During lockdown, many of us made the pilgrimage back to our family homes – and rediscovered them through fresh eyes. Part guide, part love letter, “Home towns” is a new series in which we celebrate where we’re from. After all, it could be a while before we can go anywhere else…
“All anyone does is make fun of Blackpool”. That’s what my partner Steve had to say about my home town when we first met – and I couldn’t blame him. After all, Bill Bryson called the Lancashire coast resort, “ugly, dirty and a long way from anywhere”. Paul Theroux mocked “the swollen guts and unhealthy fat of its beer guzzling visitors”. And Bill Clinton declared it “kinda sleazy” (“that’s the president calling the kettle black,” was Steve’s apt retort for that one).
As a proud Sandgronian (the name for Blackpool natives), I bristle at such unkindness. What about the seven glorious miles of soft beige sand, among the best beaches in the UK; the Pleasure Beach amusement park bursting with thrill rides; or the beautiful ballroom nestled beneath the soaring girders of the Blackpool Tower? Yes, Blackpool can be tacky and unsophisticated, but it can also be enormous fun, a tonic for the soul.
I was determined to show Steve there was more to my hometown than smutty jokes and slot machines. But as we travelled there in February 2020, I was nervous. Blackpool goes into deep hibernation between New Year and Easter. Driving into the town centre from my dad’s home in comfortable, residential North Shore, I couldn’t block out the poverty of shuttered guesthouses, hotels and shops. You don’t need official statistics to confirm that some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in England are in Blackpool.
Thankfully, the weather was playing ball, allowing strolls along a blustery promenade. We snapped photos beside the handsome Victorian North Pier, thrusting 500m into the Irish Sea, and nearby Festival House, its golden metallic shingles glistening in the sunshine. This 2012 complex, one of the resort’s better judged regeneration projects, is home to the tourist information office, a bistro and a wedding chapel with a perfectly framed view of the iconic Tower.
Sadly, the Tower Ballroom was closed as it was being used as a film set. “The rumour is that they’re filming Cinderella,” said the tourist information officer. Completed in 1989 to a plan by the great Frank Matcham, who also designed the equally exquisite Blackpool Grand Theatre, the ballroom is famous for its fairytale decoration, Wurlitzer organ and sprung floor made up of 30,602 blocks of mahogany, oak and walnut.
Instead, we took in a contemporary art exhibition at the Grundy Art Gallery, where my teenage drawings had hung in the annual Young Seasiders’ exhibition, then poked around the candy coloured interiors of the Winter Gardens. This entertainment and function venue, dating back to 1878, will soon have a new £28m conference and exhibition centre – the Conservatives are booked in for their Spring Forum in 2022, the first time the party has gathered in Blackpool since 2007.
Other promising signs for the resort’s revival include the extension of the tram network to a new terminus and hotel next to Blackpool North train station; and Showtown, a museum of fun and entertainment set to open in 2021 and part of a complex also housing the Sands Venue Resort Hotel, Blackpool’s first five-star offering.
Later that evening, we headed to Funny Girls, a drag review show based in the former Odeon, a 1939 Grade II listed building holding many fond childhood memories of cinema-going for me. As we clapped along to the naughtily polished routines of Betty Legs Diamond and her dancers, and partied with hen and stag parties, I sensed Blackpool was working its magic on Steve. “Fantastic,” he declared, “this is high quality showbiz!”
That February trip has become a travel highlight of the year. I’ve made several more journeys to Blackpool since, to take care of my mum whose health has gone into decline during lockdown. Likewise, it’s been a tough year for Blackpool, with visitor numbers falling off a cliff. That still didn’t stop the town being dammed in October 2020 as a Covid super spreader hotspot by Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon.
As we clapped along to the naughtily polished routines of Betty Legs Diamond and her dancers, I sensed Blackpool was working its magic
But, if Blackpool is anything, it’s a battler. The Illuminations, the free “electric sunshine” show that has brightened up the resort’s nights for over a century, has been extended until early January 2021. The Grand is also forging ahead with its Christmas panto. Should you need further reasons to plan a break in Blackpool, I can recommend the following…
Blackpool is currently in Tier 3, with strict restrictions in place to limit the spread of Covid-19. Click here to find out what the rules are.
Take a stroll
Even the strictest of lockdowns can’t dim the alure of seven golden miles of beach and promenade. Breathe in what my dad calls the “champagne air” and feel your spirits soar! See a less commercial side of Blackpool’s coast by starting your walk from Gynn Square and its rock gardens and heading north towards Red Bank Road, Bispham; follow the grassy cliff top route in one direction and the lower promenade or beach itself in the other. In good weather, you’ll be blessed with views across Morecambe Bay to the Lake District.
Stanley Park, the town’s primary green space, offers more manicured lawns for rest and relaxation. Facilities include a boating lake, playing fields, woodlands and a golf course. Be sure to stop for coffee and cake in the Parks Art Deco Café next to the ornamental Italian gardens.
It’s hard to believe that Marton Mere Nature Reserve was once the council rubbish dump. Reborn as a site of special scientific interest for its bird population, including colonies of owls, this biodiversity hot spot is also home to otters, dragonflies, bats and orchids.
Guaranteed to make you smile is the Comedy Carpet, one of the largest pieces of public art commissioned in the UK. Designed like a music-hall style playbill, the 1880sqm tiled pavement crams in classic gags and catch phrases from 850 comedians, including end-of-the pier favourites Ken Dodd, Les Dawson, Frankie Howard and Tommy Cooper. Find it on the promenade, opposite the Tower.
A fish and chip supper is synonymous with Blackpool. Both the town centre’s Yorkshire Fisheries and The Cottage, further out at Marton and in business since 1920, have their supporters. For my money, you can’t go wrong with Seniors, which has six outlets across the Fylde. All these chippies offer online click and collect should their in-house dining be off the menu.
Launched at the end of 2019, Art B&B is a guesthouse unlike any other. Thirty artists have contributed their works and designs across the B&B and its 19 rooms, which reflect original aspects of Blackpool culture in immersive and surprising ways. It’s run as a community business with any profits reinvested in local arts and community projects.
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