With its revamped promenade, restored period architecture and new hotels, this Lancashire resort is heading for a revival. Words: Tina Walsh
Not everyone loves Blackpool – but I do. One of my fondest childhood memories is making the annual car journey over the Pennines to see the Illuminations, when a million brightly coloured light bulbs were strung out over the town. During the interwar years – 1918 to 1939 – Blackpool was one of Europe’s leading coastal resorts, thanks to a new law giving workers holiday pay. But the rise of cheap foreign package holidays in the Seventies and Eighties prompted its decline and gave rise to the image that still sticks in most people’s minds: Kiss-Me-Quick hats, dingy B&Bs and rowdy stag and hen parties.
But this no-nonsense Lancashire seaside resort is enjoying a renaissance. In the past decade, millions of pounds in public and private funding have been spent on regeneration: there are massive new sea defences, an impressive promenade with ‘Spanish-Steps’ down to Blackpool’s magnificent beach, and smart boutique hotels and B&Bs springing up all over the place. Walking down the Golden Mile (the stretch of promenade that runs between the north and south piers) on a sunny day, I find that the drunken crowds have been replaced with young families and couples out for a stroll. If you have any preconceptions, put them aside.
The weekend starts with a tram ride to the Winter Gardens, which opened in 1878 and is still one of Blackpool’s main attractions. The building houses 12 venues, including a theatre, opera house and a ballroom, which are all accessed from the beautiful Art Deco Floral Hall. When I visit it’s undergoing major refurbishment, but it already looks like it must have done all those years ago. On a guided Heritage Tour, I learn that Shirley Bassey, Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra all played here.
The Illuminations, which Blackpool is famed for, run from August to November. Outside of these months, there is a new attraction, Illuminasia, which is billed as the ‘world’s largest indoor illuminations’. This year-round exhibition is part ancient lantern craft, part hi-tech wizardry. Based at the Winter Gardens, it has Chinese emperors, an Egyptian sphinx, a 13-metre high model of Blackpool Tower and giant deep sea creatures, all lit up to spectacular effect.
FINE OLD CHIPPIE
For lunch, I’ve been advised to try Yorkshire Fisheries on Topping Street. The town’s oldest chippie, it has been serving the good people of Blackpool for over 100 years. The haddock (they also do also halibut, plaice, tuna and swordfish), chips and mushy peas are some of the best I’ve ever tasted.
A TOWERING ACHIEVEMENT
Next stop is Blackpool Tower, the 158-metre high structure which opened to the public in 1894, perhaps Blackpool’s most enduring image. Inside the Grade I-listed building, I take afternoon tea in the fabulous ballroom, resplendent with its Edwardian chandeliers and rococo gold-leaf balconies. Ballroom dancers, young and old, glide around the sprung dancefloorin all their finery, to the accompaniment of a live organist.
BIRD’S EYE VIEW
After my cucumber sandwiches, scones and clotted cream, I take the lift up to the top levels of the tower, now renamed the Blackpool Tower Eye. Before I’m whisked to the top, I watch the touching 4D film (complete with ‘sea spray’ and eau-de-donkey) that recounts Blackpool’s transformation from sleepy Victorian seaside resort to its present-day incarnation.
As its name suggests the SkyWalk is very high up – 154 metres, in fact. Stepping on to the viewing platform with its glass floor takes some courage. I steel myself and gingerly make my way across. Beneath my feet, toy-like figures peer at the inscriptions on the Comedy Carpet, a 2,200 square metre piece of artwork just across the road from The Tower, which contains thousands of jokes and catchphrases by some of Britain’s best-loved comedians. The view through the windows is fantastic: to the south, the big wheel on Central Pier, glittering in the sunshine; to the north, the outline of the Lake District and the Forest of Bowland.
Back on terra firma, I cross the road and the tramlines on the Golden Mile, to get to Blackpool’s beach and its seven miles of biscuit-coloured sand and glistening mudflats. The donkeys are out in force today, trotting obediently back and forth. ‘Tommy’ seems taken with me – after I’ve spent five minutes stroking him, he tries to follow me until his owner coaxes him back.
Ambrosini’s, an Italian restaurant on the South Shore, serves food just like mama used to make. It’s an unassuming little place but my tortellini pollo and pesto is out of this world. Rightly popular, you’ll need to book in advance.
I begin the day with a stroll around Stanley Park’s formal gardens, nature reserve and huge boating lake. The sun has brought the whole town out, but the park’s 260 acres have enough room to accommodate everyone. After a cappuccino and a pastry in the gorgeous Parks Art Deco Café, which overlooks the Italian gardens, it’s time to turn things up a notch with a visit to the famous funfair.
FUN AT THE FAIR
With 5.5 million visitors every year, Blackpool Pleasure Beach (opened since 1897) is the most visited tourist attraction in the UK. Last year, it was voted the country’s best theme park in a Tripadvisor poll – and for good reason! Not as daredevil as we once were, my friend and I avoid the Big One, the park’s fastest and highest roller coaster (which reaches up to 87mph and 72 metres), and opt for the Grand National instead. A twin-tracked wooden coaster, it may be 80 years old, but it still goes at a fair old whack and our bones are quite shaken by the time we get off.
A CHAIN REACTION
Now that the promenade has been widened, one of the nicest ways to get around is to cycle. You can hire a bike from £3.80 a day (plus a £10 registration fee) through the nationwide Bike&Go scheme, which operates from Blackpool North train station. Starting at the North Pier, I bike down the promenade, past The Tower on my left; to my right, the seemingly endless expanse of mudflats and the Irish Sea beyond.
IT’S ALL IN THE FLAVOUR
After the morning’s excitement, I indulge at Notarianni Ice Cream Parlour. At this 70-year-old, family-run business, they sell only one flavour: vanilla, made with fresh whole milk from a local farm. But when it tastes this good, who’s counting.
Lytham St Annes, seven miles down the Fylde coast to the south of Blackpool, is an altogether more genteel experience than its more boisterous neighbour and, given the glorious weather, an ideal way to round off the weekend. The number 7 bus drops me off in the middle of the town,where innumerable boutiques, coffee shops and wine bars line the main road. After a stroll along the picturesque seafront, with its handsome Victorian houses and historic windmill, I make a pit stop at the Beach Terrace Café, where the views looking out over the sea take some beating.
For more information, go to visitblackpool.com
NEED TO KNOW
NUMBER ONE SOUTH BEACH
There’s no chintz curtains or gaudy brass fittings at this smart, 14-room hotel at South Shore. All rooms have king-size beds, 42in plasma screen TVs and modern bathrooms. There’s also a restaurant and a fully-stocked bar. Doubles from £139, including breakfast and private parking numberonesouthbeach.com
Situated near the North Pier, this luxury B&B has six rooms, all with a fully-tiled wet room and underfloor heating. Breakfasts come with dry-cured Cumbrian bacon and home-made sausages. There’s also a vegetarian option. Doubles from £110, including breakfast langtrysblackpool.co.uk
NUMBER ONE ST LUKES
This stylish, award-winning B&B is just a three-minute walk from the promenade and Blackpool Pleasure Beach. Doubles from £110 numberoneblackpool.com
HOW TO GET THERE
First TransPennine Express operates a regular train service to Blackpool North from stations including Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool Lime Street tpexpress.co.uk