Campaigners make case for Sidmouth’s Drill Hall

Sidmouth, Port Royal. Picture by Alex Walton. Ref shs 0931-03-12AW

Sidmouth, Port Royal. Picture by Alex Walton. Ref shs 0931-03-12AW - Credit: Archant

A reopened Sidmouth Drill Hall could bring in vital new tourists, act as a memory bank for the town’s maritime history – and could serve as the ‘catalyst’ for the wider regeneration of Port Royal.

An aspiration for Sidmouth's Drill Hall. Image by Alex Vick.

An aspiration for Sidmouth's Drill Hall. Image by Alex Vick. - Credit: Archant

These are some of the conclusions of a report on the disused property on The Esplanade, which has stood empty for decades.

It was commissioned by the Sidmouth Drill Hall Hub community interest company (CIC), a group vying for the premises to be reopened as a venue for the benefit of all – with a restaurant, art gallery, work spaces and learning opportunities among the offerings.

The report’s focus is on ‘responsible’ tourism, with ideas such as promoting the town’s maritime heritage and a ‘fish to plate’ theme. It says attracting visitors, plus renting out classroom space, will allow it to develop into a viable business beyond grants or public funding.

The report had input from various local and national groups, including Sidmouth Chamber of Commerce, Sidmouth Primary School and Sidmouth Hotels Ltd. The latter flagged up concerns that its core client group will ‘effectively disappear’ and it needs to be resilient enough to attract new visitors.

Figures from the Sidmouth Guide show the number of bed and breakfasts and guest houses has fallen from 52 in 1952 to 11 last year. Over the same period, the number of hotels dropped from 41 to 12. The report also notes that tourism accounted for 28 per cent of all jobs in Sidmouth in 2011.

The Drill Hall opened in 1895 as a new home for the Volunteer Rifles and it went on to host dances, theatrical performances, protests and meetings of everyone from the RSPCA to the Ratepayers’ Association.

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The property ended up in the hands of the Cadet Force, and is now under the ownership of East Devon District Council.

Its attempts to demolish the premises have been resisted by campaigners, who went on to form the CIC.

There are precedents for drill halls reopening – one in Lyme Regis became its Marine Theatre, a busy cultural centre that is home to Lyme Youth Theatre. Bristol’s is now an ‘incubation space’ for new creative projects and social businesses. Lincoln’s now has sponsorship from Siemens and is now a multi-functional space.

The report was launched at Kennaway House on Wednesday as part of Climate Week. Campaigner Matt Booth said he believes it effectively makes the case for Sidmouth Drill Hall’s regeneration and it can feed into the town’s Neighbourhood Plan and the forthcoming Port Royal scoping study.

He added: “I do hope that [the report] will provide a focal point to moving forward and that more people will now engage with the campaign.”

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