With its trademark red paint, 2,500 tonnes of steelwork and coastal location, Blackpool Tower is a national landmark. However, the passage of time has taken its toll since the tower opened 126 years ago and it has recently been undergoing a major facelift to restore it to past glories.
An iconic tourist attraction, visited by a huge number of people each year, this 185m-tall Victorian engineering masterpiece has been undergoing the replacement and renewal of crucial sections of structural steelwork at various locations around the tower that had corroded.
Further repair work undertaken on behalf of owners Blackpool Council by main contractor and tall buildings specialist Pendrich Height Services – part of Premier Technical Services Group (PTSG) – has included the replacement of a concrete floor 380ft up the tower. PTSG’s engineers first demolished and removed the existing floor before installing new steel supports and then laid the new section of concrete. The project was completed with few issues and on schedule.
BATTERED BY THE ELEMENTS
What has proved less straightforward, as part of Phase II of the contract, is the fate of the open external staircase that corkscrews around the central lift shaft. Although part of the structure since it was opened in 1894, not much, if indeed any, of the original staircase remains. Mainly used for maintenance staff to access the gantry deck at an elevation of 203ft, the staircase is seen as a high priority for structural remediation works and needs to be replaced.
Arup, the global engineering and design consultancy firm working on the project on behalf of Blackpool Council, identified the stairs and supporting beams as requiring remedial work back in 2017. Chris Parsons, Arup associate and structural engineer involved in the project, describes the stairs as still being in ‘a serviceable state’, despite their visible deterioration.
“The Tower is in a highly aggressive marine environment and of steel construction, which was a pioneering thing at the time it was built, but made it far more susceptible to corrosion – something the owners back in the 1890s may not have been aware of.” He points to a ‘high degree of surface corrosion’, which continues to advance year on year. “It [the staircase] has been due for remediation for some time, but there were other areas of priority to be dealt with first.”
FATE IN THE BALANCE
While the council’s planning department has approved the old staircase’s complete removal, exactly what will happen after it is taken down is not yet decided. “We are still in the process of evaluating the options,” confirms Lee Frudd, head of strategic leisure assets at Blackpool Council and project manager for the tower refurbishment works. “This could be a like-for-like replacement; alternatively, new steel ladders and platforms might be installed.”
If the ladders option were to be taken, these would be painted to match the surrounding steelwork and “designed to be as visually unobtrusive as possible”, says Arup’s Parsons. “They would be very difficult to spot.” Alternatively, if the council were to decide on a like-for-like replacement, this would be modelled on the old staircase. “Arup will be carrying out a historic recording of the structure for proper archival purposes,” he states. “The staircase will be carefully recorded as it comes down, so it would be possible at a later date to reconstruct it in new fabricated steel, based on the individual components of the existing staircase, if required.”
The cast-iron landing gratings would also be assessed to see if they could be reinstated, or templated and new castings made. “This would be the same as for the four decorative finials at the top of the legs of the Tower, which were like-for-like replacements – significant, from a heritage point of view,” he adds.
Heritage is an important factor in any such project, of course, and something that was closely looked at by Arup’s specialist heritage consulting team. “They considered the architecture and visual aspect of the Tower to form a view on the heritage significance of removing that part of the structure,” says Parsons. “They concluded that the stairs do add density to the structure, so the recommendation was for removing the stair flights, but maintaining the steel structure that wraps around it and so retain the densifying effect.”
Not replacing the staircase and supporting structure would have no negative impact on the tower, the council believes. “The contribution of the staircase to the aesthetic value of the tower overall remains low, at most, on the large majority of views.”
Merlin Entertainments, which operates the building, has confirmed that any agreed remedial work will be carried out during the normal annual winter maintenance shut-down period. “This is something which takes place from January every year and includes refurbishments of the lifts and any other areas which require attention,” explains Kate Shane, head of the Blackpool Cluster for Merlin. “Any work which does spill over beyond this period will be done during the mid-week off-peak season when we are not open to the public.”
PTSG’s engineers will also be replacing a section of one of the tower’s lift shafts. The two lifts start at 55ft above ground and, from there, carry passengers to an observation platform 380ft up. The lifts were originally designed to be operated by gas engines, each with two cylinders, but these were replaced by electric motors in the 1950s.
Keeping Blackpool Tower in top condition doesn’t end there. Over the next four years, specialist maintenance and repair works will continue to ensure this historic Grade I listed structure is maintained in full operational order, so it can be appreciated and enjoyed for many more years to come.
Yet, even as these major restoration works move into this latest phase, the seaside resort has been taking a battering from the fallout surrounding COVID-19.
In October-November 2020, this reached a low point, as tighter government restrictions kicked in on the eve of the all-important October half-term holidays. In an open letter to Boris Johnson, representatives of more than 1,000 businesses called for greater economic support, warning that the consequences for a place where tourism is the economic lifeblood, worth £1.6bn and supporting more than 25,000 jobs, are potentially devastating.
“As a tourism industry, we find ourselves in uncharted waters,” states Shane. “Losing the Easter and May bank holidays was a terrible start to the tourism season, but to lose the most important two weeks of the year in October half-term is catastrophic.
“Throughout this pandemic, we have fully supported the government efforts. We invested significant amounts in training, PPE and enhanced measures to ensure we were COVID-safe for all of our guests and employees before we re-opened in July. All we ask in return is that the government does right by us and puts in place bespoke measures that will help all of Blackpool’s tourism businesses get to the other side of this crisis.”
Following the introduction of a second national lockdown on November 5, the famous Blackpool Illuminations were suspended until further notice.
But the iconic Blackpool Tower remained illuminated as “a beacon of hope and optimism”.