Thursday 27 October 2011

Country Sad Ballad Man

Oh, Lytham.  Such a tease.

Get off the train and it looks like there's a fine, impressive station building to greet you.  Head round the front though, and you realise it's all gone.

A formerly grand booking hall is now a pub; not even an open pub - it was "closed until further notice".  It's still very attractive, though, especially as almost all the other stations on the line have lost any semblance of platform buildings.  I hope the closure is just temporary.  I'm guessing that if the pub fails that old station will be replaced by apartment blocks before you know it.

In the meantime, Lytham is represented by a rather ignominious sign tucked down the side.

If I'm honest, there's no reason for such a big station anyway.  Lytham's a small, pretty town, that's it.  It's a bit like St Anne's, but more down to earth - there were a few more chain stores.  A bit less opulence.  A Spar.  Still very pretty though.

It was lunchtime, and since the Station Tavern was out, I randomly picked Upstairs Downstairs.  A chubby homosexual with irritating facial hair got me a baguette, while two waitresses stood behind the counter gossiping and pulling a face every time a customer wanted to be served.  It was alright, I suppose, but I couldn't help noticing that my tea cost twice as much as the one in Blackpool.

The rain finally gave up so I headed out of town.  My next station was out in the countryside, so for the first time that day I turned away from the coast.  I passed through quiet streets, past a playground with a rocket shaped climbing frame and rope swings (remember when just a slide was the most exciting thing ever?) and a very posh looking Booths supermarket.  I've never been in one of these stores, but since it was advertising an "Artisan Cafe" on site and had an attached garden centre, I'm not sure I'd be welcome.  Not without a credit check first.

Of COURSE I'm going to reference the Village People now.  How could I not?  I'm sure it's not like this in Lytham though.  (That clip is from Can't Stop the Music, the Village People musical, which is jaw-droppingly awful.  It's a must-see).

Passing up the opportunity to find many ways to have a good time, I carried on.  Soon I'd left Lytham behind and I was out in the countryside.

I have a real fear of walking beside the road in the country.  I don't like places where there aren't pavements.  Walking in the road always makes me anxious, even if I know I'm following the country code and I'm perfectly within my rights.  Luckily Lancashire County Council had the decency to build a path on one side, but it still felt a bit hairy beside a national speed limit road.

Drivers tend to take one of three manoeuvres when they see you walking at the side of a country lane.  In the best case, they slow down a little and move away to give you space.  Next are the ones who swing right over to the other side of the road, thereby implying that you're really fat and they don't want to accidentally clip your chunky thighs.

The third type are the wankers.  They're the ones who put their foot down, or stay right up against the side of the road, or just ignore you.  They're the ones with attitude, the ones who are listening to a Clarkson audiobook, the ones who are saying Quake with fear at my mighty four-wheeled progress, pathetic biped!  Feel my superiority at manhandling this machine with skill and speeding past your limited progress!

On the plus side, I was getting exercise and fresh air, so they'll probably die before me.

I couldn't really sense where I was in relation to the railway line - it was somewhere over there, as far as I could work out, but I couldn't see any sign of it.  I passed over a canal, and past the local tip, which the council had thoughtfully put right next to a caravan park.  Apparently plots for holiday lets were available; can't say I'm surprised.

As any schoolboy knows, a group of crows is called a murder.  This is one of those facts I learnt when I was little because (a) I had a fondness for the macabre and (b) I liked knowing more than everyone else.  I watched a murder now, rising and falling over a cropped field; they rested on the ground then, at some unseen signal, all the crows rose up into the air, swirled around one another, then landed a few metres away.  It was like watching a very anxious sandstorm.

Fortunately, the crows decided not to attack me.  My gory death at their pecking beaks will have to wait for another day.  The only wildlife to surprise me that day was a particularly nosy cow, who thrust her face through a gap in the hedge as I approached.  I like cows.  They are dumb as a box of hair, but they have a simple charm and unthreatening personality that I'm fond of.  Like Rav Wilding. My great uncles farmed cows, and I used to like to pat and stroke them.  Then eat a steak.

I ran my hand of the muzzle of the cow and, predictably, it let me without much protest.  As I said, stupid.

