Saturday, November 1, 2008
This crumbling building behind me is now all that is left of Summerland.
Completed in 1971, and sprawling over three and a half acres, she was hailed as the first ever holiday resort of her kind, with a golf course, indoor solarium, heated pool, bars, restaurants, several dance floors and many more facilities, she was quite a flagship in her time. As one of the UK's largest attractions, (yes we are part of the UK, just not a part of Great Britain) in her hey day, thousands of visitors poured through her doors, and even more thousands of pounds swelled into our island's economy. But with the affordability of air travel and with package tours abounding, our thriving tourist industry later found itself on the wane. A rapid decline of visitors to our shores soon ensued, and latterly Summerland was forced to close for the largest part of the year. In 2005, by then little more than an ugly concrete eyesore, she finally closed forever.
Perched as she was, jutting high up overlooking Douglas beach, I became well used to walking under her steely glare.
Not that my radar ever felt easy. There is a chill about her I found hard to shake.
Stripped of all her former glory, the demolition that began in 2006 will eventually lay her to a final rest, though it has not been without problems. Despite many feeling it is not before time, dismantling her has brought back many ghosts, some metaphorical, others possiblly metaphysical, who knows? Contractors have walked out on site, rumours and lore abound, and reports of sightings are common place.
Here is a shot of her in finer days taken by a railway enthusiast in 1973. He was more interested in capturing a record of the oldest electric car in the world, built in 1893 (which incidentally still operates)but that was before he like everyone else there, had any idea of the devastating events shortly to unfold.
Less than a few weeks later, at 7.30pm on the evening of August 2nd 1973, Summerland, with all 3,000 customers and over 200 staff trapped inside, erupted into a giant flaming torch. Fifty-one hapless souls died on that tragic night, and countless more lives were left forever scarred. It took more than half an hour for the fire services to be called, and even then, it was from the unlikely source of a Captain of a ship 3km out at sea. He alerted the HM Coastguard saying, "It looks like the whole of the Isle of Man is on fire.."
The culprits of the blaze were later traced back to being two young boys. Over on a holiday with their families from Liverpool they had (accidentally, as it is claimed) set fire to a small kiosk on the roof, adjacent to the golf course. This tilted over to lay against the perspex covering of the main building, a highly flammable material which was further aided by the concrete flues which served to act as a chimney into the interior. Most of the fire doors were locked, the victims that night had little chance of escape.
This is a newspaper account of the actual event. I apologise for the poor quality, you will need to zoom in, in order to read it.
The chilling part for me is Summerland not only reopened, it retained it's name and went on about it's business without hardly a backwards glance. When I first arrived with my family we visited several times there without so much as a clue as to it's dark history.
I often wonder how the bereaved relatives managed to cope with that?
Oh sure, there was the inevitable government enquiry and building safety regulations were enforced in hope of avoiding any repeat disasters. I believe there is still an annual memorial service held.
I doubt many mourn the demise of Summerland.