The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Interior of Taunton Mecca Hall (previously Gaumont Cinema). WT Benslyn, 1932.
Extension to the Museum of Somerset. Feilden Clegg Bradley, 2011

South West

Visit to Taunton, 1st July 2017

A report from the West Group on their recent visit to Taunton 

In glorious sunshine we met up with the South West Group on 1st July for a visit to Taunton. Over 20 members attended in total and it was great to meet South West members face to face.

We met at the Museum of Somerset which is housed in the 12th Century Grade I listed Taunton Castle. The extension shown in the image was designed by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios and opened in September 2011. The courtyard area provides a welcoming public space and the light and airy extension enables innovative displays of Somerset history that appeal to all ages. As their website states, it’s a great example of “the power of conservative, creative re-use”.

Moving on through the centre of Taunton on a very lively Saturday morning we looked at a modern Clark’s shoe shop and compared the architecture of a number of the high street banks. The Lloyds Bank building has two distinctly different facades, the stone faced one in the side street running up the church is more formal and references the rigorous Georgian terrace beyond.

Debenhams (ex-Chapman’s) department store also drew lots of comments as it retains an elegant 1930s frontage and a grand, if hidden, north elevation. In Coal Orchard preparations for the Women’s World Cup cricket were well underway and we admired the new flats fronting the cricket ground for a front-seat view.

Our next visit was to the Brewhouse Theatre (further information here). We were given a very informative talk and tour by Val Hammond of the Brewhouse Theatre. It was started in 1976 on the site of a brewery, the remains of the 18th century brew-master’s house are still incorporated into the theatre’s public space. It was designed by Norman Branson, an innovative London theatre designer who you may want to read about here. The thrust stage allows great views from all 352 seats. Following both extensions and closures in the 1980s and 1990s the theatre is now thriving and there are big plans for further expansion which are on their website. We were particularly interested in the unusual roof covering a number of small studios. During the tour we got a close up view of their construction which raised lots of comment.

Close by Wetherspoons have done a good job in maintaining an Art Deco ex building supply store building called The Coal Orchard. In the afternoon we visited the Mecca Hall, previously the Gaumont Cinema to look at the stunning Art Deco interior. The building was opened in 1932, it could seat 1476 people and was designed by Birmingham architects WT Benslyn. The stone facing was sculptured by Newbury A Trent, who was noted for war memorials. Further information here. During the 1960s it was a popular venue for live concerts hosting amongst many The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. It closed as a cinema in 1981 and reopened as Top Rank Bingo, later Mecca. The interior retains many of its original features, the ceiling is centred on a shell-like formation with concealed lighting and theme continues in the wall decorations. We were shown a hidden dressing room door signed by band members from way back and instructed in the ancient art of bingo.  Mecca are doing a good job in maintaining this Grade II listed building.

The final visit of the day was to County Hall, designed in 1935 by E Vincent Harris, the same architect as Bristol City Hall and is listed Grade II.  This has no mention of the mythical animal figures on the railings which the revised Somerset South and West Pevsner (2014) by Julian Orbach describes as “dragons clutching sceptres like ice creams” and which attracted our attention. The 1960’s buildings on the CC HQ site akin to Hicklin’s at Cornwall CC HQ in Truro are by Goodwin and Tatum of London and are not listed.

Many thanks to Bob and Geoff Stow of the South West Group for organising a great day, and making sure the sun shone was an added bonus.

Photos and text courtesy of the C20 West Group.