A change of scene, a change of style…On the day after “Blue Monday” the most depressing day of the year, we set off for a soul boosting trip to Rhyl, the poster child for faded seaside towns. The home town of Ched Evans, Lisa from Steps and Ruth Ellis (last woman to be hanged in the UK) , Rhyl is a town that appears in terminal decline. The rise of cheaper foreign travel in the 1990s was the nail in Rhyl’s coffin as visitor numbers fell and guest houses on the front closed and were broken up into bedsits. However in this apparent darkness there was scenes of an emerging recovery. ..
Arriving in the west end of the town, close to the Marine Lake, one of the first things you notice is the large boarded up wasteland which was formerly the site of the town’s funfair. The wasteland is eerie but has been improved slightly with the addition of a grassed over area, and some benches which are probably never used. When the funfair was demolished in 2007, the plan was to build a new “Ocean plaza” retail and hotel offering. But only after 9 years is construction about to begin on a revised scheme. This part of town offers little for visitors with the dead void of the wasteland seeming to scream at you “there is nothing here… You are nothing. There is no hope..”
Crossing over the road is a very attractive modern bridge over the harbour area. Since my last visit work on the sea defences have also been completed and the beach can once again be accessed here. We are beginning to think that perhaps things aren’t so bad, especially given retailer interest in the former funfair site. While the left side of the road has been landscaped and developed, the right side is scarred by closed down and derelict arcades, a reminder of the town’s fun filled past. One “fun pub” appears to be still trading, with the use of large dog bowls, filled with rainwater in use as ashtrays. But the atmosphere of decay and lost hopes hangs heavy as we move onwards. A small number of guest houses are visible on the side streets, but I can think of few reasons why anyone would want to stay here. A derelict property with signs for “The best of Rhyl” and a child designed poster still hanging is an awkward juxtaposition, but to be fair there was a construction team working nearby , with evidence of a regenerated housing estate in progress.
Approaching the defunct Sky Tower, several pillars on the improved seaside walk point optimistically towards the clouds. The West Parade play area looks modern and well cared for. Back on the other side of the road, a further massive wasteland is evidence of the lack of care shown by the property owners. A carrier bag full of waste, a faded Lucozade bottle and other items cover a large fenced off area which resembles a literal bomb site. By this point visitors may well turn back before they reach the town.
“Call into the cafe Geronimo for the best snacks meals and drinks” teases a Native American “themed” eating house in one of the few arcades open. This is the dilapidated Palace fun centre, the letters of its signage long fallen off and unreplaced. “Ten Pin” whispers another faded sign. The good news is that the cafe has a five star food hygiene rating, but with time limited we didn’t make a purchase. The arcade itself is deserted , noisy visuals fom the gambling machines, electronic melodies welcoming everyone into their own worlds of pain. A grab claw machine offers the chance to win a range of officially licensed Sooty merchandise. “Please don’t go” by 90s pop stars No Mercy is playing from the speaker system. But it is all in vain.
Another fenced off wasteland scars the seafront before we finally reach the town. Again litter strewn, signage fallen off and the land owners not bothered, with one demolished wall revealing a host of defunct electrical wiring. Entering the high street now, the lack of people is stark and unsettling. The indoor Queen’s market hall is the surreal highlight of the trip. Entering down a long silent corridor, graffitied and a with a window blanked up with newspaper, it appears at first glance to be derelict.
The corridor resembles something from Resident Evil or a similar survival horror game. The area now used as a market was formerly a the grand Victorian Queen’s Arcade Hotel. Local legend states that the owner once flooded the basement and created a network of underwater canals known as “little Venice” . Laurel and Hardy and Cliff Richard once performed here. Converted into a market in the 1960s after the hotel burnt down , it is another void like space. In silence we enter.. the signage appears unchanged since the 60s.. harking back to the glory days. Only two of the market stalls are trading, a handwritten note stuck to the wall promises that “the market is not closing” . Was this a flash forward to the future of Chester market in the discount store led future? No, Chester could never be as bad as this. I felt for the poor traders, no one comes in here, because the entrance is so horrific and uncared for and the atmosphere is of pure horror and lost hope. Exiting this silent prison a further corridor has a few more stalls trading, but there are no customers.
Several coin operated amusement machines surround the central part of the market, next to a cafe which doesn’t trade on Tuesdays and another empty arcade. Only costing 10 pence , an electronic rendition of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” plays. The display is so old that the hand of one of the puppets has come lose and his disembodied limb now floats up and down in front of his face in time with the music. A musician is similarly deformed with his arm broken out of shape. This is the stuff of nightmares.
Emerging back the town centre, noting that even a large discount store has ceased trading and “Soled out” has moved into the nearby modern shopping centre. The streets seem tatty and unloved, perhaps unsurprising given the deprivation and poverty that has affected Rhyl for decades.
Heading further along the sea front, suicidal Christmas trees atop the White Rose centre are protected by a safety net lining the roof. Walking past the Seaquarium are a few more guest houses.. “Vacancies” and “family room” boast the slogans. But our target is the Sun centre, which closed in 2013. Peering through the glass windows, still and preserved you can see the famous Octopus slide and all the other fixtures and fittings in a living death. Haunting for those that made childhood visits, there are plans to demolish the iconic venue and build a new exhibition centre and hotel. The old Rhyl of nostalgic memories is dead and gone. The tag line of twitter colleague @ShitRhyl is “in order to move forward we must let go of the past”.. Old photos of crowds packing out the outdoor pool, the butterfly park and Pavilion theatre belong to another age now..
Next door is the aircraft hanger design themed theatre. Looking at the list of shows its clear its a very viable business, with Wet Wet Wet lined up for a sell out show in February. With its range of touring productions, tribute shows and original plays, it is a programme which the new Chester theatre should aspire to in my opinion. Also of note is the modern 5 screen cinema on the seafront , which is currently something Cestrians can only dream about.
We head onto the beach now, which is clean and tidy and easily the town’s best feature. Facing the setting sun, passing an unknown animal’s skull nestled in the sand was a beautiful experience as the darkness fell. The bleak sitings of the day fade away, rocked by the natural beauty surrounding us. It was a void I was happy to lose myself in for a moment.
Back to the marine lake where the sunset was at its height. Rhyl can be a very bleak place, but the signs of the roots of a revival are there. When I visited back in 2008 the proposed “ocean plaza” seemed like an impossible dream, but now there is a solitary digger on site, proving that even in the most impenetrable darkness, there is always hope, and I think that’s what I’m taking away from this visit.
with thanks to @shitRhyl