The Waterfront Arts Project Team in Southport in 2014

Guest Stand Up For Southport Blog by Tony Wynne 

I’m not a high-flying businessman, a ‘mover’ or a ‘shaker’, whatever they are. I’m an artist, I paint pictures. More often than not those pictures are of Southport. I love, and am inspired by, its architecture, its parks, its beaches and those marshy bits that people often moan about.

The problem with artists is that they are dreamers. To make matters worse, I actually write poetry too so I suppose I am a double-dreamer. But, what is wrong with dreams? Many dreams have been made into realities: the Wright brothers had a dream of powered flight; Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was literally born of a dream!

Back in 2002 I was invited to a meeting at Southport Partnership by Stefan Jankowski and Don Gilkes. I was teaching at Southport College and I was making a nuisance of myself by trying to turn empty shops into ‘pop-up’ art galleries. At the meeting I was asked what my ‘vision’ was for Southport’s future. My answer raised eyebrows.

I said Southport could not compete with Blackpool as a seaside resort and could not compete with Liverpool or Manchester as a major retail centre. 

Even on cultural terms it could not compete with the burgeoning Liverpool, soon to be the European Capital of Culture in 2008.

In short, I said that if Southport didn’t reinvent itself it would die. However, I added, it had immense resources to reinvent itself, things that were unique to the town. 

We had the architecturally striking Lord Street and its gardens; we had the parks, the beaches and all the open spaces. We also had the Arts Centre, the Atkinson Art Gallery, the Little Theatre, the Floral Hall and Southport Theatre. We also had quirky little nooks like Market Street and the ‘Potter-esque’ Broadhurst’s bookshop.

Sam Jalloh at Broadhusrts Bookshop in Southport

Sam Jalloh at Broadhursts Bookshop in Southport

It was from that meeting that a plan suddenly began to form in my head, a dream or vision if you want to be romantic about it. Southport could be revived by focusing on arts, culture and a unique independent retail sector. 

Add to that mix a thriving and eclectic hospitality offer and Southport could say to potential visitors; ‘Come to Southport, there’s nowhere quite like it!’

Of course, Southport catered for the ‘traditional seaside’ offer of fairground rides, ice cream, fish and chips, boat rides and amusement arcades; it still does now. 

The Silcock family’s Funland and its outstanding carousel dominate the centre of Southport promenade and Pleasureland has experienced an extraordinary revival since 2007 under the dynamic leadership of Norman Wallis.

However, I feel we can achieve so much more in our town. In 2010 I founded the Waterfront Arts Project in the empty Casino block on Southport promenade. Working with a fantastic team of people we hosted exhibitions featuring work from artists from all over Europe and attracted over 85,000 visitors. At one point it was the largest ‘pop-up’ art gallery in Europe. 

In that same year of 2010 we utilised both the Bandstand and Town Hall Gardens, on Lord Street, to host a two-day charity concert; The Haiti Buskathon. 

Tony Wynne and Brenda Porter with The Aviators at the Haiti Buskathon in Southport in 2010

Tony Wynne and Brenda Porter with The Aviators at the Haiti Buskathon in Southport in 2010

In 2011 Southport’s Market Street was pedestrianised for a day for the Market Street Party featuring live music, art exhibitions, food stalls, book stalls and even birds of prey!

In 2014 we attempted to establish the Southport Arts Festival, it was done with very little funding. Despite that, a ten day programme was delivered which involved Chapel Street being used as a night market, a live music and performance venue and the street playing host to the UKs most prestigious cartoonists. 

The Sprayport street art ‘festival within a festival’ brought artists from all over Europe to paint in the Town Hall Gardens and around the town centre. The then Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, read in Wayfarers Arcade and bands rocked the Lord Street Bandstand.

Poet Carol Ann Duffy at Wayfarers Shopping Arcade in Southport in 2011

Poet Carol Ann Duffy at Wayfarers Shopping Arcade in Southport in 2011

There are so many positive things happening in Southport, and that must be stated. The Southport Comedy Festival, founded by Bren Riley, goes from strength to strength and Mikhail Hotel and Leisure Group continues its massive investment in the ‘Northern Quarter’ including the development of The Grand. Work has also begun to restore the Art-Deco Garrick Theatre.

Norman Wallis is constantly investing in Pleasureland. We are also so fortunate to have the cultural resource that is The Atkinson with its theatre events and programme of diverse and high quality exhibitions.

Southport Market has proven to be a success and the events hall is in constant use. I was involved in a fundraising music and art event in the hall in 2022 in aid of Ukrainian refugees. There are plans to part-pedestrianise Market Street to host outdoor events. It will work, we did it in 2011!

It could be said ‘Southport’s is on the up!’ and I’ve given examples of that progress. So, why is there such an air of despondency in Southport? Why do some people feel as though their town is going nowhere? Why do the citizens of Southport feel as though they have no control over their town?

The ongoing issues surrounding the pier and the continued delays, and lack of critical updates, on the Marine Lake Events Centre have, undoubtedly, affected the way people view Southport’s future. The lack of activity on the former BHS-Broadbents building on Chapel Street is a constant visual reminder that the ‘cogs have stuck’. Maybe the townspeople feel disenfranchised from the decisions that affect their town, who knows?

However, Southport does have a future and a bright future. But, the people of Southport need to believe in their town and have a stronger say in its future. More importantly, everyone needs to be involved in its future, to own it, to believe in a vision and to be proud of their town. The late Phil King, ‘Mr Southport’ called it ‘civic pride’.

Crowds enjoyed the Southport Calling Eurovision party in Southport town centre organised by Southport BID.

I believe in Southport, and I believe in its future and maybe my ‘vision’ will come true. I can see all the art galleries and the unique independent retailers filling Lord Street, the Wayfarers Arcade, Cambridge Arcade and Walks. I can hear all the live music playing on the Bandstand, the theatre performances in the Town Hall Gardens and all kinds of events making great use of Chapel Street. I can see, once again, Market Street come alive as an outdoor venue. Previous events have shown what a vast pool of creative talent we have in Southport too; musicians, artists, photographers, artisan makers, actors and performers.

London has Camden Market, Brixton Market and all the great, thriving unique places. There’s no reason why Southport cannot become the same. 

Researcher / architect Carl Fraser (left), The Engine Room founder Dr Eric Lybeck (centre), and Ian Parry the Director of Education for Southport Learning Trust (right). Photo by Andrew Brown Stand Up For Southport

Researcher / architect Carl Fraser (left), The Engine Room founder Dr Eric Lybeck (centre), and Ian Parry the Director of Education for Southport Learning Trust (right). Photo by Andrew Brown Stand Up For Southport

However, at the beginning of this blog, I described myself as a dreamer, and perhaps my ‘vision’ is just a dream. I find myself hoping that other people share the same vision and that dreams will become reality.

Well, maybe there are signs that that reality is dawning. Tucked away at the West Street end of Wayfarers Arcade there is a place called The Engine Room; it had its official opening today (21st March). The Engine Room’s role is to promote creative enterprise and to act as an inspirational ‘hub’. There were many positive things said at the opening.

Watch this space.

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