Consultant on a bandstand mission

Restoration and reuse of old Victorian park features championed via book and dedicated website.

Bandstands: brilliant examples
Bandstands: brilliant examples

There are brilliant, boring and very bad bandstands - and parks consultant and writer Paul Rabbitts is on a mission to tell us about them.

His recently published book Bandstands of Britain (The History Press) looks at the golden age of British bandstands, when they were constantly in use.

He said: "The brass band movement was massive. There were 40,000 in the late 1800s. Their popularity lasted until World War Two, when a lot of the bandstands were plundered for the war effort. After the war people had gramophones, radio and television."

While bandstands tend to occupy peaceful locations in parks, they are not without controversy. In Bedford Park a decision to build a new "badly designed" bandstand without proper consultation did not go down well with locals, said Rabbitts.

There were near riots when the Bedford town bandsmen discovered that their Luton counterparts had been booked to play the opening concert.

"There are loads of fascinating little stories," said Rabbitts, who is doing a PhD on popular entertainment in Victorian parks.

His obsession began when he was head of parks development at Middlesbrough Council and involved in a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) project. Not satisfied with a proposal to replace a park's Victorian structure with "a bog-standard bandstand", he started researching the original. His team then worked up proposals to rebuild it to the original design.

"It's the iconic status of them, their uniqueness and their important place in public parks," he said, adding that this is not limited to Victorian times. David Bowie, then on the verge of fame, played in a bandstand at a free festival at Beckenham Recreation Ground in 1979.

But sadly many have fallen into neglect. On his website Rabbitts lists a database of 1,150 bandstands (he is up to "L"). But he also names and shames parks with bad bandstands, adding damning descriptions (see box).

"There is no excuse for it," he added. "There's the money out there to restore them. I've seen it done. The key is a sense of ownership. In Watford, where I work, the bandstand can be used for anything - bands, arts and crafts. In Regent's Park they have Jewish folk music. In North Lodge Park, Darlington, it's the centre for a blues festival delivered by the friends group."

Rabbitts said he believes that a new golden age for the humble bandstand could be just around the corner. So far the HLF has funded 150 refurbishments and now expects bidders to devise activity plans for their bandstands, encouraging them to think creatively about the use of the facilities.

Bad bandstands - Room for improvement

Rugby Rec, Warwickshire "The rec is a fantastic piece of open space near a busy and popular leisure centre, yet this once important relic of an earlier leisure pursuit and activity, still so relevant, is ignored."

Brigg, North Lincolnshire "An Ollerton bandstand - lovely condition but just so very dull."

Billingham, Stockton-on-Tees "It has to be the worst, most brutal bandstand in the kingdom. I am struggling to find a single redeeming feature."

Ryelands Park, Lancaster, Lancashire "The pigeons certainly love it as the roof was full of them. It has to be the worst one I have seen and deserves better. Utterly disgraceful."


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