tynwald, founded by Vikings more than 1,000 years ago. Today, Man prospers as a tax haven and as a base for offshore businesses and banking, so the House of Keys is anxious to resist any tendencies that might constrain the island's model Thatcherite economy.

Man ignored British legislation on corporal punishment and homosexual acts; similarly it long resisted any attempt to establish listed building and planning controls. On my second visit, in 1985, I went to the ancient capital, Castletown, to see 'its box-pewed, three-deckered, still unspoilt church' (Betjeman) only to find them burning the pews in the yard. This special building was wholly unprotected.

Things are better now: there is a register of historic buildings and there are a few conservation areas. The only body with any statutory right to comment on planning applications is Manx Heritage. The only body that has doggedly fought for the island's distinctive architectural heritage is the Isle of Man Victorian Society. It has a great battle on its hands. Hitherto, the losses of good Victorian buildings have been isolated, if frequent. Now there is a threat to a large piece of the 'noble sweep' of the promenade, Douglas's glory.

With typical hyperbole, Betjeman once compared Douglas Bay with the Bay of Naples (which I don't think he ever saw), but it is a noble scene with its gentle curve of bay-windowed and stuccoed Victorian buildings stretching along the Loch promenade laid out by Governor Loch in the 1870s. I can think of nothing like it in any other British seaside resort.

What is now threatened is the Villiers Hotel, a large assembly of buildings between Regent Street and Victoria Street. Once the largest hotel in Douglas, the Villiers closed in the late Eighties. It could have been restored, but Man's Department of Tourism, while subsidising tawdry modern hotels, declined to support this project as the result would not be new. The site has been bought by AXA Equity & Law International, which wants to pull everything down and build offices instead. Manx authorities are doing everything they can to make this happen.

There is, of course, the argument that Douglas need not be stuck in a time warp and should encourage new architecture along with new business. There are, however, many other sites in the town where a fine new building could be a positive asset. Even then, the general standard of new architecture on the island is so abysmal that there is no reason to suppose that what will replace the Villiers will be any better. One has only to look at the illiterate postmodern rubbish that replaced the Peveril Hotel opposite the Sea Terminal to feel pessimistic. It may be, of course, that Equity & Law's architects, Haworth Tomkins of London, will produce a masterpiece, but as Douglas continues to demolish Victorian buildings without designs for their replacement being published or approved, we cannot tell.

I would not for a moment suggest that the Villiers block or indeed anything along the promenade at Douglas is great architecture. The point is that it is part of a much larger whole which is both special and splendid. What ought to happen is what the Isle of Man Victorian Society advocates, a conventional redevelopment behind a retained facade. This would save a great deal of money, effort, materials, resources and energy.

Douglas, like other British seaside resorts, is suffering from the availability of cheap flights to the sun so that the great influx of visitors by boat from Lancashire and Scotland is a thing of the past.

But the answer, surely, is not to destroy everything which makes Douglas worth seeing but, carefully, to preserve and enhance what gives this 'Naples of the North' its peculiar and enchanting character.

(Photograph omitted)

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