Blackpool’s bal­anc­ing act


The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - Travel Feature -

THE sun is set­ting over ex­pan­sive golden sands. Gen­tle trance music drifts into an early-evening, azure sky. In the dis­tance that sun, still a fiery ball, cre­ates a golden glow be­hind the North Pier The­atre. Hold on. The North Pier The­atre? Yes, the North Pier The­atre – for this is Blackpool 2018.

It is my first visit in more than 35 years – I hadn’t had my first kiss the last time I was here with my par­ents, but now that I am here with my hus­band, the Kiss Me Quick hats are al­most im­pos­si­ble to find.

The mem­o­ries of many child­hood hol­i­days in Blackpool are noth­ing but happy. A bright, colour­ful place where the days were packed from morn­ing to evening with ad­ven­ture and sugar.

And look­ing from the taxi win­dow, as it makes its way along the prom­e­nade from Blackpool North sta­tion to our ho­tel at the south end, it seems that much that made me happy as a pre-teen is still in place. How­ever, as we pass by bars and restau­rants (and close to the sta­tion what seems like a pretty lively gay area) there is an air of change.

Check­ing into the five-star Num­ber One South Beach B&B is the first in­di­ca­tion. Four-poster beds, smoked sal­mon on the break­fast menu, and de­signer wall­pa­per are all a uni­verse away from the stereo­typ­i­cal sea­side land­lady accommodation.

Then, din­ner at the Beach House Bistro, that idyl­lic spot over­look­ing the North Pier, where the menu is quite el­e­gant with­out ever be­com­ing pre­ten­tious – you can still have fish and chips. The cock­tails are well-priced and the service is as warm as ex­pected in the north of Eng­land.

Nos­tal­gia is a pow­er­ful beast, how­ever, and the next day I am search­ing for the Blackpool of my child­hood. A wan­der along the Prom­e­nade pro­vides a re­minder that the Golden Mile, the stretch be­tween the North and South Piers, is con­sid­er­ably longer than its given name – around 1.6 miles. There’s a good rea­son the trams reg­u­larly clang along the front, the route stretch­ing from Starr Gate be­yond the South Pier and run­ning 11 miles north out to Fleetwood Ferry.

At the south end of the Prom­e­nade, one side is lined with the ho­tels that of­fer pa­trons sea view rooms and evening cabarets, while the other has been spec­tac­u­larly trans­formed. Op­po­site the So­laris is a gi­ant glit­ter­ball, shim­mer­ing through­out the day and beau­ti­fully sci-fi when the sun goes down. The So­laris it­self is one for the Art Deco en­thu­si­asts, built in 1938 as the Har­row­side So­lar­ium, a win­ter gar­den, so­lar­ium and palm court style café, and now op­er­at­ing as an ex­hi­bi­tion space, con­fer­ence cen­tre and café.

Here, and along the en­tire length of the Prom­e­nade the sea­side has been spec­tac­u­larly trans­formed since my days spent on the sands, some­times on the back of a don­key. The ur­ban land­scap­ing of walk­ways and curv­ing stairs down to the beach takes noth­ing away from the at­trac­tion of three tra­di­tional piers.

At the Cen­tral Pier stands the town’s icon, the Blackpool Tower, which climbs 158 me­tres (518ft) into the sky and now al­lows the but­tock-clench­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of the Sky­walk, the glass floor that has Blackpool at your feet. At the top there is also the 4D Cin­ema Ex­pe­ri­ence, which tells the story of the build­ing. It houses not only the Tower Ball­room, fa­mil­iar to fans of Strictly Come Danc­ing I hear, but also a Tower Cir­cus, restau­rants and the Blackpool Tower Dun­geon for those who like their his­tory to come with a mea­sure of “ur­rrrrgh”.

I find my type of his­tory in the grand ar­chi­tec­ture of the Win­ter Gar­dens, a cool haven in the city cen­tre, with themed halls, the Em­press Ball­room, and the stun­ningly beau­ti­ful Opera House, where I saw my first gig, Cilla Black, in 1972 when I was five years old.

There is a touch of the colo­nial about the place, typ­i­cal for its pe­riod of construction at the end of the 19th cen­tury.

Built at the same time was The Grand, an­other spec­tac­u­lar the­atre that housed sum­mer sea­sons for decades but now has shorter runs of big-name co­me­di­ans and pop­u­lar the­atre.

Celebri­ties aligned them­selves with Blackpool, long be­fore they were known as celebri­ties. The re­sort can even claim to be the birth­place of Sooty, with a plaque on the North Pier to mark the

place where Harry Corbett bought a bear glove pup­pet in 1948.

The pier is un­der­go­ing what looks like a taste­ful re­fur­bish­ment to trans­form it into an el­e­gant Vic­to­rian venue.

Although the Doc­tor Who ex­hi­bi­tion is now gone, there is a Star Trek won­der­land for sci-fi fans, close to Madame Tus­sauds, where the fa­mous faces don’t ex­actly come to life but you can have a good old close-up look with­out be­ing ar­rested.

The change in the cul­ture is ev­i­dent here, with Ant and Dec and their jun­gle ex­ploits high­lighted as a main at­trac­tion. The X-Fac­tor gen­er­a­tion is well rep­re­sented. Ed Sheeran is there, as is Olly Murrs and a fe­male singer that could have been one of many – hus­band and I do look at one an­other and shrug. The Marvel char­ac­ters uni­verse is there for the lit­tle ones to meet Spi­derman and the rest, but the old school is rep­re­sented with Ken Dodd, Tommy Cooper, The Bea­tles, The Two Ron­nies, and Bru­cie of course – po­si­tioned by the Flakes in the gift shop as you leave – I’m sure it’s what he would have wanted.

Wan­der­ing the back streets be­hind the Prom­e­nade shows the work that is go­ing into the town’s re­gen­er­a­tion. In­no­va­tive light­ing and land­scap­ing make at­trac­tive shop­ping streets, and if you wan­der far enough you’ll find in­ter­est­ing in­door mar­kets, groovy se­cond-hand record shops and quiet squares with cafes and bars.

There has al­ways been a thrill in Blackpool at the Plea­sure Beach. A

change from my last visit is the tick­et­ing – in­stead of walking in and pay­ing for each ride you now buy day tick­ets. This year, the new ICON roller­coaster opened – a £16.25m in­vest­ment into two min­utes and 40 sec­onds of the best, scream­ing-based fun. I go alone – hus­band holds the coats. A launch of zero to 50mph in two sec­onds is the start of be­ing thrown around on in­ver­sions, loops, and the most ef­fec­tive feel­ing of weight­less­ness I’ve felt on a roller­coaster. A pho­to­graph is taken dur­ing the ride and avail­able to pur­chase as you try to wob­ble out – I don’t buy it, since I’m look­ing a tad like Mrs Wal­lace with­out her Gromit.

The ex­te­rior of the Plea­sure Beach is a lit­tle tired – per­haps the ICON didn’t leave much in the bud­get for re­paint­ing – but in­side it’s beau­ti­fully laid out and land­scaped with plenty of places to sit and en­joy the big­gest Mr Whippy cones known to hu­mankind.

At my in­sis­tence we board a Cheshire Cat and travel through the psy­che­delic world of Alice’s Won­der­land, the first ride I ever re­mem­ber tak­ing. I still squealed.

Blackpool might be chang­ing, but its per­son­al­ity re­mains in­tact. The spirit of the place that still sees a Scot­tish in­va­sion ev­ery sum­mer and in Oc­to­ber for the Il­lu­mi­na­tions is thank­fully too strong to sub­mit to the chains and those who would shape it into any other town.

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