BY PETE WOLSTENCROFT
In April 1846, the railway arrived in Blackpool, planting the seeds for the growth of the world’s first mass tourism resort. With the possible exception of the climate, which can be – let’s just say uncooperative – Blackpool has many of the right ingredients to make a holiday destination. Seven miles of golden sands stretch down the coast of the Irish Sea on the westernmost limit of the Fylde Peninsula. Once the railway was established, this new form of transport meant that holidaymakers – many of whom were hungry for their first glimpse of the sea – could visit the coast from their homes in the industrial cities of the north of England.
Local entrepreneurs were quick to build the various bits of tourist infrastructure that would secure the future of the resort and guarantee its popularity in the future. Such was their industry, that it was once the proud boast that Blackpool had more hotel rooms than there were in all of Greece.
From the toolkit of features with which to create a memorable holiday, Blackpool has the lot. Three piers, one giant amusement park, a breathtaking theatre, an awarding winning zoo, a municipal park that is regularly voted the best in Britain, amusement arcades and a host of traditional attractions running the gamut from donkeys on the beach, to Gypsy fortune tellers. Blackpool has it all.
Such a thing would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
Oh, and I nearly forgot the 518 feet and 9 inches of steel and iron that go to make up Blackpool Tower. It might only be half the height of the Eiffel Tower, but can its French counterpart boast, a world-famous ballroom and a view of the Isle of Man? When I was growing up in the town in the 60s and 70s, the Tower also had a zoo and an aquarium in its lower levels. These are long gone now, but live on in the memories of locals, who are known as the “sand grown’uns”.
In recent years, Blackpool has experienced the doldrums of declining demand for the traditional bucket and spade holiday so beloved by comedy sketch writers and postcard designers. But we northerners are nothing if not resilient and things are, once again, on the up and up in this doyen of British seaside resorts.
The beaches are cleaner than they have been for many years. The seas that fringe those beaches boast improved water quality. Just the other day, I saw a pod of eight bottle nosed dolphins frolicking in the waves at the end of the South Pier. Such a thing would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
The town council, not always the most popular civic body in the world, does have the happy knack of attracting visitors to the town. Some of these visitors indulge passions that are best described as niche. On the day I saw the aforementioned dolphins, a good number of people were launching themselves off a platform, which dangled from the top of a crane I judged to be at least 180 feet tall. (The Tower made a handy point of comparison.) These people were involved in something called “base jumping”, which is, I believe, a way of showing that you are clinically insane without actually being institutionalised. It involves tiny parachutes that look as if they would struggle to carry the weight of an Action Man doll.
More sedate passions are also indulged. Blackpool is virtually synonymous with ballroom dancing and every year the Tower Ballroom hosts, not only the final of the BBC show Strictly Come Dancing, but also the paso dobles and rumbas of keen amateurs from around the world.
A way of showing that you are clinically insane without actually being institutionalised.
If you don’t fancy a foxtrot, you might want to take in a darts game, or attend one of the many meetings that bring pigeon fanciers to the town each year. Or maybe it is the Rebellion Festival that catches your eye. (It certainly catches the eye of keen local photographers). Those who embraced the punk rock movement, from its first flowerings in 1976, besiege the resort with their multi-coloured Mohican haircuts, hand painted leather jackets and ill-advised facial piercings. Many of these revellers must be well into their sixties by now, their pogoing days long behind them, as arthritis and dodgy hips have robbed them of much of their springiness. Yet still they come, gripped by a messianic fervour and a firm conviction that punk rock is not dead. You can’t help but admire their faith.
And where once Blackpool’s culinary offering was characterised by fish and chips, “flasks of tea for the sands” and candy floss, now it has restaurants offering the cuisine of: Hungary, Thailand, China, Italy and the whole of the Indian Sub Continent. In the place of rather grim keg beers, most bars and pubs now serve a decent range of craft ales. Gin and Prosecco have replaced pints of mild and unlikely combinations of lager and fruit cordials. There are still hot dog stands and burger joints that offer their products “with, or without onions”, as if the onion-free option is seen as being some kind of bonus. I suspect that, in a town that is a virtual cathedral to kitsch, they will always be there. Just don’t ask for the wine list.
When I was growing up in the town, such was the wealth of its entrepreneurs, that local kids gave barely a glance to Rolls Royces and Aston Martins. That might not be true today, but, as the number of films and television programmes made in the town has expanded exponentially, there is a new generation of youngsters, for whom rubbing shoulders with an Imperial Storm Trooper is nothing out of the ordinary. (A part of the Star Wars franchise was recently filmed a couple of miles up the coast.)
Blackpool might not be to everybody’s taste, but unless you have been here at least once, I can’t help but feel that you will never truly get a handle on what it means to be British.