Actually that all sounded like I have some weird bovine fetish.  I don't, honest.  We're just friends.

Crashing on.  My next station was Moss Side; not the dodgy area of Manchester, thankfully.  This was a tiny country station by a level crossing, just a platform in the middle of nowhere.  I took a seat on the platform and listened to the peace.

Sort of.  What actually happened was that Northern Rail decided to interrupt my rural idyll with regular announcements over the loudspeaker.  All our stations are covered by CCTV... please keep all luggage safe... vandalism will not be tolerated...  Yes, one of these announcements told me my train was on the way, but apart from that, it was a stream of noise pollution.  In the near dead-silence of an Autumn afternoon, it was all you could hear.  The locals must find it incredibly annoying, hour after hour of the same repetitive, booming voices.

Unsurprisingly I was the only person to board.  I settled in on the Pacer for the trip, choosing a seat right at the back - I was getting off at the next station, anyway.  Across from me was a woman who was staring intently out the window.  She was sat on one of the "sideways" seats, where you can store your bike, and she seemed to be incapable of closing her legs.  Thankfully her skirt was past her knees or it would have been like a very low budget remake of Basic Instinct.

As the train started up she started to sing, quietly, under her breath.  At first I just thought she was mouthing, but then I realised I could just about hear her voice under the train noise - it was something about Jesus.  Over and over.  "Mmmmffffmmmm JESUS mmmmfff."  The Jesus part was getting louder, so that she could be heard over the grinding of diesel engines.

I have no objection to people having a faith, and wanting to praise Jesus in their own way.  But when a spreadlegged woman with a tight Croydon facelift is murmuring the Lord's name, you start to get unnerved.  Especially when the train stopped for one of those random reasons in the middle of nowhere and she fixed her eyes on me.  "The next station is Kirkham and Wesham," she intoned, and my testicles turned tail and made their way back inside my body.

The next station was Kirkham and Wesham, and I was very glad to disembark (I was even more glad that she didn't).

It's a lovely little station.  Again, some care and attention's been devoted to it (and some money), so there's a nice covered set of steps, and a clean and tidy ticket hall.  This was the sort of station building that I'd have thought Lytham could get away with, instead of that epic piece of architecture.

I got a bit confused on the bridge, trying to work out which way to go.  Kirkham was in one direction, and Wesham was in the other; I needed to go into the former, but I ended up on my way to the latter.  I wondered if the railway bridge acted as a sort of frontier post, knowing how easily people start hating their neighbours.  I could imagine the local schoolkids stood on either side, baiting one another, daring them to cross over the bridge to their half.

If you've watched much of the new series of Doctor Who, you'll know the concept of "fixed points in time".  The Doctor can run round the universe changing history wherever he likes normally, but sometimes there are events which absolutely must occur.  Pompeii, for example.

I had my own equivalent of a fixed point, though admittedly it wasn't in quite the same league as "make sure Shane from Neighbours dies on Mars".  My version was called Salwick.

If you know anything about train services (or perhaps you've read the story of Robert's visit) you'll know Salwick only gets three trains towards Preston a day - one at 7:13, one at 8:13, and one at 16:15. I absolutely, positively had to get that 16:15 train, or I'd be stranded in the middle of Lancashire.

I'd been quite cocky about catching the train earlier that day.  The walk from Kirkham to Salwick didn't seem too arduous.  In fact, I even texted Robert and asked if he knew if there were any pubs that way, because it looked like I'd have time to kill (I'd forgotten that he hadn't even left the station on his visit, so as if he'd know).

I sauntered through Kirkham.  It wasn't just that I had plenty of time; I was also encountering hills for the first time on my trip.  Steep hills, that went down one side and up the other.  After a day's walking, this wasn't a welcome development (I'd done something to my right knee too, and it was letting out a little yelp with every step).  It did mean I got to see some of the town's unique features in great detail, like a weaver's loom in a bus shelter.

Kirkham was once a big textile centre, and when the last mill closed in 2003 they preserved the final loom in the town.  A nice gesture, but I can't help wondering if the mill would have lasted longer if they hadn't been using equipment from the early 20th Century (the plaque claims it was manufactured after the First World War).

