Heritage Open Days to raise curtain on history of Buxton stage

Buxton Advertiser archive, 1920s, Buxton's Hippodrome that became the Playhouse before being incorporated into the Pavilion Gardens as the Paxton Suite and presently the Pavilion Arts Centre
Buxton Advertiser archive, 1920s, Buxton's Hippodrome that became the Playhouse before being incorporated into the Pavilion Gardens as the Paxton Suite and presently the Pavilion Arts Centre

Every night is opening night for actress Miss Lilian Violet Bowdine, and each performance the first in a brand new theatre…

It could be the opening line of a ghost story about a star trapped forever in the same role as the fictional Miss Bowdine relives her first curtain call at Buxton Opera House in 1903.

Buxton Advertiser archive, 1920s, Buxton's Hippodrome that became the Playhouse before being incorporated into the Pavilion Gardens as the Paxton Suite and presently the Pavilion Arts Centre

Buxton Advertiser archive, 1920s, Buxton's Hippodrome that became the Playhouse before being incorporated into the Pavilion Gardens as the Paxton Suite and presently the Pavilion Arts Centre

But Miss Bowdine is an actress played by an actress in order to tell the dramatic – how could it be anything else- story of Buxton’s theatres as part of the town’s contribution to the national Heritage Open Days festival.

Actress Carol Spencer and fellow members of heritage company Discover Buxton have developed the Miss Bowdine character and others from the town’s history to bring to life free tours from September 8 to 11.

Carol will recreate the Edwardian splendour of Buxton during a walking tour in which she illuminates the theatrical history of Buxton including the early days of the opera house.

The Opera House is not the opening act in the story, however, as Miss Bowdine will reveal. There had been theatres in Buxton before.

Buxton Advertiser archive, 1920s, Buxton's Hippodrome that became the Playhouse before being incorporated into the Pavilion Gardens as the Paxton Suite and presently the Pavilion Arts Centre

Buxton Advertiser archive, 1920s, Buxton's Hippodrome that became the Playhouse before being incorporated into the Pavilion Gardens as the Paxton Suite and presently the Pavilion Arts Centre

The first documented theatre was in Spring Gardens – “a mean, dirty thatched house” according to one eyewitness, and later the New Theatre opposite the Old Hall Hotel.

Despite that establishment only lasting from 1833 to 1854, it played host to the great violin virtuoso Paganini, a man so talented that it was rumoured he must be possessed by the Devil to play so well.

Carol will also take visitors through the history of The Hippodrome, later The Playhouse and now the Pavilion Arts Centre, which in its hey-day hosted the Buxton Repertory Company, which included the actor the late Sir Nigel Hawthorne, star TV’s of Yes, Minister.

“Miss Bowdine” was created by the Discover Buxton team to reflect the character of actresses of that time.

Playhouse Theatre, Buxton, farewell group, season ending - October 24, 1949. Pictured left to right: Robert Weir, Will Leighton, Brian Whittle, Myles Rudge, Nigel Arkwright, Carmen Hill, Nancy Roberts, Shaun Sutton, Sally Newton, Patricia Lett, Penelope Williams, Gwendoline Watford, Barbara Leslie. Photo contributed.

Playhouse Theatre, Buxton, farewell group, season ending - October 24, 1949. Pictured left to right: Robert Weir, Will Leighton, Brian Whittle, Myles Rudge, Nigel Arkwright, Carmen Hill, Nancy Roberts, Shaun Sutton, Sally Newton, Patricia Lett, Penelope Williams, Gwendoline Watford, Barbara Leslie. Photo contributed.

“They are very interesting ladies,” said Carol. “They were very well travelled and quite well educated for a period when women weren’t really expected to achieve much.

“They ran their own theatre companies, toured America and had a lot more independence than history remembers.”

Heritage Open Days in Buxton will see the Opera House, Queen Mary’s Bower in The Old Hall Hotel and the University’s Buxton Campus open to the public for free.

There will also be special tours led by other Discover Buxton costumed characters including Robert Rippon-Duke, Mary Queen of Scots, who was imprisoned in the Old Hall, and Vera Brittain, peace campaigner and author.

Programme from the Playhouse theatre, Buxton

Programme from the Playhouse theatre, Buxton

The event will demonstrate Buxton’s resurgence as a spa town, underlined by the £46 million restoration of the last major piece of the jigsaw of the town’s heritage – the magnificent Georgian Crescent, which is currently being turned into the Peak District’s first five-star hotel.

The Crescent developers will be offering a sneak preview of The Pump Room, closed for decades, where the Victorians took the waters, while the University of Derby will show visitors how its Buxton campus has evolved from a stable into a hospital and now a seat of learning – all capped by one of the largest unsupported domes in the world.

The university has helped to fund and organise the Heritage Open Day events to promote the town’s tourism industry.

Dr Sarah Rawlinson, the university’s Head of the School of Hotel Resort and Spa Management, said: “Businesses have a duty and responsibility to be in active partnership in preserving our heritage, and here the University of Derby gives an excellent example of how this can be achieved in terms of bringing this campus back to life with a new purpose.”

The Heritage Open Days run from September 8 - 11, and all the events are free. For more details, visit www.heritageopendays.org.uk.

Buxton Advertiser archive, 1972, panto Widow Twankey, Buxton Playhouse

Buxton Advertiser archive, 1972, panto Widow Twankey, Buxton Playhouse

Buxton Advertiser archive, 1978, in the derelict cinema projection room of the Opera House before its restoration to a theatre

Buxton Advertiser archive, 1978, in the derelict cinema projection room of the Opera House before its restoration to a theatre

Buxton Advertiser archive, Poet Sir John Betjemen meets campaigners for the restoration of the Opera House in the 1970s

Buxton Advertiser archive, Poet Sir John Betjemen meets campaigners for the restoration of the Opera House in the 1970s