“What a wonderful day it is for running down the road, sticking a green cucumber through the letterboxes and shouting, the Martians are coming”. You can find this gem from Ken Dodd on Blackpool’s brilliant Comedy Carpet, along with quotes and catchphrases from more than 1,000 comedians, 80% of whom had performed in the resort. I love that Ken Dodd quip – it always makes me smile and it sums up Blackpool for me, a little bit cheeky, a little bit saucy, naughty but nice, fun and ephemeral.
The Comedy Carpet is a piece of genius – make no mistake, created by artist Gordon Young the £2.6m homage to the long tradition of comedy in the town sits under the gaze of the Tower. At first sight the Comedy Carpet looks as if the text is painted. In fact, each of the 160,000 letters is made of 30mm solid granite cast into high-quality concrete panels – it is a joy to behold and – I defy you not to have a permanent smile on your face as you wallow in a little nostalgia.
The book, “Blackpool in the Middle Ages” was not a best seller, as for hundreds of years this iconic town was nothing more than a tiny seaside hamlet. The name of the town comes from an old drainage channel that ran over a peat bog, discharging discoloured water into the Irish Sea, which formed a black pool – an unpromising start to be fair, but by the middle of the 18th century, the practice of sea bathing to cure ailments was becoming fashionable among the movers and shakers of the time and Blackpool was starting to appear on the radar as a destination for these salty types. In 1781, Thomas Clifton and Sir Henry Hoghton built a private road to Blackpool, and a regular stagecoach service from East Lancashire and Yorkshire was established. The familiar infrastructure that supports a tourist resort started to appear including four hotels, and the town started to grow slowly and by the turn of the 19th century the town’s population had swelled to 500.
The real gear change for the town’s fortunes came with the arrival of the railway in 1846 and Blackpool was seriously open for business. With the massive growth of visitors arriving by rail, opened the way for entrepreneurs, businessmen, wide-boys and wise guys to open hotels, attractions and amenities and in the following fifty years the town’s population increased five-fold.
The growth of visitors was underpinned by the Wakes Week holidays, when the Lancashire Mill owners shut their factories for a week to service and repair machinery. Each town’s mills would close for a different week, providing a steady and reliable flow of visitors over the course of the summer. In 1863, the North Pier was completed for promenading well to do types. Central Pier was completed in 1868, with a theatre and a large open-air dance floor for the oiks and the town further expanded southward and South Pier was completed in 1893, making Blackpool the only town in the United Kingdom with three piers. In 1878, the wonderful Winter Gardens complex opened and the first street lighting anywhere in the world was introduced a year later. In 1885, one of the world’s first electric tramways opened, the completion of the Tower followed in 1894 and the opening of the Matcham’s beautiful Grand Theatre followed shortly afterwards in the same year. At the turn of the century the Pleasure Beach was first established and in 1904 the town became a county borough – Blackpool was all grown up and booming.
Much has been written about the rise and so called decline of this great resort and the trials and tribulations that it has faced and still faces, much of it unfair and inaccurate. Blackpool’s challenges have been no different from those faced by every other British seaside resort – the reason Blackpool tends to be put under the microscope more than anywhere else is that Blackpool was the biggest (it still is in terms of visitor numbers) and the brightest jewel in the crown and therefore Blackpool’s bump was always going to be the loudest.
Sometimes it easy to forget just how big Blackpool was and what a mecca it had become for visitors and international stars of stage and screen alike – Blackpool was strutting her stuff on a global stage and she was the number one Diva, Blackpool was undoubtedly the brightest starlet.
To give you some idea, Bob Hope, Judy Garland, Jimi Hendrix, Laurel and Hardy (twice), the Beatles (nine times), Bob Dylan, Shirley Bassey and Frank Sinatra – who loved it so much he wanted to become Mayor – are among some of the names who have played to packed houses in the resort over the years. At the peak of its powers Blackpool played host to 17m visitors and the Pleasure Beach was always the UK’s most visited attraction – even Hitler wanted Blackpool spared by the Luftwaffe, as he had earmarked the resort as a playground for his troops after a successful invasion.
The advent of package holidays, deregulation of the airlines, internet bookings and a change in family structures and working patterns, has all led to a change in the prospects for Blackpool and UK seaside resorts and it felt for a while that Blackpool was unable to respond and was just feeling sorry for itself, but the obituary notices are misplaced my friends, the Las Vegas of the North, this playground of pleasure is more than holding its own and she has re-applied the make-up, taken a deep breath, puffed that ample bosom out and is still sashaying with those sharp elbows for all she’s worth.
There is soooo much to do in this glorious little strip of Britain, it is ridiculous, you won’t have the time or the energy and you will have to come back and you will want to come back. There are so many little hidden gems in Blackpool – everyone tends to go for the obvious big high profile stuff ie the Tower and the Pleasure Beach and of course you should as they are fabulous and you will, but ask a local (a sandgronun) where to go and what to see that is off the beaten and well worn tourist track and they will see you right and point you in the right direction.