I passed Kirkham Baths, which were also run by the YMCA (is there a massive gay movement in the Fylde I didn't know about?) and headed into town.  I'm going to apologise in advance to my friend Jennie, who grew up in this bit of the county, but I didn't find Kirkham that impressive.  It had been described as a "market town" but to me it seemed like a housing estate with pretensions; the buildings were boring, the shops uninspired, the traffic relentless.  I was in no hurry to linger, which was handy because I realised I would have to get a move on to get to Salwick now.

I'll give the town bonus points for this old fashioned hardware store, though.

I walked out onto the bypass, where I jumped on a regular basis as cars sped by, seeing 50 miles an hour as a suggestion rather than a limit.  It was a boring road through boring countryside; the farms on either side weren't pretty, Darling Buds of May country estates, but agricultural factories with unattractive outbuildings and messy yards.  I was the only person walking, of course.

On and on it went.  I was tired and thirsty.  In my head I could hear the relentless ticking of a clock, counting down to that 16:15 departure.  I hadn't realised it was so far to walk - there had been a serious miscalculation somewhere along the line.  Buses passed me, but I didn't know where they went and I didn't have any cash to buy a ticket anyway.

A check of Google Maps on my phone to make sure I was heading in the right direction (if I wasn't, I suspect I would have jumped under a juggernaut) and then I found my left hand turn, off the main road and towards Salwick.  A road without a pavement.

I take back my previous kudos for Lancashire County Council.

I hauled my tired legs onto the tarmac, and stumbled along.  There wasn't much traffic, thankfully, but it was still a tedious slog, pressing myself into the hedge every time I heard a car in the distance.  I tried walking on the rough verge at the side of the road, but the uneven ground made my sore knee yelp even louder.

<insert reference to Emmerdale's past their sell-by date "comedy" family here>

I did at least get a view of a perfect pastoral scene as I reached the village proper.  A church, green grass, sheep.

It was a shame about the relentless hum of the nuclear processing site in the background.  Kind of ruins the pretty country scene.

I hadn't realised the business of the "Works" on the OS map.  This is the Springfields site (yes, I immediately thought of Mr Burns too) and it's the reason Salwick station is still there.  A high angled fence surrounded the whole facility, and there was a tense, unidentifiable atmosphere around it.  Perhaps it was all the references to the Anti-Terrorism Act on the signs, and the policemen with guns at the main entrance.  It doesn't make for a pleasant stroll.

On the plus side, I was nearly at the station.

Never have I been so glad to see a road sign.

A new tension began to grip me as I approached the station, though.  What if I couldn't take my photo by the sign?  What if I was leapt upon by trained soldiers, determined to stop me from taking pictures in such a sensitive area?  What if even now I was being marked out as an insurgent, simply for walking round the site perimeter with a backpack?

I have to be honest - I wasn't concerned about myself.  I was worried about the blog.  I imagined writing this entry up, perhaps from my cell at Belmarsh, and having to put in those horrible words: I wasn't able to get a picture of me in front of the station sign because the police deleted that photo.  I imagined the list of stations visited, with one gap where Salwick should be.  A hole in the network.  An incomplete itinerary.

That thought made me sweat and panic far more than anything else that day.  Even more than the nutty woman on the train.  I simply had to get that last station sign picture.

And I did.

As it turned out, I wasn't even questioned.  Bit disappointing really.

Salwick's just a ramp and a platform, though at least there are two tracks at this point on the line.  I thought I'd be the sole visitor again but there were half a dozen people waiting for the Preston train.  I imagine there is a shift at the plant that relies on this service for its staff, though I'd hate to think what happens if there's a cancellation.  Or what it's like on a wintry day, with the wind whistling round you and the snow coming down.

I slumped down into my seat on the train.  I was tired and cold, but full of satisfaction.  That was another line down.  It was a line I didn't need to go near, it was a line I'd got no real interest in, and it was a line that hadn't really thrown up any magnificent stations or inspiring moments.  It was just there. And now it was under my belt.

As a bonus for my day's efforts, Northern Rail kindly laid on an extremely fit bloke on the train for me to perve at.  A man who then pulled down his case from the overhead rack, making his shirt ride up and revealing six inches of smooth white naked stomach.

