One of the most extensive and magnificent buildings of its type anywhere in the world, according to historian Cyril Critchlow, Blackpool Winter Gardens is a large – and architecturally unique – complex of theatres and conference facilities, conveniently located in the town centre, and minutes away from the sea front. Visitors can easily spend a day exploring its vast spaces and intimate corners, delving into the star-studded history of Blackpool’s biggest and most awe-inspiring building.
The Winter Gardens were founded in 1875 and officially opened in 1878, designed “to place on the land a concert room, promenades, conservatories and other accessories calculated to convert the estate into a pleasant lounge, especially desirous during inclement days”. Although the building has undergone many changes over the decades, this mission statement still holds true, and thousands of visitors a year enjoy this world-class venue, whose twelve different ballrooms, theatres and themed rooms hearken back to Blackpool’s golden age as the epicentre of the British holiday and entertainment industry.
The magnificent Empress Ballroom was completed in 1896, and at the time was one of the world’s largest. Requisitioned during the First World War for the assembly of gas envelopes for the R.33 airship, it was handed back in 1919 and has since become the home of the world-famous Blackpool Dance Festival. In more recent years, it has hosted acts such as The Beatles, Oasis and Radiohead, and dazzled guests with its spectacular barrel-vaulted ceiling, sparkling chandeliers, pristine parquet flooring and ornate balconies.
The equally imposing Opera House remains the country’s largest theatre, with a seating capacity of almost 3,000. Its stage has been graced by Hollywood stars such as Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and Bob Hope – as well as Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones and Ronan Keating, all of whose concerts sold out. The Pavilion Theatre, with its 600 seats, provides a more intimate atmosphere, and is often used for conferences and meetings. It is situated in the centre of the Horseshoe – an indoor promenade and exhibition area – and intricately decorated in a rococo style.
20th century additions to the complex include the Spanish Hall – a lavish fantasy venue whose design echoes an Andalusian village – and the imposing Baronial Hall, reminiscent of a medieval castle. Both rooms are ideal to celebrate weddings and civil partnerships – in fact the Winter Gardens are suited to almost any event you can think of, including exhibitions, banquets, concerts, and of course the conferences for which the venue is now famous. The Winter Gardens are regularly used for the UK’s most prestigious annual events, including trade union and party political conferences, and the owners claim that every British prime minister since the Second World War has made a speech in the Empress Ballroom.
With all this, as well as numerous shops and restaurants, a vibrant and fascinating history and more different sorts of architecture than you’ll often find in an entire city, the Winter Gardens are an unmissable part of your visit to Blackpool.