Decimus and Peter: A Symphony in Stone

Queens Terrace, Fleetwood, Image by SteveW2022 CC-BY-SA 2.0

There are along the Fylde Coast only two buildings granted Grade I listing status. Both only a short walk from the seashore, the most famous is the iron Blackpool Tower of the Tower buildings and the other is Lytham Hall, a mainly Jacobean manor house built on the site of an early medieval monastery. On the other side of the Fylde to Lytham and far from the lights and roar of Blackpool holiday resort stands the old fishing port of Fleetwood, once a thriving trading town comprising the families of the thousands of trawlermen and sailors working at sea or on the old docks there. Adding surprising character and charm to Fleetwood, Rossall and old Thornton, however, are the densest collections of Grade II listed buildings anywhere in the Fylde. Who has not noticed the white facade of Fleetwood Maritime museum with its unusual portico, the renovated windmills dotted throughout the region? Who has not, when visiting during the annual heritage festival, wondered at the medley of stone chapels and stained glass inside Rossall School or strolled in admiration around the strange lighthouses at Fleetwood Promenade? One man was responsible for designing many of these structures. His name was Decimus Burton.

Along with his friend, Victorian entrepreneur and landowner Peter Fleetwood Hesketh, the exterior of whose crypt, incidentally, can be seen at St. Chad’s medieval church in Poulton-le-Fylde, Decimus Burton was a notable architect who became instrumental in raising the profile and fortunes of this area. Where local Peter Fleetwood Hesketh, born into old families uniting the Fleetwoods with their rivals Heskeths, was the major investor in plans for Fleetwood town and Rossall School, southerner Decimus was already successful in London, his name informing he was simply the tenth son of a James Burton. Unable to settle on any reasonable name for the new town, they eventually chose ‘Fleetwood’. Most of the urban architecture there whose plans Decimus Burton created and saw brought to fruition was constructed sometime between 1836 and 1843. Like totems guarding this former seafaring town against ill-luck and disaster, his buildings are found at strategic points throughout Fleetwood.

Fleetwood Museum, once the Customs House, image by SteveW2022 CC-BY-SA 2.0

Four storeys high, the white Portland stone of Decimus Burton’s old Customs House on the seafront gleams visible from across the River Wyre at Knott End and this is today better known as Fleetwood Museum, renowned not only for its appealing neo-Georgian exterior, portico and mosaic entrance floor but also for its present function as a museum commemorating the town’s watery past through its gallery exhibits, organised tours, outreach programmes and Harriet, a 123 year-old gigantic wooden fishing smack ship which was built in Fleetwood and now lives in the museum’s back garden shed. Sadly, this friendly museum seems scheduled to close this spring due to cuts to Lancashire County Council funding. Close by stand Burton’s popular Queens Terrace townhouses; graceful in dove grey stone, with three and four storeys, tall windows and railed basements, these terraced houses are still inhabited today but have been converted into flats.

The North Euston Hotel, image by Alexander P Kapp, CC-BY-SA 2.0

Further down the promenade, behind the walled bowling club and recently re-vamped park, is the North Euston Hotel. This was also designed by Decimus Burton and opened in 1841. Built in three storeys of Portland stone with ashlar dressings and slate, its unusual, elegant arc of windows gazes onto Morecambe Bay towards Bowland, Lancaster, Heysham and the South Lakes. Well-used by residents and visitors, Decimus Burton’s hotel still offers a welcome rest and a corner of seaside luxury in this market town. He built St. Peter’s Anglican Church too and this together with its graveyard are oddly prominent, right in the centre of town by the tramtracks and set between streets of attractive, white townhouses.

Fleetwood Lighthouse, image by Steve F. CC-BY-SA. 2.0

Unavoidable for drivers, pedestrians and fishermen are the symbols of Fleetwood town, its Decimus Burton stone lighthouses. It is difficult to conjure up a mental image of the town without them. The smaller Lower Lighthouse perches on a lonely spot just near the Euston Hotel, closely overlooking the pebbles and seaweed of the beach below. Three tiers of Stourton Whiteston, its ground floor is encircles by stone seating behind rounded pillars so it is welcoming site for everyone but most especially for painters and writers. Numerous seascapes depicting the maritime life of this old town originated here. Those interested can view an impressive selection of watercolour and oil paintings of named sailing vessels, the town and the sea at the Museum and some of the original plans, drawings and sketches can be viewed in the Local History Centres at Blackpool or Fleetwood libraries, where reference collections present old photographs of 19th century vessels, early 20th century flotillas and ghostly single ships on the sea around this spot.

The Museum has photographs and documentation of the heroic trawlers too that were commandeered during wartime and dressed up as gunboats; the few ships that survived sea battles found themselves returned to their former trawling status once back home. It is said the light of Lower Lighthouse can be seen from ships many miles out at sea. There is also a hot drinks stall nearby where a chunky marshmallow accompanies hot chocolate that you can indulge in on a winter’s day. Standing on the town side of the hotel, next to the tram terminus on Pharos Street is the much taller Upper Lighthouse looking towards the ferry jetty. Its slender form of red sandstone is topped by a light, which like that of its sister lighthouse along the promenade is visible from some distance out to sea. How many returning trawler crews, exhausted from weeks or months hunting fish in icy or stormy seas far away, must have smiled and cheered at the welcoming lighthouse lanterns telling they were nearly home again, home from the sea? Both lighthouses opened in 1840.

The promenade here between the lighthouses and further along Fleetwood promenade is marked at intervals by monuments and public sculpture inscribed with the names and years of ships and numbers of crew lost to the sea. Some of the original newspaper articles and old medals presented to old seadogs or their tearful families await visitors inside Fleetwood Museum. The large medals with superb relief designs lie on velvet cushions inside well-polished glass cases, some displaying their sailors’ superstitious mantra ‘Let Not the Deep Swallow Me Up’.

Fuelled with the investments of Peter Fleetwood Hesketh and the belief of the town’s aldermen, Decimus Burton was able to inject new elements of taste and style into the Fleetwood skyline. Today, seagulls bobbing on currents of air, wheel above the sea and cry to the wind; tourists stroll lazily along the seafront enjoying the bracing sea air, praising the Marine Hall gardens with its modern indoor swimming baths, the neat bowling greens or marvelling at the extraordinary vision of Decimus Burton and Peter Fleetwood Hesketh, realised in stone, bricks and glass, a symphony of creams, whites, dove greys and terracotta reds that characterises the Fleetwood listed buildings dreamed by Decimus Burton.

Lynne Charoenkitsuksun

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