You would be hard pressed to find somebody in Stafford who doesn’t bemoan the loss of many great buildings we once had. Dales’ Shop, the Brine Baths, countless pubs – the list goes on.
This is because old buildings aren’t just piles of bricks and mortar, they mean so much more; they are the patches that make up the rich tapestry of our history and without them, Stafford simply is another clone town with no soul or character.
The problem we have here isn’t necessarily the council, town planners or developers – although there are times that they have certainly been destructive forces when it comes to the custodianship of our town’s heritage. The problem is Stafford lacks self-belief and imagination. We are too afraid to fight for what we have – we don’t think of it as special, unique or worth preserving. The sad irony of all of this is Stafford is a wonderful, historic town with such a rich past, much wealthier in terms of what we have been left than many other places.
Our County town’s ancient, medieval, and industrial heritage is spectacular, but perhaps we are just too humble to recognise it – but unless we do take notice, what we have could easily be lost forever.
It is often joked that a Staffordian’s favourite past-time is moaning. It’s all well and good to make light of this, but it would serve us well to understand why. Most people in Stafford feel that their town isn’t theirs anymore and that they have played little part in the changes that have happened in recent years. It’s therefore only natural that people feel they can do nothing but complain. The sad irony of this is that elsewhere across the country threats to historical architecture have been just as present as they have in Stafford.
Famously the great St. Pancras station in London was due for demolition and only saved when local campaigners like the poet John Betjeman stepped in. It only takes local people, equipped with determination and passion to save a town’s heritage.
The Sandonia, which celebrated its centenary in November, has seen many uses over its life.
Firstly, as a theatre and cinema, then a bingo hall and finally a snooker club, which closed leaving the Sandonia to rot.
This varied and coloured history means that today the passion for this building is alive and well. This was evident to me when I launched the campaign by simply posting a photograph of the building, with a statement asking people if they agreed it should be saved. Within 24 hours, thousands of people had stated their agreement with the campaign and tens of thousands had now heard of the campaign as a result.
It was beautiful to hear the many stories people had about their own personal connections with the Sandonia, in fact I was quite overwhelmed by how fond people are of this building. Campaigning to save this building seems a fitting way to mark its one hundredth year.
What does remain however, is the shell of the building itself and the incredibly iconic frontage, as well as a few interior features and some stained glass – well worth saving and arguably architecturally unique in the case of the facade.
However this prior destruction has led a few people to comment on the campaign, saying that it is a lost cause and I would be foolish not to address this. Whilst this damage to the building is terribly sad in one sense, it does provide great opportunity for reworking the building into having a new purpose or function fit for the 21st century: this is not a campaign of nostalgia or fantasy, but a realistic one that accepts that for old buildings to remain, they have to perform an everyday function for people in our town.
Saving the Sandonia would be an investment in Stafford’s economic and cultural future, saving an irreplaceable landmark for years to come.
Market towns that thrive in the modern economy are ones that make the most of their historic environment – just look at Lichfield, Stone or Shrewsbury. Our job as citizens of this town isn’t just to make a life for ourselves but preserve a future for those who come after us, so let’s come together and stop the destruction of this wonderful building. Our focus must be on ensuring that the building is either protected through national listing or local government – otherwise there is a possibility that it could be demolished at any time, even in a matter of weeks. As far as I know the current owners, a property management firm in London, have no plans for the building.
However, Stafford has seen far too many buildings fall prey to the predictable fate of neglect, disrepair and then demolition. That is why it is crucial we must act now. Over the coming weeks and months we will be campaigning hard to get the Sandonia protected and create a plan for its future.
Article by Jack Pearce, founder of Save Our Sandonia