About five miles to the north of the dune system of the Lytham coast lies the seaside town of Blackpool, which once England’s pre-eminent seaside resort. The story of Blackpool is something of a chequered one really. Originally a mere coastal hamlet for centuries the town enjoyed a meteoric rise with the advent of the railway in the 1840’s. Blessed with long stretches of natural sandy beach, and a population just beginning to show the early signs of exploration and mobility to the town boomed as a coastal leisure resort. With the English industrial cities of Manchester and Liverpool to the south, and the Scottish central belt of Glasgow to the north, it became a natural magnet and synonymous with ‘good times’
The good times rolled and with it came investment. Topping out at slightly over 1500 feet, Blackpool Tower, an observation platform and radio beacon was completed in 1894, and unashamedly modelled on a structure in Paris that itself only opened five years earlier. The tower dominates the skyline can be seen from miles around.
In 1896 the ‘Pleasure Beach’ was opened and remains so today in what was really the UK’s first purpose built ‘theme park’. In total the park hosts five different ‘water rides’ and ten different rollercoasters. It was the first in Europe to introduce a fully inverting steel coaster and is the last remaining park in the world to still operate a Steeplechase roller coaster. The ‘Grand National’ is one of only three Möbius Loop coasters in existence, where a singular track “loops” around itself, offering an out-and-back layout and creating a “racing” effect on two parallel tracks
‘The Winter Gardens’ opened in 1878 and is a large entertainment complex, which includes a theatre, ballroom and conference facilities, but which is very much a product of its era. Blackpool also succeed in carving out something of a niche for itself with the ‘illuminations’, an annual lights festival, founded in 1879 and held each year for sixty-six days, until early November at a time when most other English seaside resorts’ seasons are coming to an end. They are 5.2 miles (8 km) long and use over one million bulbs. The display stretches the length of the Promenade
The town enjoyed another mini-boom in the post-war period when austere Britain still hadn’t discovered continental Europe and Blackpool seemed like a pleasure planet of bright lights and fast living. It helped also that the local football involving legends like Stanley Matthews, Stan Mortensen and Jimmy Armfield were successful and leant the town additional sense of glamour
In 1972 Blackpool Zoo opened (a planning mistake given that it seems to have come at the cost of passing up a university that went to Lancaster instead) and even as late as 1986 a significant investment in the opening of the ‘Sandcastle Water Park’ was sense as a vote of confidence in Blackpool. New investment has also been made in the promenade frontage to maintain a sense of aesthetic respectability and for the most that’s worked, but in truth the decline had begun to set in
Here’s the problem.
The Irish Sea is not the Mediterranean. It doesn’t matter how you try and dress it up. Blackpool is about 1000 miles north of the resorts of Spain and Greece. With cheap package tours and a guarantee of sunshine, Blackpool was quickly overtaken and went into decline, from which it has never fully recovered, and in all likelihood never can. In a funny sort of way however, this sense of fading former splendour is almost a part of its appeal today. Some of the original investments that might have appealed to a 1950’s audience has adapted, but their heyday is behind them.
The building blocks are still there, the beaches are still ‘golden’ (well deep yellow anyway), the town still enjoys a reputation for mildly sinful good times and hedonistic behaviours, making it popular with pre-wedding parties and young people/ families who perhaps can’t afford to holiday overseas.
It’s certainly become trendy in some quarters to look down on Blackpool and her likes, but these British seaside towns probably need to be seen in context to understand them. In their halcyon days, they performed a very important function. They were a place to escape to for millions of inhabitants of the UK’s industrial urban areas. Margate served London, Scarborough served Leeds and Newcastle, Ayr served Glasgow, Skegness served the English Midlands, and foremost amongst them as the most glamorous was Blackpool. In this regard, they still offer an interesting snap-shot into a bygone era and social history, but it’s equally true that today they somewhat anachronistic
You can certainly still enjoy a day or night in Blackpool, but it’s probably important to see it for what it was, in order to make sense of what it is. Faraway Fairways are mildly proud of the fact that we’ve managed to get this far into an precis of Blackpool without using the stock phrase “traditional English seaside town”, but that is to some extent what it is. You could honestly describe it as ‘classy’. It isn’t. If you want to drink a little more than perhaps you should, spend a bit of money on small stakes gambling, and the rest of a few adventure ‘rides’, then Blackpool will look after you, don’t be surprised however if you find yourself wondering how on earth Brits ever thought …… It was a product of its age