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Royal Weddings - Britain Then and Now

15/12/2010


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On the day Prince William walks down the aisle in April, the world will be a very different place to when his parents married in 1981.

Then of course there were no emails; mobile/cell phones were in their infancy, and The Tweets was the name of a band whose “Birdy Song” peaked at Number Two in the UK pop charts that year, and became a big hit across the dance-floors of Europe (as well as topping a chart of the most annoying songs of all time).

But it isn’t just the virtual world that has changed, Westminster Abbey may be little altered from 30 years ago, but the rest of the capital, and indeed many other UK cities, have changed beyond belief.

When Charles and Diana wed at St Paul’s Cathedral on 29 July 1981, the recently opened NatWest Tower (now called Tower 42) was the tallest building in the UK, but only stood at 183metres/600 feet high – now Renzo Piano’s Shard by London Bridge has just become the tallest building in Britain, having topped Canary Wharf’s One Canada Square, and when completed in 2013 The Shard will stand at 1017 feet.

In the month of the wedding, the London Docklands Development Corporation was established, with the aim of regenerating the old docklands in East London, which had fallen into disuse. Canary Wharf was not due to be completed for another ten years, while the Docklands Light Railway and London City Airport were not in operation for another six years. (The Museum of London Docklands is an excellent place to find out more about this area).

And the East End of Brick Lane, Shoreditch and Hoxton, with its vibrant markets, lively bars and art galleries, now one of the top spots for visitors to London, certainly wasn’t on the average itinerary of 30 years ago.

The South Bank of the Thames has also completely changed. In 1981 American actor Sam Wanamaker was still campaigning to build a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe (building work didn’t start till 1993) while the 02 Arena, which has just posted record ticket sales of £60.3million and celebrated its third year in a row as the world's most popular music venue, was just a site of contaminated land, on the Greenwich Peninsula. And if you climbed to the top of St Paul’s in 1981, there was no Millennium Bridge to see, and what was to become the Tate Modern was just an old disused industrial building: 1981 was the year that Bankside Power Station closed due to increased oil prices, making other methods of generating electricity more efficient, but it was nearly another 20 years before the art gallery opened on the site, in May 2000. One of London’s most popular tourist attractions, the Tate Modern is now looking to build a major new extension with the aim of it opening in 2012, and 2011 exhibitions include the first major exhibition of Joan Miro’s work in almost 50 years.

In London, it was another five years before Phantom of the Opera fans started queuing round the block for returned tickets – while Cats had just opened two months before, in May 1981. Meanwhile Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap had been playing to audiences in London for a mere 30 years. Musicals are still pulling in the crowds – Legally Blonde has been running for a year and is currently booking till October 2011; Priscilla Queen of the Desert is approaching its second birthday while coming up next year is Shrek the Musical – previewing from the week after the Royal Wedding; while a new musical adaptation of the classic weepie, Love Story, opens this week.

After the royal wedding in 1981, the family assembled on the balcony of Buckingham Palace before cheering crowds in the Mall, but that was about as close as visitors could get to the palace: nowadays the summer opening of the Buckingham Palace State Apartments is a staple of the tourist calendar, but they only opened to the public in 1993, to help raise money for rebuilding of damaged areas of Windsor Castle after the fire there. In 2011 the Apartments will be open from 1 August to 25 September.

LIVERPOOL

Around the country, other major cities were also about to undergo a major revival. Liverpool of course was already famous as the home of the Beatles and of Liverpool football club – but it was also home to derelict dock buildings, and it would be another two years before work began on transforming the Albert Dock buildings. Today it is one of the top destinations for visitors in the city, with the Beatles Story, the Merseyside Maritime Museum and the Tate Liverpool (exhibitions there next year include the first major exhibition of the popular Belgian Surrealist Rene Magritte in the UK in almost 20 years) as well as being a great place for restaurants and cafes. And next summer, the new Museum of Liverpool is due to open nearby at Pier Head.

MANCHESTER

Two days before Charles and Diana walked down the aisle, Ken and Deirdre Barlow were married – okay so Coronation Street, celebrating its 50th anniversary this week, isn’t real, and this was a fictional wedding, but Manchester where it is filmed has also changed radically since the soap wedding. Like London, the docklands of Manchester, which closed in the early 1980s, have been transformed, Salford Quays now offering museums and galleries like The Lowry, and the Imperial War Museum North. And Canal Street, now the hub of nightlife in the city, only really became established in the late 1980s/early 1990s as THE place to go in the city. In 2011, those looking for “higher” culture than “Corrie” will want to check out the third Manchester International Festival, from 30 June – 17 July, “the world‘s first festival of original, new work and special events” which takes place biennially. Those put into the romantic mood by the Royal Wedding may like to check out the World Premiere of Ghost The Musical, at Manchester Opera House from 28 March to 14 May.

