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A blast from the past

Britain is bursting with retro fun if you know where to look. So turn back the clock to make like a Twenties flapper girl, hang out like a Sixties hippy or vogue to an Eighties groove. Joanne O’Connor lives the time traveller’s life.


The start of the 20th century saw the Art Nouveau movement reach its peak and one of the best places in Britain to experience this ornate style of art and architecture is Glasgow. The Scottish designer and architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh put his own stamp on the style, noted for its floral and geometric motifs, and his legacy lives on in buildings such as the Glasgow School of Art and the artist’s own home, reassembled in the grounds of the Hunterian Art Gallery. The Kelvingrove Museum and The Lighthouse (one of Mackintosh’s earliest buildings) both house exhibitions of his work, but the highlight of any trail is a visit to the Willow Tearooms, where everything from the leaded glass windows to the teaspoons were designed by Mackintosh. Another town that likes to make a song and dance about its Edwardian heritage is Grange-Over-Sands in Cumbria, which was a fashionable seaside resort at the start of the 20th century. The Edwardian Festival, which takes place every June, is an excuse for locals and visitors to dress up in their finest boaters and bonnets, and take to the streets for old-fashioned entertainment, such as Punch and Judy stalls, strolling players and clog dancers. Even when the festival isn’t on, a stroll along the promenade with its old-fashioned shops, grand hotels, bandstand and ornamental gardens will evoke the genteel ambience of the town’s heyday.


For a taste of life in a north-east English market town in the years leading up to the First World War, head to the Beamish open air museum in County Durham. Such is the attention to detail of the High Street in this recreated Edwardian town that it often serves as a set location for period dramas. Ride a tram, enjoy a pint of real ale in front of the fire at The Sun Inn or buy some old-fashioned sherbet lemons at the Jubilee Sweet Shop. The latest addition to the attraction is a coal-fired chippy, serving real fish and chips, fried in beef dripping. Costumed characters bring the shops and houses to life.


From the outside, 7 Blythe Grove appears to be an unassuming red-brick semi-detached house, no more remarkable than any other house on this street in Worksop, Nottinghamshire. But step through the front door of Mr Straw’s House, and you will be transported back to the Twenties. Owned by the National Trust, the house was lived in by the family of a well-to-do grocer for 60 years. The thrifty Straw family threw little away, unwittingly creating a time-capsule of domestic life in the Twenties and Thirties. Family letters, photos, clothing and household objects remain where their owners left them, creating an intimate and oddly moving glimpse into a bygone era. An altogether more glamorous take on the decade of the Charleston, flapper girls and speakeasies is available at a Prohibition Party. These ticket-only events are held regularly at ‘secret locations’ in London, with gramophone DJs, cabaret acts, alcohol served in teacups and mock police raids giving a transatlantic flavour to the Roaring Twenties. Fancy dress is obligatory.  This was also the era that saw the transition from silent movies to the ‘talkies’. The Limelight Cinema is a relic from the Twenties, which was moved brick by brick from its original location to the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley. Indulge in some silver-screen nostalgia and take your place on a wooden bench for a programme of films, featuring stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and Harold Lloyd. 


The suburbs of southeast London provide an unlikely setting for one of the most perfectly preserved remnants of Thirties’ high society. Built by the wealthy Courtauld family next to the remains of a medieval banqueting hall, Eltham Palace is one of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture in England. Decadence is the watchword here, from the gold-plated bathroom to the pet lemur’s sleeping quarters. Tours led by an Art Deco expert are held regularly in the summer and, on certain dates of the year, costumed characters bring the house to life as they prepare for one of the Courtaulds’ legendary house parties.For some period ambience, the York branch of Betty’s Tea Rooms is hard to beat. The café on St Helen’s Square hosts regular swing and jazz music evenings in the elegant Art Deco surrounds of its first floor Belmont Room. It was inspired by the decor of the Queen Mary cruise liner, with elegant wood panelling and ornate mirrors. When war broke out, the basement bar became a favourite haunt of airmen stationed around York. The mirror where they signed their names with a diamond pen is still on show today. 


The shadow of the Second World War loomed large over this decade. The best introduction to life in wartime Britain is to be found at the Imperial War Museum in London, which has several excellent galleries devoted to the war and The Blitz Experience, a reconstruction of an air-raid shelter and blitzed street with sights, sounds and smells that evoke a London bombing raid. There are several heritage railways around the country, which turn back the clock each year by hosting Forties weekends. One of the most popular events is held at the Severn Valley Railway near Kidderminster, which features classic cars, period costumes, Big Band music and a flypast by Battle of Britain aircraft. Similar events are held at the Nene Valley Railway in Peterborough and the North Norfolk Railway.


