Down and Out on Union Street

At Plymouth my sat-nav led me astray. Past the bombed-out Charles Church on top of the hill, straight through the neo-Stalinist town centre and down along infamous Union Street where the world once played. Not any more. Run-down, closed-down and mostly cleaned up, only the whiff of a more visceral era lingered still here and there. Old sea-dogs growled at their reflections in dingy taverns. Bullet-headed bouncers gargoyled the entrance to a quaintly-named ‘Gentlemen’s Club’. Outside an all-night corner shop, spectral Plymouth hoes loitered, and lunged at passing shadows. A pair of high-vis policepersons trundled down the street like over-engineered Telly-Tubbies. Not a drunken sailor in sight. Union Street – salty, spent and down on its knees. Then I did a double take and had to swing across the traffic into an empty Aldi car-park. There, among the tattoo parlours and dodgy take-aways, the derelict pubs and boarded-up doss houses, presided the Madame of all Abandoned Buildings, the New Palace Theatre and adjoining Great Western Hotel, a splendid late-Victorian pile which has to be the most interesting building in Plymouth. Opened in 1898 as a ‘Theatre of Varieties’ (where, later, Harry Houdini escaped by the skin of his teeth and Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy split sailors’ sides), it served, in turn, as music hall, bingo hall, night club, and lastly, the Dance Academy, the ecstasy-enhanced centre of the South-West’s hard house and trance scene in the 1990’s. Plymouth’s most popular pleasure palace was finally shut down by the Drug Squad in 2006, and now stands silent, sombre and soulless, its dark façade a strange marriage of naval triumphalism – statues of Drake on high, the defeat of the Spanish Armada in painted tiles over the entrance – and elegant Art Nouveau friezes and lettering. Britannia coupled with Beardsley. Upper windows gaped but otherwise it looked in pretty good shape. I liked its mass, its presence, its whimsical turret. But what pleased me most were the buddleias, bursting from the upper parapets, balconies and chimneys. Miraculously missed by Luftwaffe bombs, the New Palace Theatre has since been quietly occupied and colonized by the airborne seeds of an altogether more persistent and attractive invader. It is humbling to remember that whatever follies we erect, however bold or beautiful or functional or plain ugly, plants will, eventually, in our absence, tear them down. In the end, down on Union Street, Nature is and will be triumphant. No time, or indeed light, to find a way in and explore her reputedly voluptuous and cavernous innards, I did however come back next day to take a few photos of the old dame’s wonderful sprouting facade.

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