December 8 will mark 50 years since the opening of Campus West. We look back at the history of a beloved venue, one that looked doomed to fail, but became a cornerstone of Welwyn Garden City.

Early years and worrying rumours

Campus West opened in 1973, with distinguished actress and local resident Dame Flora Robson cutting the ribbon to a fanfare from the Band of The Scots Guards.

The complex originally consisted of a theatre-cinema, a large exhibition hall known as the Glasshouse, and a banqueting hall which held regular dinner dances with different themes, including ‘strict tempo’ on Mondays and ‘free and easy’ on Tuesday afternoons.

Welwyn Hatfield Times: Campus West under construction.Campus West under construction. (Image: Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council)

Not only did the entertainment doors, but Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman also officially opened the then-new Welwyn Garden City Public Library - a wing of Campus West.

Despite early excitement, Campus West soon ran into problems.

There were claims of vandalism, and worrying rumours that the building itself was unsafe.

It looked doomed to fail, but a change of fortune and nights that still get talked about today helped turn the venue around.

Welwyn Hatfield Times: Campus West in the 1970s.Campus West in the 1970s. (Image: Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council)

West One

By the 1980s, dinner dances were a thing of the past. The banquet hall was turned into the West One nightclub, launching Campus West's most important era.

With a capacity of 800, a state-of-the-art sound system, stylish décor and Welwyn Hatfield's longest bar, the venue became the place to be for clubbers and party-goers.

Top DJs performed too, including BBC Radio 1’s Steve Wright, making for memorable nights at West One.

Welwyn Hatfield Times: West One was open for 10 years before closing in 1998.West One was open for 10 years before closing in 1998. (Image: Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council)

But, after 10 years, the nightclub closed in 1998 and the space was used for conferences.

To this day, those who partied at West One still speak fondly of the venue, reminiscing about the times they spent dancing the night away with friends, and maybe drinking a little too much on occasion.

There were further changes too, as the Glasshouse exhibition hall was turned into a purpose-built roller skating rink, Roller City, in 1987, and the Campus West we love and know today was starting to take shape.

Welwyn Hatfield Times: Inside the West One nightclub.Inside the West One nightclub. (Image: Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council)

Campus West today

Roller City is still going strong to this day, films are still being shown too, with Monday Night Classics screening movies from 1973 onwards, and there is the soft play area for children.

Over the years, many notable performers have trodden the boards of the Campus West stage in what was then called the Hawthorne Theatre, including actors Timothy West, Simon Callow and Charlie Drake.

After a number of years, the stage curtains were finally pulled back again in 2023, as live performances returned to Campus West, beginning with the highly-acclaimed and sold out Best in Comedy show in November.

Welwyn Hatfield Times: Roller City opened in 1987 and is still popular today.Roller City opened in 1987 and is still popular today. (Image: Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council)

More live stage performances are planned for 2024, including another Best in Comedy show, and music from The Elton John Show and One Night in Dublin.

Then there are the timeless pantomime performances that have graced Campus West’s stage for many years.

This year’s production of Robin Hood is a nod to the very first panto staged at the venue, while the adult-only Blue Panto has become increasingly popular.

As part of the 50th anniversary celebrations, a special display has been mounted throughout the Campus West building, taking visitors on a nostalgic journey through the years with old photographs, autographed promotional posters, newspaper cuttings, marketing materials and props from past shows.

Welwyn Hatfield Times: The panto is a much-loved part of the Campus West calendar.The panto is a much-loved part of the Campus West calendar. (Image: A2Zoom Photographic)

A special place

Campus West looked doomed to fail not long after it had opened, but over the past 50 years, it has become a cornerstone of the community in Welwyn Garden City.

Cllr Max Holloway, executive member for community and leisure at Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council - which owns and runs the venue - described it as a "special place", and paid tribute to all those who have worked there.

"Campus West holds a special place in the memories and lives of so many of us in Welwyn Hatfield," he said. 

"It has been an indispensable part of our community for 50 years and the way that the venue has successfully adapted to changing times is a real testament to the dedication and support of everyone that has worked at or visited Campus West over the years.

"I can’t wait to keep enjoying all that Campus West has to offer. Here’s to the next 50 years."