After the austerity of the war years, the Fifties brought a new spirit of optimism and fun, and nowhere was this more apparent than in Britain’s thriving seaside resorts. For a dose of seaside nostalgia, head down to the Thanet coast in Kent, where the historic resorts of Broadstairs and Margate keep tradition alive. In Broadstairs you can take a donkey ride on the beach, watch a Punch and Judy Show and enjoy a Knickerbocker Glory in Morelli’s, an ice cream parlour with a Fifties soda fountain, juke box, formica tables and pink leatherette booths. In neighbouring Margate, the Old Town has undergone something of a transformation and the narrow cobbled streets are now lined with shops specialising in vintage clothing and retro homeware. Check out Etcetera on King Street for mid-century design classics and 20th Century Frocks at RG Scott’s antique emporium for a Fifties suit or prom dress. Margate’s iconic theme park, Dreamland, has been boarded up for several years, but next year will see the first phase of its relaunch as the world’s first heritage theme park, featuring vintage funfair rides, slot machines and a Fifties-style milk bar. 


Relive the Summer of Love and take to the road in an authentic 1967 VW camper van with split windscreen and original interior, one of a fleet of 15 retro vehicles on offer from Devon-based rental company O’Connors’ Campers. Pack your surfboard and head for the beach or check out one of Devon’s relaxed music festivals such as Chagstock or Beautiful Days. And, of course, no trip back to the Sixties is complete without a visit to the Cavern Club in Liverpool, a replica of the venue where the Beatles first found fame 50 years ago. Every Saturday night in the summer, tribute bands pay homage to the Fab Four. For a comprehensive introduction to the life, times and music of the band, start at the Beatles Story in Albert Dock and follow up with the National Trust tour, which visits the suburban childhood homes of McCartney and Lennon.


Nothing screams Seventies like a roller disco. So if Saturday Night Fever on skates sounds like your idea of heaven, then pull on your leotard, neon leg-warmers and sweat bands and head down to the Renaissance Rooms in London’s Vauxhall for one of its weekend roller-skating parties, accompanied by a disco soundtrack. Alternatively, you could gain instant Seventies street cred by hiring a Ford Capri, the iconic car of the decade. The Capri 280 is one of a collection of classic vehicles on offer from Great Escape Cars and can be rented from the company’s base near Shrewsbury. Follow the South Shropshire Vintage Trail for a suitably retro road trip, taking in vintage shops, tearooms and the gloriously kitsch Land of Lost Content in Craven Arms, an eccentric museum of memorabilia, where space hoppers jostle for space alongside old wirelesses.


Throughout the Eighties and much of the Nineties, Manchester was Britain’s musical powerhouse, churning out bands such as Joy Division, The Fall, New Order, Buzzcocks, Happy Mondays, the Stone Roses and the Smiths. It was home to the country’s most exciting record label, Factory Records, and hippest nightclub, The Hacienda. The city’s musical heritage is celebrated on a walking tour offered by New Manchester Walks, which takes in sights such as the record shop where Morrissey once worked and the site of the Hacienda. Coming from the opposite end of the musical spectrum, but no less evocative of the decade, is the Rewind Festival, which takes place in Henley-on-Thames and Perth, Scotland, each summer, bringing together acts such as The Human League, Bananarama, UB40 and Toyah for an annual nostalgia-fest. Bad perms, ‘Frankie Says Relax’ T-shirts and lacy fingerless gloves compulsory. 


The final years of the 20th century saw hundreds of ‘Millennium projects’ springing up across the nation. Fittingly, for a decade in which technology and the environment were top of the agenda, many of the new National Lottery-funded attractions had a scientific or ecological theme. At Our Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh, you can ‘witness’ the Big Bang, feel an earthquake and explore climatic extremes, while the Wildwalk attraction, at Bristol, allows visitors to take a sensory journey through the history of life on the planet. London celebrated the turn of the century with the addition of some iconic new landmarks such as the London Eye observation wheel, Tate Modern and the Millennium Footbridge, which can all be visited on a walking tour of the city and South Bank.

 By Joanne O’Connor, Do Not Disturn (In-hotelMagazine)

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