Tuesday 10 July 2012

Buxton Festival - postcard

Buxton opera house
Buxton Opera House
For the next few days I am based in Buxton, attending five operas (including one double bill); three productions by the festival itself and two visiting productions. The festival, which was founded in 1979, is based around the Buxton Opera House which is at the centre of a complex of buildings which arose because of Buxton's position as a spa town.

In many ways Buxton seems an unlikely spa, it is a down to earth Derbyshire peak district town and hardly like Harrogate (which has always seemed like a little bit of Surrey dropped into Yorkshire). The spa owes its existence to the peak district hills and their properties for refining the water. St. Annes Well is the source of the Buxton thermal waters but it was only in the 18th century that the Dukes of Devonshire decided to develop the spa in emulation of Bath. From this time John Carr's lovely crescent dates, and surrounding this are the various baths (cold and thermal) which are no longer in use. The cold baths are now a shopping centre with some of the old tile work nicely preserved but looking a little out of place amidst the boutiques. The Duke also built a huge dome, a manege and stables to house the horses of the visitors to the spa; the central circular space was roofed over and the building turned into a hospital in the 19th century.

The Dome

In the 19th century Buxton developed with the building of the opera house, the adjacent pavilion gardens wth its great glass house structure. The restoration of Matcham's opera house in the 1970's (which was masterminded by Malcolm Fraser the co-founder of the festival) was matched by the restoration of the pavilion gardens and the glasshouse. But there things stuck. The Crescent was occupied partly by a hotel and partly by council offices and as the 1980's and 1990's progressed, you got the feeling that there were times when the council was not as interested in the festival as it should have been. What could and should have been a centrepiece - the Crescent - was ignored and finally ended up on the buildings at risk register.

Happily, in recent years things have changed. The hospital moved out of the dome and it was taken over by the University of Derby, who now run courses and events there. The pre-concert talks take place there (though not under the stupendous rotunda itself). The dome remains an amazing building and the huge circular central space seems to be crying out for some site-specific work. If you are in Buxton for the festival do go to a pre-concert talk, not just for the information and lively chat, but to see the interior of the dome.

Now, English Heritage, the Lottery and High Peak Council are working on the Crescent. It has had stabilisation work down outside, so that the facade now looks as it should rather than giving one worry that bits might drop off. And plans are in place to develop it as a luxury spa hotel, with planned opening in 2014; this is indeed cause for celebration will finally ensure that the very centre of the festival complex is in use again. Aligned to this is the restoration of the old pump room which will be brought back into use and still allow people to take the waters.

Of course, all this could not happen without Matcham's gem of an opera house.

See our Festival pages:
Buxton Festival 2012
Opera Holland Park 2012
Grange Park Opera 2012
City of London Festival 2012

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