Is the Drill Hall a special space in Sidmouth? The answer is undoubtedly YES.
Whether or not you believe the Drill Hall should be retained it is impossible to deny that it offers a unique venue amongst Sidmouth halls and spaces. We have nothing else like it.
For size it is only matched by Stowford Community Centre, and Stowford is not a place designed for tourists to visit. Halls like Stowford, in areas like Stowford, can be found all over the country.
The other halls in town are mainly attached to churches and were built for church purposes. They usually have solid floors and were not built with acoustic properties in mind. They are also tucked away and take effort to find.
In comparison the Drill Hall was custom-built to be suitable for many uses and is sited in a position where visitors would be bound to see it and be impressed by the architecture. It was built as much to express the town’s patriotism and prosperity as it was to provide a useful space.
The floors were built to accommodate the stamping of drill and the enthusiasm of dancing. The acoustics were calculated to both dampen echoes and to allow voices and music to carry. The windows were designed to make the space light and airy and to let the seascape to be enjoyed.
This hall was supposed to serve community needs and also to provide yet another reason for visitors to come to Sidmouth and spend their money. There is little reason why it should not do so again.
The only halls which rivalled it in town have been lost, Manor Pavilion when it installed permanent tiered seating and Marsh’s 90 ft long Assembly Room at 4 York Terrace which is now part of the York Hotel.
Sidmouth first received rich visitors for health reasons, it was believed that the sea air and sea bathing were good for you. The town was full of doctors, and health treatments which would now be considered as alternative medicine. For example it was renown for its Nauheim baths which were open all year round at a time when the European providers closed over winter. There are many medical texts from around 1900 extolling the virtues of this bathing regime combined with Schott exercises, as could be obtained in ‘ London, Sidmouth, Leamington, Buxton, Strathpeffer, &c.’ Sidmouth was unique in this select group as it had a coastal location, it also commanded first place after London in the opinion of most medical authors.
After the Second World War and the formation of the NHS in 1948 the treatment of health problems became almost entirely based on drugs and injections/inoculations; other ways of attaining or maintaining health fell by the wayside. Over the past couple of decades alternative ways of living healthily have again been coming to the fore and people have been travelling to ‘retreats’ of varying sorts for health and spa experiences and to de-stress.
The Drill Hall provides an excellent space where activities such as Yoga, Tai Chi and Meditation could be carried out in large groups. Unlike other hall spaces in Sidmouth it also has an associated outdoor space, in both the Ham and the seashore, where people could continue to relax and meet after the formal experience was over. At the moment many people go abroad for such experiences; but then, before Sidmouth made itself into an internationally famous health resort in the 1800s and early 1900s most people who could afford health experiences went abroad too.
Sidmouth could easily once again brand itself as a health destination and the Drill Hall could provide a special space within that branding.