My first pick would be to get yourself along to the magnificent Blackpool Winter Gardens. Hundreds and thousands of visitors have been through the doors to visit the Opera House (largest stage outside London) and see their favourite stars, but maybe without taking time out to explore this extra-ordinary and unique building. It has been rebuilt, tweaked, fiddled with (not always successfully) redesigned and touched up over the years and has played host to a circus, a roller skating rink, a 220 foot big wheel, was used for building gas envelopes for R.33 airships in the first world war and is the only venue outside London to have hosted the Royal Command Performance (twice), but for all the changes, the Winter Gardens we see today is looking absolutely splendid.
10 venues – possibly eleven, I’ve lost count – in one venue, each one with its own character and charm and all so different in style and size. The Empress Ballroom is always a sight to behold, 10,000 pieces of oak, mahogany, greenwood and walnut laid over 1320 four inch springs covering 12,500 ft. The Empress has not only played host to international dance competitions for nearly one hundred years, it was also the host for some of the most historic and memorable party conferences over the years, where David Cameron was made party leader and where Tony Blair “invented” New Labour by announcing the end of Clause IV and thereby ending the commitment to mass nationalisation. Every British prime Minister since the war has addressed an audience within those four walls.
Go and see the Spanish Hall – it is remarkable, with its three-dimensional frieze representing an Andalucian village, this art deco venue was designed by Andrew Mazzei who also designed the even more remarkable Baronial Hall, directly adjacent to the Spanish Hall. The cute little Pavillion Theatre is soon to be host to the much awaited Blackpool Museum and the Olympia hosts the impressive and spectacular lights and lanterns show Illuminasia. My favourite? the newly restored and re-opened Foyer Bar, (which is not a bar anymore by the way) overlooking St Johns Square, complete with its own gallery, it is quite beautiful, light, spacious and has a character all of it’s own. Go and see the Winter Gardens, not just for the shows, but just to marvel at it and enjoy this special place which has helped make Blackpool the nations’ premier seaside resort.
The Grundy Art Gallery, just a couple of hundred yards off the promenade and tucked away on Queen Street, has been at the forefront of artistic and cultural life in the resort since 1911. Opened by brothers John and Cuthbert Grundy, who were both local artists, the Grundy is now also and accredited museum and has grown in stature over the years to become one of the leading contemporary art galleries in the NorthWest. Recent exhibitions have featured works by David Hockney, Turner Prize winners Martin Creed and Susan Philipsz, acclaimed sculptor Brian Griffiths, award winning poet and artist, Heather Phillipson and the brilliant Pierre Huyghe who has previously exhibited at the Centre Pompidou, the Tate Modern and the Guggenheim. The exhibitions and displays frequently offer an eclectic range of furniture, ceramics, ornaments and oil paintings – the Grundy really is a little treat and I promise you will not be disappointed.
Another off the beaten track, best kept secret, hidden gem type destination is Stanley Park and Marton Mere – that’s right, green Blackpool? Who’d have guessed? Stanley Park covers over 260 acres and is just a mile or so away from the promenade, designed and built under the stewardship and watchful eye of the great Northwest born landscape architect, Thomas Mawson, who also designed the gardens at Holker Hall, Graythwaite Hall and Langdale Chase.
The park is Grade II listed and is on the register of historic parks and gardens of special historic interest in England. Do try the art deco café, fully restored to its original beauty and in the season on a Sunday you’ll find a jazz band in their doing their stuff, or you might want to spend a very happy afternoon at Blackpool Cricket Club which is also situated in the park and is the occasional home to the Lancashire team – they play Notts Outlaws there in a one day game on June 12th. There is an excellent and very testing 18 hole golf course in the park too (designed by Alister MacKenzie who knew a thing or two about golf course design as he designed Augusta National) and a huge boating lake, bandstand, model village, skate-park, swing park, tennis courts, bowling greens, an athletic stadium – no really, there is and a sports centre and my favourite thing – there are lots of ducks that you can feed the bread too …… simple pleasures.
Once you’ve had a swish round the park, you can step across East Park Drive and enjoy the delights of Marton Mere Nature Reserve, nationally recognised as a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its bird populations, but it also supports a number of other nationally important species such as dragonflies, butterflies, bats and orchids and is a real bio-diversity hot spot. The reserve contains a range of habitats including open water, reed beds, grassland as well as little pockets of woodland and the paths are all well laid out and signposted. Further enhancements have recently been completed with another £400,000 project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Veolia Landfill Trust and a new visitor and education centre is now open.
There is way more to this wonderful town, than the obvious pleasures of the promenade and the Golden Mile. Yes of course do go to the multi-award winning Sandcastle Water Park, (with an uphill water slide – I kid you not), of course visit the Tower, even if it is just to sit in the stunning Ballroom and watch the dancers spin round, walk down any of the piers, buy some oysters at Roberts Oyster Bar or pick up an ice cream at Notarianni’s Ice Cream Parlour – it only sells one vanilla flavour and has done since 1928 – but what a flavour and drop in at the multi award winning Zoo. Do all those things and more, but look out for the other side of Blackpool, the quieter side as there are many faces and facets to this town which are just as rewarding.