Bon Marche are out of carrier bags and Starbucks are out of all dairy products ( closed for the day) are some of the grim tidings that welcome me to the popular seaside resort. However the wide range of public art in the town centre excites me, with street art plentiful, some obscured down back streets, the rest large scale art installations and sculptures. 2 space suited people suspended in mid air, and a giant pigeon made out of old taxi parts are some highlights. While searching for some gloves and a little model of the Blackpool tower in a discount store, a woman rams her pushchair into my foot. I frown from behind my face mask.
Outside a closed down Pound Land, the removed sign reveals its former home as a Woolworths. The scars from the lettering still there, it is despair in building form. But, looking up, there is the Tower itself, something powerful and majestic and inspirational, and I love it. Every time you walk around and see it rising above everything, you’re reminded there is some magic in the world. Today it is closed due to high winds.
I walk along the seafront, past closed down businesses and worn out buildings, the kind a chainsaw wielding maniac might burst out of in a film. After checking into my £35 a night hotel ( actually very nice, it has a USB plug- so I’m happy) I head for the North Pier. It is largely deserted , a bored bar tender with no customers checks her phone. All of the shops on the pier are understandably closed, as the year grows old and weary. Gazing out to sea and the tributes to dead relatives attached to benches, the melancholy peaceful mood is seductive. The superb Comedy Carpet, opened by Ken Dodd in 2011 makes any visit to Blackpool worthwhile. Featuring quotes and sketches from across Britain’s comic heritage, you can find Allo Allo, Alan Partridge, Tony Hancock, David Brent and 100s more. There’s always something you can laugh about even when you’re clinically fed up.
Walking along the sea front as darkness falls, I browse the souvenir shops. I give up queueing to pay for a mini ceramic tram noticing that despite a long queue there are 2 staff members standing behind the till looking at a monitor leaving the other staff member to do all the work. “Lonely this Christmas ” plays as I leave in a huff. Further along, past the huge sign for Star Trek: the exhibition ( closed 2018) , every shop is full of Squid Game masks, and in one a disturbing rack of Gollywog keyrings. A tinny speaker blasts out S Club’s “Reach” from Happy Dayz amusements, with the universe playing its sarcasm card. WE SELL FAGS boasts another shop. I pass a Beatles themed bar with dummies of the Fab 4, masked and suspended in a glass box attached to the side of the venue. To be fair its probably brilliant inside.
By 4.30 it feels like midnight in my soul, the illuminations having little impact on a jaded traveller. As the rain falls , the far end of town takes on a deserted Silent Hill vibe with the lights offering no respite as I wonder why I’m walking, and walking into the darkness. Past the Pleasure Beach the tracks of the Big One Rollercoaster extend into the jet black sky like the tentacles of a giant octopus. I cross over and walk along the promenade , the Irish sea, next to me is my unseen companion . After a migraine inducing walk amongst gambling addicts and fun seeking coin pushers in an arcade I retire for the night.
The next day feels brighter with some retail therapy and a visit to the town’s Bonny Street market. A fun part of the trip, its possibly the only place in the UK where you can buy such an eclectic mix of goods as an “On the Buses” clock, a Daniel O Donnell cushion, or chocolate bars with anti vax slogans ( and one that said Fuck the Pope, which is just plain nasty). I opt for a £5 combined palm / tarot reading , a reduced rate with the market closing for the Winter in the next week. In the Covid era the reading is based on a digital scan of my palm and then the reading comes out of a printer within a few seconds. “Do you get deja vu a lot?” asks the stall operator as I select my Tarot cards. “The Devil card is one of my favourite cards ” says the operator ” it represents temptation and lust”. The 6 page reading tells me I have recently made “some major changes” to my life. I haven’t, but I read on. I will live “long after retirement age” (Great!!) but I may suffer from headaches maybe due to a head injury in earlier life. The cards meanwhile tell me I am “emotionally well balanced with one or two ups or downs in the past”. Amazing what computers can do these days. Browsing the adjacent selection of celebrity fridge magnets , and selecting a Shaking Stevens, I overhear the stall holder ask the next truth seeker ; “do you get deja vu a lot?”
