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Visit to the cinema is a real chiller
Tuesday, June 26, 2012 South Wales Evening Post
A HERITAGE group's visit to a former bingo hall and cinema in Neath turned into being more than just a bit spooky.
The group, documenting The Empire in The Ropewalk before being demolished, found more than they had bargained for.
Coastal Housing is currently tearing down the building, which opened in 1926, and replacing it with 12 flats.
The group took photographs of the inside of the building, on which they later discovered strange marks, and during their visit they were treated to some spine-tingling moments.
Cled Griffin was part of the group, along with his wife Sylvia Griffin and his daughter.
Mrs Griffin's father was Brynley Symmons, the former chief projectionist and deputy manager at the Empire. She also followed in her father's footsteps and became a projectionist there.
"I have got an open mind about these things," said Mr Griffin, who has created a website dedicated to the Empire.
Mr Griffin said a medium, who was also part of the group, claimed to have been able to make contact with someone.
"The general feeing was that this was a building with happy memories and one that wanted to remain standing to benefit many future generations," he said.
"My wife confirmed some of the things the medium said afterwards, and that they were things she could not have known.
"The medium described my father-in-law and gave his name as Bryn.
"The other odd thing was when my daughter stood in a certain spot she felt icy cold. It is spooky."
He added: "A relative of the builder who constructed the Empire has just been in touch and she said a worker was killed during the construction of the Empire."
Last week demolition work began on the building by Coastal Housing, which is turning it into 12 flats. But the Empire is not gone for good as Mr Griffin, from Rhiwlas in Neath, has created a website tribute to the much-loved landmark.
"It is a piece of history and heritage that is going forever," said Mr Griffin who at the age of 69 went to study IT at college.
"The Empire is part of Neath and in my opinion is a key, cherished part of the town," he said. "It has given entertainment to so many people. I really think it is something that should be noted as to see its disappearance would be a great loss."
As well as pictures and tales of the golden days of cinema, the website is dedicated to Brynley Symmons, who was the former chief projectionist and deputy manager at the Empire.
Mr Symmons's daughter Sylvia followed in her father's footsteps and also became a projectionist there. Mr Griffin met Sylvia at the Empire in 1952 and they married in 1957.
"I knew her father and I knew her, but at I didn't know they were related. It is 60 years ago this week since we first met," he said.
Mr Griffin said Mr Symmons was the one of the first projectionists in the UK to show a movie with sound.
"It was in 1927 at the Castle Cinema in Swansea," he said.
"Bryn went from working at the Castle Cinema to the Empire which was between 1942 to 1956.
"He used to play the Empire's Christie organ while the regular organist, Harold Williams, was in HM Forces.
"Sadly Bryn passed away in 1975. He is not just a memory as the site is dedicated to him."
Mr Griffin said it was a shame the Empire would soon be gone.
"It was built in 1926, in the days of silent films," he said.
"It was one of three cinemas in Neath, as there was also the Gnoll and Windsor cinemas.
"Its last film was in 1960 and it was taken over as a bingo hall. The dance floor was taken over by a snooker company."
'Our market town has been turned into rows of flats'
Tuesday, June 12, 2012South Wales Evening Post.
COUNCIL chiefs have defended themselves against claims they are allowing the historic market town of Neath to be converted into flats.
They said they were trying to strike a balance between heritage and the future regeneration of the town centre.
The debate comes as bulldozers are expected to begin work on demolishing Empire Bingo Hall this week. Coastal Housing is turning it into 12 flats.
Proposals have also been submitted to turn the Windsor Club into flats.
But Neath Port Talbot Council head of property and regeneration, Gareth Nutt, said they were keen to protect the town centre and keep it unique.
He said: "Town centres can not stand still and the council is aiming to strike a balance between ensuring that Neath has a bright future, while also preserving its heritage.
"The rebuilding of the Gwyn Hall and the restoration of Victoria Gardens have enhanced two of the town's key historical landmarks, and the commercial property grants scheme enables business owners to maintain attractive town centre premises.
"The council is working with partners from both the private and voluntary sector to promote all that makes Neath unique."
Scores of residents have spoken out in a Facebook group — Memories of Neath Old and New — which has more than 500 members.
Frustrations have grown as the council's long-awaited £80 million new shopping centre on the site of the old civic centre is yet to get off the ground.
One resident, Steve Morgan, claimed: "The people of Neath are sick to death of the council tearing the heart and soul out of our town. That's OUR town, not their's. We're tired of the regression that seems to be the current policy.
"It's already a shadow of its former self. We're sick to death of hearing about closures, demolitions, and precious little about progressive long term planning strategies."
