Buxton revitalised - a look at the town's latest developments
PUBLISHED: 13:39 19 June 2015 | UPDATED: 21:15 23 October 2015
Buxton's latest plans look set to fulfil the 18th century aspirations of creating 'a spa to rival Bath'
Looking rather like extras awaiting instructions for the part we would be asked to play in a crowd scene, more than one hundred of us had gathered on the stage of the Buxton Opera House, where we had been invited to assemble in order to witness the launch of the 37th Buxton Festival.
Addressing us from the back of the stage, Felicity Goodey, the Festival’s new Chairman, praised the Edwardian opera house as ‘the perfect setting for Buxton’s unique festival’. We all turned for a moment to gaze at the auditorium, which is wildly extravagant in its decoration but sufficiently modest in its dimensions to give audiences intimate contact with the performers. Although the stage was coping with our teeming presence at the launch event, it would struggle to accommodate the sort of operas that require sets on the very grandest scale. However, it is absolutely perfect for presenting outstanding works that are often overlooked by bigger opera houses.
Looking forward to his fourth year as the festival’s Artistic Director, Stephen Barlow cited this year’s production of Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco as a work that is rarely performed, even though it ‘bursts with the composer’s aspiration to thrill audiences with its combination of power and tenderness’. And he flagged up Lucia di Lammermoor as a better-known work that is due to be performed at this year’s festival, hailing it as ‘the masterpiece of all his operas: concise, precise and devastating’.
Stephen said, ‘Everything is right in Buxton for a festival, from the beauty of the surroundings to the warmth of the audiences. Alongside established performers, many of the rising stars who will perform here in opera or in concert are at a stage in their career where making a good impression at the festival could be the key to their future.’
Expressing delight at her recent appointment as the new Festival Chairman, Felicity Goodey said, ‘The festival has built up a national reputation, not only for its music, but also for its Literary Series, which goes from strength to strength. It has more registered “Friends” than any other festival in the country; it brings enormous economic benefits to Buxton and is playing a vital part in the current glorious reawakening of this special town.’
The reawakening of Buxton’s sleeping beauty
As Felicity recognised, another vital element in the town’s reawakening is the impending conversion of the Crescent. After two decades of standing idle, when it became England’s ‘most at risk Grade I listed building’, this former jewel in Buxton’s crown is about to be restored as a glittering five-star spa hotel.
Richard Tuffrey, High Peak Borough Council’s Principal Regeneration Officer (Design and Conservation), who has seen many hopes for restoration being dashed over the years, was delighted to tell me: ‘Enabling works, designed to address the issue of potential flood damage, have been completed already, and the money is now in place from a consortium of public funding bodies for the rest of the £46 million project to be completed, once the developers finalise the details with the preferred contractor.’
The Crescent was built in the late eighteenth century as a key component of the Fifth Duke of Devonshire’s plan to make Buxton into a spa to rival Bath.
After more than two centuries, that lofty ambition is about to realised. In line with developer Trevor Osborne’s long-standing plans, the Crescent is destined to become a 79-bed hotel, supplemented by six boutique shops and a restaurant.
A new rear extension will accommodate indoor and outdoor pools, kitchens and a plant room; the former Natural Baths will be re-born as a thermal spa and the old Pump Room will become a tea room, as well as a hub for the ‘Buxton Experience’, where visitors will be able to learn about the history of the spa and the culture of taking the waters.
Three new wonders
Throughout the long years that the Crescent has remained empty, Derbyshire County Council’s Buxton Museum and Art Gallery on nearby Terrace Road has been providing a ‘Wonders of the Peak’ experience for visitors. Thanks to a successful bid for Heritage Lottery Funding made by Derbyshire Museums’ Manager, Ros Westwood, this much loved attraction is about to be given a new lease of life.
Explaining her plans for a radical overhaul of the Wonders of the Peak gallery, Ros said, ‘Although the attraction has a huge following in its present form, I believe the time has come, after 25 years, to give it a facelift so that it might better explain the social, geological and cultural history of the area. The gallery will continue to give visitors the experience of walking through time, but the objects encountered on their journey will be better lit and more clearly interpreted, not only through digital and interactive displays, but also by the use of more readable text on interpretation panels. Extra objects will be added and the timeline will be extended by the inclusion of some 20th century artefacts.’
Clearly enthused by the development, Ros added, ‘I believe that the new gallery will be visually very beautiful and that it will strike a balance that will allow us to cater for family audiences as well those visitors who come to add to their existing knowledge. The work is due to be completed in December 2017, in order to neatly coincide with the museum’s 125th anniversary.’
The £869,000 Lottery grant will allow two further developments to take place, both of which reflect Ros’s philosophy of extending the museum’s reach beyond the confines of the building. A dozen themed digital tours, known as ‘Pocket Wonders’, are being created to allow people to use smart phones or tablets to upload relevant information and images from the museum’s collections as they explore the Peak District countryside. The second development will see a wide range of information about the museum’s collections being posted online to create a series of ‘Armchair Wonders’.
Ros firmly believes that the museum’s three new ‘wonders’ will make it ‘a five-star attraction for the people who will come to stay at Buxton’s new five-star spa hotel’.
Buxton in transition
Yet another imaginative Buxton facelift is taking place in an area adjacent to the Serpentine Gardens, where there is a large derelict greenhouse that was used by High Peak Borough Council as a nursery to cultivate flowers. With the blessing of the council, a group of volunteers known as ‘Transition Buxton’ is setting about renovating the greenhouse and supplementing it with new polytunnels. The group also intends to plant up the existing growing beds and develop the adjacent scrubland as an orchard and a forest garden.
Peter Burgess-Allen of Transition Buxton said: ‘Our plan is to carry out a sustainable refurbishment of the derelict site and transform it into an asset for the community. We intend that the area will be used to encourage local food production on organic and low-energy principles. As the project is being community-led, the volunteers will be able to share in the harvest, but produce will also be sold to supplement income. Working with Derby University and College, we hope to create a community education centre that will promote the growing of fruit, herbs and vegetables.’
This is not the only project being carried out by the Transition Buxton volunteers. As Janet Miller explained, ‘We are creating community orchards in Cote Heath Park and Ashwood Park, where we are planting individually-sponsored fruit trees. This is all part of a drive to encourage a transition to a low-carbon economy, build up resilience to climate change and encourage self-sufficiency.’
Buxton is obviously undergoing a transition on many fronts. The continuing success of the Festival, the radical transformation of the Crescent, three exciting new projects at the museum and Transition Buxton’s work are all playing their part in bringing about a glorious reawakening of the town and ensuring that it will have a positive economic future.
The Buxton Museum and Art Gallery (01629 533190) is open from Tuesday to Friday 9.30 to 5pm (closed Mondays except summer Bank Holidays); Sundays and Bank Holidays 10.30 to 5pm.
If you would like to make a financial contribution to the Serpentine Community Farm and the New Food Education Centre, log on to www.transitionbuxton.co.uk