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Memories of Bristol’s Grand Spa Ballroom
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Image by brizzle born and bred
Dancing Via Time

The Spa in Clifton opened to excellent acclaim but is now derelict

Numerous increasing stars of the 1950s, such as Shirley Bassey, Petula Clark and Peter Sellers, appeared at Clifton’s Grand Spa Ballroom. And thousands of Bristolians enjoyed the sounds of big bands right here, at a dance hall which has been locked up for more than 3 decades.

But this was no ordinary dance hall. Situated at the foot of a steep staircase major off Sion Hill, it had originally been constructed as the Pump Space of the Clifton Grand Spa and Hydro, an upmarket hotel which opened near the suspension bridge in 1894.

Frequently entertainment was laid on here for the personnel of Navy ships, such as at the time of the check out of various warships in 1898. It was described as a hall of admirable proportions, one hundred feet by 57 feet, ceiling height 27 feet, elegant and light with an uninterrupted view from the windows of Leigh Woods, the Suspension Bridge and Nightingale Valley. In the centre was a fountain of white marble with a raised fluted basin. All doors, window frames, panelling and floor were made of oak.

In 1898 it was reported that the Pump Space, being portion of the Spa and Hydro, had not only been redecorated but also a passenger elevator had been installed to give access to all the floors of the hotel.

This had been financed by wealthy publisher, entrepreneur and one-time MP Sir George Newnes, who was also the promoter of the adjoining Clifton Rocks Railway. Seven hundred influential Bristolians were invited to the opening dinner. After a sumptuous meal followed by the obligatory speeches, they were entertained by the Band of the Life Guards and singing from Madame Strathearn.

The directors of the Clifton Grand Spa and Hydro boasted that its grand Pump Room was the “most highly decorated and finest in the kingdom”.

However, by 1922, the recognition of the Pump Room and Spa had waned and it was turned into a cinema. Six years later, it became a ballroom, and by the 1950s and 1960s it was a single of Bristol’s most well-known dance halls.

Lengthy-serving entertainments director Reg Williams, who had his own best band at the Park Row Coliseum in the 1930s, developed a cabaret policy featuring numerous youngsters destined to be stars.

The 15-piece Grand Spa band was the very first to introduce Latin American rhythms to the city.

The musicians played from a bandstand in an alcove, a place from which visitors as soon as took the spa waters pumped up from 250ft under, via the rocks from Hotwells. Dennis Mann, who ran the Grand Spa Orchestra for 10 years from 1960, remembers the ballroom with considerably affection.

“It was such a superb ballroom,” he recalled.

“As a musician, I’d toured all more than the nation, but this was something diverse.”

“People danced amongst ornate pillars. At the bottom of the staircase there have been marble
methods major into the ballroom.

“I bear in mind that the girls had been effectively-dressed. Up north, they danced wearing headscarves, but at the Grand Spa they had been beautifully dressed. And the men wore suits
and ties.”

The singer for Dennis’s band was his wife, the late Shirley Jackson.

“We have been operating in various components of the nation,” he recalled, “and I thought the only way we could see every single other was by forming my personal band, with Shirley in the nine-piece set up. We broadcast for the BBC’s old Light Programme from the Spa, and we when played with the singer Janie Marden for a reside radio outdoors broadcast.”

“The ballroom was open six nights a week. We named Thursdays ‘reps night’.

That’s when firms’ representatives who had been in Bristol for the week turned up for a evening out ahead of going back property the next day,” stated Dennis.

“Friday nights was often kept for private functions. We employed to play at lots of dances for firms like Rolls-Royce, police balls and press balls. Old Bristol firms, like the engineers Strachan and Henshaw, utilised to have their dances at the Spa.

“We employed to get 800 people and a lot more into the ballroom. On New Year’s Eve, it would possibly be nearer 1,000. I remember that for the duration of the interval the band would jump into their cars and go about to the nearby Coronation Tap for a couple of pints of cider.”

Soon after Dennis left the Grand Spa, he joined the QE2 as bandmaster for six months.

“I was on board when the SAS have been winched onto the ship from a helicopter in the course of a bomb scare,” he recalled.

The Grand Spa sparked numerous romances, as couples danced in between the splendid marble pillars. A popular function was a machine in the ladies’ toilets, girls who place in sixpence got a spray of perfume.