The perfect way to end the day.

Saturday 22 October 2011

Round and Back Again

The simple way out of Blackpool would have been to get the BF to drive me home.  The slightly less simple way out would have been to take the train from Blackpool North.

Instead, I took a different route: to the south.

I know, I know.  "It's not on the Merseyrail map!  It's not a Merseyrail service!  You are totally ignoring your blog's entire brief, and I for one will not stand for it!  Consider your RSS feed deleted!"

You're right.  There was no reason for me to do it apart from: it was there.  The sheer enjoyment of knowing that I had visited every single station on that loop.  That gives me a sense of achievement, a bit of pride, a smidgeon of pleasure.  Sorry about that.

I started at Blackpool South, first thing in the morning.  The BF dropped me off in the car (once again, his devotion to me doesn't extend to four mile hikes through the countryside) and I wandered down to the platform.

It was a hell of a shock.  The mainline routes all go into Blackpool North now, so the only service that runs into South is the hourly train to Colne.  Still, it's a major destination, so I expected something a bit better than... that.

One platform.  One track.  One bus shelter.  That's your lot.

There used to be more services, of course, and more platforms: four in fact.  Even without the benefit of Wikipedia, it's easy to see the remains.  A car park next door takes up a strangely tapered piece of land, and the abandoned edge of the island platform can still be seen.

The train took only a couple of minutes to get us to Blackpool Pleasure Beach, which was a bit of an improvement.  It had a roof at least.  Surprisingly, the station's only been here since 1987; it's right in the shadow of the Big One.

Again, it was unstaffed, which seemed doubly unusual considering it must get a lot of traffic in summer.

I headed for the seafront.  I'd thought about getting a tram from the Pleasure Beach down to Squires Gate, but the improvement works mean that part of the line is closed at the moment.  It was a bit disappointing, but understandable.  Instead, I went up onto the sea wall, and followed it south.

It was 10 am on an October Wednesday, so unsurprisingly, I had the front more or less to myself.  A couple rollerbladed past me at one point, holding hands.  Ahead, an elderly couple battled against the wind to get their morning constitutional.

Dotted along the parade were artworks which screamed "European Union regeneration fund"; huge hulks of angular metal and concrete, some of them with benches inside to hide from the rain.  I wasn't impressed until I came across the giant glitterball, because, let's face it, that's just fabulous.

The weather Gods were watching me.  I was at the point where the commercial activity on the Golden Mile had stopped and turned into flats, where the cafes and bars had disappeared.  I was halfway between stations.  And lo! the heavens opened, and a rainstorm that even Noah would have thought was over the top started.

It was like stepping into a hurricane.  Icy points of water thrashed my face and body; the backs of my legs were soaked in seconds.  Thankfully the wind was blowing in my direction, catching me from behind and pushing me on.

I stopped for a minute to take a picture of the newly built tram depot, and the camera was nearly whisked out of my hand.

That photo is actually in colour; I know it looks black and white.

All of this would have been a bit depressing, if my iPod hadn't taken pity on me.  It randomly shuffled up Bad Romance.  It is a truth universally acknowledged that it is impossible to be unhappy when you hear Bad Romance; in fact, it almost put a spring in my step.  I used the tempest as a suitable cover so I could sing along, shouting "ra-ra-ra-ah-ah; roma, roma-ma, gaga-ooh-la-la" into the rainstorm.

There was one last piece of artwork before the promenade ended; as I rounded it, I found that the hand-holding rollerbladers were hidden inside, trying to hide from the squall.  I trudged through the wet sand down to the roadside, and spotted salvation: the Dunes cafe, a little greasy spoon in a parade of shops opposite Squires Gate station.  I practically ran inside to order a tea.

"Do you want that in a plastic cup so you can sit outside, love?" joked the mumsy woman behind the counter.

There were plastic seats bolted to the chipboard table.  The walls were covered in Blackpool FC memorabilia, including a signed shirt.  A board advertised the £2.50 fried breakfast, and the smell of eggs and fried bread filled the cafe.  It was homely, simple, unpretentious.  I hugged my mug of tea and let its warmth take me over.