BIRMINGHAM AND NEWCASTLE/GATESHEAD

Birmingham has also changed with the city centre being pedestrianised, the opening of the Symphony Hall in 1991 and the revamped Bullring, with the iconic Selfridges, completed in 2003; while Newcastle and Gateshead, on opposite sides of the River Tyne have also been completely transformed, with the opening of The Baltic Centre of Contemporary Art, in a former flour mill, in 2002, the building of The Sage Gateshead and the Gateshead Millennium Bridge “ the world's first and only tilting bridge”.

GLASGOW

In Scotland, Glasgow has cemented its long-standing reputation for shopping with designer stores and malls, and added the Gallery of Modern Art and the Burrell Collection to the popular Kelvingrove – which itself has recently undergone a major refurbishment. The Glasgow School of Art has been on the cultural map for decades but the contribution of its architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh has been accentuated over the last decade or so and the Mackintosh Trail is now firmly on the visitor map.

And next year there is a major new reason to visit the city – the opening of the new Riverside Museum, designed by Zaha Hadid (architect of the Aquatic Centre in the Olympic Park) in the early summer. It will be the new home for the city’s world-class transport collection, and be located where the River Clyde meets the River Kelvin at the heart of Glasgow Harbour. Visitors will enter a vast free-flowing space, split over two floors and showcasing more than 3,000 objects from locomotives, trams and cars to ship models and motorbikes. The majority of the objects will fall into one of the museum’s 150 ‘story displays’, which will tell the personal stories behind the objects and introduce hundreds of individuals: from bicycle-makers and tram conductresses to shipyard workers and fire fighters.

CARDIFF

In the Welsh capital, the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation was set up in 1987 to regenerate the docklands there, with the Wales Millennium Centre, opened in 2004, among the main attractions of the area, while the Millennium Stadium opened in the City Centre in 1999 – now offering both world class sport and concerts.

But it is not just the buildings in Britain that have changed in the last 30 years, the lifestyle of the Brits, and therefore visitors to the UK, has also changed.

FOOD

Take food for example: in 1981 Jamie Oliver, aged six, was only just old enough to eat school dinners, let alone try to change them, while Gordon Ramsay was still at school, and still hoping to be a professional footballer . And in the 1980s people would go to pubs just to drink, not to eat as well: The Eagle in Clerkenwell, London, generally acknowledged to be the first gastropub, didn’t start offering good food in a pub setting for another 10 years or so. The food “revolution” began in the capital but has since spread round the country so every region has good food in pubs and restaurants, not just in cities but in seaside resorts and country towns. Cornwall, for example, used to be one of the top destinations for visitors, but food would probably not have been one of the main attractions: now Rick Stein has made Padstow a foodie destination in itself while all round the coast at towns like St Ives and Fowey, visitors can enjoy excellent food along with the views.

HOTELS

Hotels have also changed, with the opening of new boutique hotels such as the Malmaison and Hotel du Vin chains round the country offering stylish, informal places to stay, and the introduction of spas to many hotels. Increasingly visitors expect to get active on holidays – with the result that activity centres have also mushroomed and offer a much wider range of things to do, such as coasteering, which took off (like its participants) in places like Pembrokeshire, west Wales, in the 1990s.

FREE ENTRY

Nowadays we take our free museums and galleries for granted, but the government only introduced free entry for all the national collections in 2001. We also now demand a good café or restaurant along with our exhibitions – and the period has seen a sea-change in the offering: it was in the 1980s that the V and A controversially advertised itself as an “An ace cafe with quite a nice museum attached'. Nowadays, for example, the Portrait Restaurant offers fabulous views over Nelson’s Column and the London skyline from the National Portrait Gallery, as does the Tower Restaurant over the Edinburgh skyline from the National Museum of Scotland and the café at Tate St Ives, over the rooftops of the town and the surfers on the beach, to name just a couple.

GARDENS

Britain is known worldwide for its gardens, and of course some of the greatest are centuries old -but 30 years ago two of the most popular were not yet developed. Alnwick Garden in Northumberland is only 10 years old, while the idea of the Eden Project came about in the 1990s during the restoration of the nearby Lost Gardens of Heligan by Tim Smit. And in the year that Charles and Diana married, Tony and Eira Hibbert bought Trebah in Cornwall as their retirement home “where they could eke out their last few years in peace and quiet and where there would be no work, no worries and no responsibilities. They discovered, too late, that under the jungle that had grown up lay the remains of a once famous garden. They were persuaded to give up the first 3 years of.


ENDS

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