In the first of two features on the West End of Morecambe, reporter NICK LAKIN explores the possibility of an artistic and creative renaissance in one of the town’s most historic neighbourhoods...
Turning, or more accurately, being practically swept off my feet by the “stout sea breeze” off Morecambe Prom and into Lancashire Street, I faced crumbling stone walls, boarded up shops, and silence.
A side of Morecambe all too familiar after 10 years of austerity Britain and the longer term issues that coastal towns have faced for decades.
At least, that was my first impression.
Dunstan Low appears from the doorway of a building, smiling, clutching a coffee cup.
Hitting the national headlines last year for successfully raffling off his country house in Melling in the Lune Valley, he’s recently, and bravely, opened an art gallery at the back of the Alhambra building in the West End.
We step inside the building, where Dunstan explains how he came to find himself there.
“I was looking for a small studio space but there was nothing up in Ingleton or Melling,” he said.
“We were driving around and bumped into the guys from The Exchange, and then spoke to Ian Bond, who owns The Alhambra, and now here we are.”
Dunstan had invited me down to see what he hopes could be a revival of art and creativity in the West End.
An idea that has been growing steadily since the opening of The Exchange and The Writing Room in West Street a few years ago.
Inside Gas Contemporary, there are works by artists from Holland, Finland, the UK and South Korea, some of whom recently visited the town as part of Hack Morecambe - a new project from Dunstan together with The Exchange.
“The main goal was to bring artists here from Europe and elsewhere, and create connections,” he said.
“There’s so many run down shops, we just thought, let’s paint them!
“This kind of area is rare, pretty much everywhere in the UK has been gentrified, but we’ve been starting to try to secure buildings to purchase as community owned projects, for arts and sustainability, and also so it doesn’t all get snapped up by developers.”
We step back out onto the streets, and explore some of the artwork - some of subtle, some of it not so - created on walls, shuttered shops, and derelict buildings, before dropping in at The Exchange, where owner Beki Melrose is cooking up a tasty looking stew.
Julian Abraham is there having a brew, and he tells me about Film Morecambe, which he has set up with Christopher Hargreaves, inspired by the LA1 Lancaster short film festival.
The group’s aim is to show arthouse and independent films in unusual indoor and outdoor venues in Morecambe.
“Dunstan came along with Hack, and it was an incentive for us,” Julian said.
“We were able to bring this all together and plan out the nights.
“There is plenty of material from local, talented film makers, and every night sold out.
“The whole thing is about inspiring local film makers, and to show them that anyone can do it.
“There’s so many people wandering around with nothing to do, and there’s some wonderful talent in the area as well.”
Film Morecambe is now considering opening a shop, which becomes the topic of some discussion - not least because so many of them have shut down.
Beki, who has been running The Exchange with Jo Bambrough and Melody Treasure since 2015, said: “Whilst we started out in arts, we’re moving towards incubation and growth, and the importance of having a space where lots of people can come together, making new relationships and new networks.
“We’re trying to connect people and have a strategic way forward that protects people’s hard work.
“Ownership has to be an important part of the narrative.”
Some shops can be rented for less than £200 a month in the West End, and many of them don’t require business rates, however it is estimated that 43 per cent of business premises in the area are owned by absentee landlords.
This poses a difficulty for entrepeneurs looking for somewhere to set up.
Lancaster City Councillor Claire Cozler, who represents Westgate, also popped into The Exchange.
She said: “I think the West End has got an amazing sense of community, which I haven’t really seen since leaving London.
“I’ve lived in Morecambe for 13 years, and in the West End for nine, and there were hints of it back then, but it started to coalesce about six years ago.
“A few people came out of the woodwork, including young people who aren’t into sport or hanging around on street corners.
“I’ve got a big belief in the community here and the restorative power of art.”
Dunstan said the vision for local artists and creative businesses is of “community partnerships rather than large investments, a DIY approach, people working collectively and creative people taking over the spaces.”
He added: “The next step is trying to build more connections and encourage people to come down and have a look.
“It validates the area by bringing people in and showing them what’s possible and that it’s a worthwhile place to visit.
“There are a lot of buildings that are empty and derelict. People are looking for premises but the owners are nowhere to be found.
“We want to attract really interesting people without displacing people that already live and work here.”
Beki added: “A community benefits society is the next step.
“We’d like to see community ownership of housing.
“We’ve done a massive asset map of the area, and there are areas such as Winterdyne where the vision is for a community garden.
“Culture has to naturally take in the environment.
“It can’t be shipped in. We’re conscious we need to get out and speak to people more, and we’re working with the council on that...”
See next week’s Lancaster Guardian for part 2, where we hear from business owners and Lancaster City Council about the work to improve the fortunes of the West End...