Among the tatty, tacky trinkets adorning the Golden Mile and even further along the front towards North Pier, there were gems to be found. Like many resorts, Blackpool thrived in the mid-eighteenth century, when taking to the coast was thought to improve well-being. It still is, despite a bit of litter and dog muck en route to the therapy of a sea which is not always too clean.
The town had a seven-mile stretch of sandy beach, and by the 1840s, a railway, which is how I still reached it in 2017, meandering through grimy northern industrial towns towards the flatlands by the sea, as so many others have. That it has a railway at all, surviving Beeching, is a bonus.
Accessible to workers, Blackpool rose to prominence with three piers, donkeys, fortune tellers and the waft of fish and chips. The smell of these still lingers. It was popular for mill workers to visit during wakes weeks, and was the holiday of choice for many Glaswegians; even as a child in Birmingham, I used to go on Dad’s subsidised factory weekend away at Illumination time.
North Pier was at one time the elite end of town which still houses the Imperial and Hilton hotels, though far shabbier abodes hide behind them. In 1878, the Winter Gardens complex was built, including its Opera House. 3 million people were said to visit by the 1890s, and the holiday season was extended into September/October by the famous Illuminations. As a child, these made my eyes wide with wonder. Colour, life, vibrancy. Blackpool was exciting. It even had a tower (still does) which opened in 1894, housing a ballroom and a glass walkway.
Today, Blackpool only has 6 million visitors, many staying for weekends, not weeks at a time, as the rise of cheap package holidays with guaranteed sunshine hit the troubled tourist trade some years ago. It used to host Labour Party conferences but even they now tend to Manchester or Liverpool when in the north, far more politicised places that are trendy with it.
Now, the seaside town is promoted in different ways, lauding it as the northern equivalent of Brighton in gay tourism, and a centre for drag/burlesque. Certainly, there are some interesting bars. Many of the pubs serve three kinds of wine: red, white and rose. But you get a large glass and it comes cheap.
It has certainly changed. Sticks of rock so beloved of childhood tooth decay now come in flavours like gin and tonic, Sambuca and ganja, though you can still get the occasional mint humbug or rhubarb and custard. The piers are rotting, many of the bed & breakfasts/hotels are derelict, and it strongly resembles a depressing place for the dispossessed. Not many people look happy despite spending their money along the piers.
Blackpool, though, still sends itself up, like an old cartoon postcard, as the comedy carpet demonstrates. It likes a joke, a gag, a wisecrack. It’s like watching old comedians on the telly. Landladies now go off to the Lakes for their holidays and apologise for the crummy views from their cheap bed & breakfast rooms. The television is left on over breakfast, and not a lot works; bedrooms resemble bordellos. It’s hard to know why anyone stays there. Yet, aspects of it remain iconic. See its history here.
Tha challenge I set myself was to find some beauty. In its day, Blackpool would have been a phenomenal place to visit. It was fashionable, a place for the well-heeled. Stagecoaches came in from Manchester and Halifax. It had history and culture, alongside the traditional bucket and spade entertainment. However, where the working classes made their playground, mass entertainment was devised, Punch hit Judy; it did not take long to challenge middle-class cultural norms, making Blackpool a place to avoid.
There remains a sense of beauty as the photos depict, though it is often well hidden. The beaches are sandy and beautiful on a blue-sky day. The Victorian buildings would have once been stunning, though are now a tad neglected. Can it compete with the proliferation of pound shops and peeling facades? Well, you have to seek it out. A couple of examples…
The neat Grundy Art Gallery (built 1911) contains eclectic contemporary art, well worth a viewing; then there is the old Victorian architecture of the Winter Gardens and the Tower, but also, unexpectedly, the Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church, the original chapel of which was designed by Edward Pugin, son of the architect, Augustus Pugin. It has some stunning stained glass windows (thanks to Su Finch for pictures of the church) creating a sense of sanctuary missed by most.