Town AM Gwenda Thomas said the voices of residents needed to be heard.
"It is of the utmost importance that we listen to the people of Neath and the surrounding area as well as to business people and traders," she said.
Bethan Jenkins, AM for South Wales West, said she was not surprised about the frustrations.
"I've been hearing concerns from traders and from the Chamber of Trade for some time about what is being done to attract more trade to the town," she said.
"The council has to act here, because it stands to reason that if you have to drive to Neath and pay to park, as you do in Swansea, you will invariably go where there is a wider range of shops. We need imagination to conserve Neath's proud past, along with a vision for its future."
Tony Wyn Jones outside the Empire bingo hall
Their comments come as demolition work is due to start on the former Empire Bingo Hall on Monday.
The Coastal Housing development, which will include 12 flats for social rented accommodation, is scheduled to be completed in June 2013.
Sunnybank resident and Blaenhonddan community councillor Tony Wyn Jones said: "We don't need any more flats in the centre of Neath.
"The Empire would have been ideal for a multi-purpose centre for children."
Twelve flats have also been proposed for the old Mackworth Club — also known as the Windsor Club.
Council planners have decided to undergo a site inspection after concerns about parking were raised.
Cimla resident Jason Reynolds said: "People are frustrated with what they are seeing in Neath.
"They are taking the heritage out of the town and putting in flats.
"People moving in are going to overgrow the town and there are no facilities for them.
"People are also seeing the shops going."
There are also concerns about the shops in the town centre.
Chairman of Neath Chamber of Trade Andrew Lodwig said empty shops in the centre included the Dorothy Perkins store and the former Greggs.
"Everything is closing down and nothing is opening," he said.
"I can only sympathise with the traders and shoppers of the town with their frustrations. I am just hoping for the day when we see the contractors on site for the development."
In April a grant of £13 million for phase one of Neath's long-awaited new shopping centre was announced.
But head of property and regeneration Gareth Nutt said there was still a lot of work required before the funding could be used for the first phase.
The council is now promoting a workshop event which will be held at the Bluebell Hotel, Neath, on Monday starting at 5.30pm.
The purpose is to gather views on how to make the most of what Neath has to offer and how best to promote the town to businesses and visitors alike.
Council leader Ali Thomas said: "Neath town centre, and indeed the entire county borough, is a fantastic place to live, to visit and to do business.
"Within the current financial climate it's particularly important for us to be proactive in promoting the local area to businesses and visitors from far and wide.
"I would therefore encourage anyone with a passion for Neath town centre to join this group and help to spread the message."
2nd February 2012
Final curtain at Neath's Empire Bingo Club as flats get green light
OVER the years people danced there, watched films there and had eyes down for a full house there.
But now the curtains have come down for good on Neath's Empire Bingo Club – the sole survivor of the town's entertainment heyday — despite a last-ditch plea to save it.
Planners have given the go-ahead for the building in The Ropewalk to be demolished and replaced with a new development of a dozen flats.
Councillor John Bryant said the Empire was more than 70 years old and was part of the thriving entertainment scene enjoyed by the people of Neath and surrounding villages back in the day.
"There were three cinemas, ballrooms and dancing going on," he said. "The Empire had one of the best ballrooms in Wales.
"This has all gone.
''There's nothing there now. The only entertainment they've got is walking from one pub to another. Both Aberavon and Swansea have cinemas and they must be viable for they wouldn't be there.
"This is the last entertainment centre we've got in Neath. The Gwyn Hall will not appeal to people aged 40 and under.
"The main structure of the Empire is still okay.
''Before we pull it down, I would like us to make an effort to get one of the big entertainment companies to come here because there is money to be made.
"I don't want us in the future to regret pulling it down, just like in Swansea where they regret getting rid of the Mumbles railway."
But head of planning Geoff White said: "We've got to look at the commercial reality.
"If there had been a demand for a cinema in Neath someone would have come forward."
He said the regeneration team had been working hard to try to get such facilities as part of the Neath town centre redevelopment.
"But at the moment they are advising me that it's an unlikely prospect," Mr White told members of the planning committee.
They heard the development would be two storeys high, which would fit in more with the street scene as the Empire was closer to five storeys.
Councillor John Warman said: "There is some sentiment attached to the Empire.
"But that sentiment is fast fading because of the sad state of the building."
He said councillors had fought to save the old Windsor Cinema, but it closed because of market forces.
"It is a sad day," said Mr Warman.
"But is there any point trying to retain that building and wait for someone to come along sometime in the future, if ever?"
Losing the Empire, he said, was not the end of the world as it was important to have people living in the town centre to maintain its vitality.
"There will be opportunities for entertainment in the future," he added.