Delphine Lydall, who lives opposite the old ballroom, remembered: “It was quite ornate, extremely Victorian. I met my husband there on a Monday evening. Monday was the under-21 club night. It was all run extremely properly, and it completed at ten.30pm.”

There were blue and green upholstered wooden-framed chairs, and built in red leather settees that lined the room. The huge 1920s lights were retained, but had been dimmed, and employed in combination with wrought-iron lantern holders, screwed into the oak plinths of the marble columns to make the location more intimate. The raised platform on the North West side that was installed in the 1922 cinema, covering 1 fifth of the total floor location, was retained. A second new raised platform was introduced in the alcove, exactly where the stone fountain once stood, which served as a jazz band stand. At the time, it was described as a 3-level rostrum with a shell-back for the orchestra. The Music Gallery was turned into a buffet and added bar for refreshments, the primary bar was off the hotel end of the ballroom (underneath the marble staircase).

In the 1960s and 70s, the hotel ballroom was converted to a disco. The original retiring space in between the Clifton Rocks Railway and the disco had been fitted out as a make-shift kitchen. Against one particular wall was a laminated worktop lined with a handful of 1970s floral wall tiles, with a kettle and a couple of hot rings to make teas, coffees and soup. The Music Gallery was bricked up, and plastic padding put between the bricks and the moulded plaster capitals of the pilasters on either side of the archway, to shield them, in the hope that a single day it would be restored. By the middle of the 1970s, all the original decoration had been painted black or dark green and covered by a suspended hessian ceiling wooden frames had been constructed round the marble columns, which had been covered in hessian, and lights have been replaced with disco lighting.

The Grand Spa changed its name to the Avon Gorge Hotel some 30 years ago, and ever considering that then the ballroom has been standing derelict. Robert Peel, the hotel’s new owner, has submitted a £10 million scheme to redevelop the entire internet site, including the terraces spilling down the cliff.

He would like to restore the ballroom, but says this can only be accomplished if permission is granted for the whole complex.

“To restore it would be a fantastic feat, but restoring it on its own would not be financially economical,” he stated.

The Grand Spa wasn’t the only post-war dance venue in the city. The Mecca organisation bought the tiny ballroom known as The Glen, situated in an old quarry off Durdham Down. This became so well-known that they built a new 1, The Locarno. The website is now the Bupa hospital automobile park.

The Victoria Rooms was one more hugely common dance hall. The big band of Ken Lewis, who later became a full-time official of the Musicians’ Union in Bristol, frequently played there.

A couple of hundred yards down Queens Road, opposite the university’s Wills Memorial Building, was the Berkeley Cafe, owned by the Cadena group, which advertised itself as the “largest and most up-to-date cafe in Bristol”.

With seating for 1,200 people, the Berkeley Orchestra played 3 sessions every single day.

The common “tea dances” held in the cafe’s Queen’s Hall every Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday afternoon attracted crowds of dancers from all over. The building, which retains its original name, is now a pub.

Clem Gardiner and Arthur Parkman, each with their own bands and their own following, had been familiar faces at the Grand Hotel in Broad Street and the Royal Hotel on College Green.

Across the river, band leader Eric Winstone moved his musicians into the Bristol South swimming pool in Dean Lane in the 1960s when it closed for the winter. Boards have been put over the pool to accommodate the dancers.

Do you have any photos tucked away someplace of the Grand Spa ballroom, or of folks enjoying themselves there, in its 1960s heyday? If so, we’d enjoy to see them, and possibly publish them on Flickr, so that others can see just what it was like.

Project 365 #348: 141210 That Doesn’t Make Sense
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Image by comedy_nose
It really is been a lengthy day in work these days as we had our annual awards ceremony this evening.

Despite being at my desk at 7:30am it was effectively right after ten when I got home.

Nonetheless, mustn’t grumble. In the course of the brief space amongst two events I popped out with Dave, for motives I won’t bore you with, to a enterprise park in Kirkby. Whilst there, I stopped for a quick hit and miss and saw on the toilet roll dispenser a single of those delightful indicators that should have made total and crystal clear sense to the person writing it at the time, but no sense at all to any individual else.

How do you wipe your arse then? Do you stand on tip toe and rub your cheeks against the dispenser?

The only thing I can say in its favour is that at least it really is not in comic sans. 🙂

Memories of Bristol’s Grand Spa Ballroom
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