On a final walk around the market I overhear some traders discussing the mystery new attraction coming to the seafront in 2022 as well as the recently agreed £300 million regeneration of the area formerly occupied by Blackpool Central train station. ” In ten years time, when all this is done we’ll be in the middle of a gold mine! ”
A quick explore of some of the backstreets reveals boarded up premises after boarded up premises. In a town so reliant on tourism the economic impact of the last 2 years digs deep. Faded signage and old scars and deep wounds. A sugar rush from an artisan chocolate/fudge shop clears my mind and after discovering that Madame Tussauds is closed on Tuesdays, I decide on a tram ride up the coast to Fleetwood. The tram system is reliable, cheap and easy to use, they even have conductors like buses used to have in the olden days. Fleetwood market is the first stop, friendly but tightly packed, a customer haggles over the price of a rare PlayStation game, and a cardboard Mrs Brown grimaces from behind the sweet stall. Busy. with cafes and all range of budget goods, it evokes how Chester market might have looked if people hadn’t stopped shopping there. It also has working toilets on site! The market opened back in 1840 and has over 200 indoor and outdoor stalls. Next stop, Fleetwood Museum.
Staffed by friendly and welcoming senior citizens, the museum explores the maritime heritage of the town with a special exhibit focusing on Fisherman’s Friend- the lozenge that was developed in the town by the Lofthouse family and became a huge commercial success. A loop of international commercials highlights the brand’s global appeal. Afterwards one of the staff members gives me a tour of the boat house at the rear of the property. Inside the historic fishing vessel Harriet is housed. Originally sail powered the ship made its maiden voyage in 1893 , and after various modifications was fishing until 1977. The guide tells me the rest of the interesting story, with the boat being decommissioned, moved to the Lake District, used as a children’s day centre and even featuring on Challenge Anneka. In 1998 Harriet was returned to Fleetwood for restoration and safe keeping. Meanwhile lying innocuously on the floor of the boat shed is a beam from HMS Foudroyant ( Lord Nelson’s original flagship) which was shipwrecked in the town during a gale in 1897. A fascinating place to visit.
Returning on the tram via Bispham i get off the tram to see the installations there . Noddy, Postman Pat and a full squad of Daleks stand on the seafront with scenes from Alice in Wonderland and an Egyptian Temple,
That night I head back into town to see more of the lights and to see a show at the Grand Theatre . On my way a local shouts at me “WHAT FOOTBALL TEAM DO YOU SUPPORT?” I shake my head and keep on walking, he shouts after me “I CANT BELIEVE YOU DONT SUPPORT FOOTBALL”, but luckily that’s the end of it.
Standing on the comedy carpet again, Blackpool’s magic comes to the surface. The Tower’s lights change colour and the carpet is illuminated by the reflections. The North Pier shines and feels so different from its run down daily appearance. Music plays and a light show is projected onto the building opposite , circus scenes and dancers, while music plays from a booth behind is with a live DJ commentating, largely unseen in his booth but heard by many, much like myself . The lights bring a temporary halt to the darkness all round , the nights on hold and the moment lingers. “Theres no extra charge for dancing” jokes the unseen DJ, and I imagine dancing with an illusory figure on the pavement. The absolute best of the town. Inspirational Monty Python lyrics add a further gloss to the scene.
After a very enjoyable “Around the world in 80s days” at the theatre ( woman behind complains the theatre has lumped everyone in the same part of the auditorium, despite patrons choosing their own seats and me having an entire row to myself) I head home via Mario’s Pizza. Hopefully Nintendo don’t have any spies in the town.
“Soon be Christmas innit” says the cheerful Pizza vendor “I love this time of year!”