Blackpool’s balancing act
STILL A PRIME HOLIDAY DESTINATION, THIS GREATEST OF TRADITIONAL SEASIDE RESORTS IS WORKING HARD TO FIND THE PERFECT MIX OF NOSTALGIA AND MODERNITY. LORRAINE WILSON TAKES A TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE
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.