The squall had finished by the time my mug was empty.  I crossed the road to Squires Gate station, buried under a road bridge.

Remember how tiny little Garston used to be the station for Liverpool (not John Lennon) Airport?  How international travellers were advised to disembark there and get a bus to the terminal?  Squires Gate is Blackpool's equivalent though, sadly, it's even more pathetic.

In between the garages for a housing estate and some industrial units, it's one platform, no ticket office. None the less, "alight here for Blackpool International Airport".

There's been mutterings about changing the station's name to simply Blackpool Airport; I hope not.  I like Squires Gate.  I'd like it even more if there was an apostrophe.

The train took us south through some dunes and, though I didn't realise it, through about fourteen social classes.  By the time I got off at St Anne's-By-The-Sea the cheap and cheerful world of Blackpool was firmly behind me.  St Anne's had a station building, a taxi concourse, trees.

This town was truly middle-class; it was the Margo Leadbetter of conurbations.  I walked down the high street and felt like I was lowering the tone with my still damp walking trousers and my backpack.  There were planters and metal street furniture along the avenue, with local department stores and boutiques.  I saw a Caffe Nero, a chain which for some reason hasn't bothered turning up in Blackpool, and there wasn't a hint of a fast food establishment; just small, local restaurants.

I decided not to risk the seafront, since I'd ended up half drowned last time I walked that way, and instead turned inland for the road south.  It was a wide main road, elegantly spaced and lined with hefty Victorian villas.  Most of them still seemed to be homes too, though there were the inevitable discreet bell pushes indicating a conversion to apartments, and a few nursing homes.  The driveways were peppered with the upper middle class marques; Audi, BMW, Lexus.  The odd Mini for a runaround.  A sign pointed to the Royal Lytham St Annes Golf Course and I realised we were in British Open territory; of course there was going to be cash splashed around.

The street names were obsequious in the extreme.  Obviously, there was a Victoria Road, because let's face it, there always is.  As I worked my way towards Ansdell though, I realised that the planners seemed to have gone through every possible Royalist permutation.  York.  Queens.  Sandringham.  Balmoral.  Even as the houses got a bit newer, King Edward Avenue and Queen Mary Drive turned up.  Apartment blocks were called "Queens Court" or "Windsor House".  God knows what it must have been like when William and Kate were married; you probably couldn't walk five yards without catching on bunting.

The road was dead straight, which meant my eye was caught by a distant feature.  I had no idea what it was: just a tower, backlit against the sun.  Its silhouette seemed completely out of place amongst the subtle grandeur of the houses.  As I got closer I began to think: is it a mosque?  The tower looked remarkably like a minaret, and there seemed to be the hint of a dome behind.  Somehow I couldn't see the residents of St Anne's taking well to the idea of a large Islamic centre in their midst, and this looked really big.

Finally I got up close, and saw a beautiful white church.  The rain had scrubbed it, making the tiles shine in the sun.  It was a fantastic building, completely unexpected amongst its slightly predictable neighbours.  The effect was only slightly spoiled by a large tarpaulin advertising Zumba classes on a Tuesday night hanging across the entrance.

I doubled back so that I could get to Ansdell & Fairhaven station.  At the foot of Woodlands Road was an example of early transport integration: a specially restored shelter, allowing interchange between the trains and the trams.  It had been restored by the local historical society, and inside was a little display on the history of trams in the area.

Hopefully one day Blackpool's new shiny tram network can be extended south, and the tram shelter can be useful again.

Ansdell & Fairhaven station was the same as the rest of the line.  One platform and one track.  The size of the bridge behind the platform showed how large it must have once been; three arches, two of which are now useless.

Still, I was halfway round the Blackpool loop.  None of the stations were exactly inspiring so far, but the important thing was that I'd collected them.  Four to go...

Friday 21 October 2011

The End of the Pier Show

Blackpool and I have a history.  I went once when I was 20 and swore I'd never go again.

I was on the Executive Committee of my Student Union at Edge Hill, and four of us were sent up to Blackpool to attend the national conference.  Accommodation, food, transport, all paid for by the Union.  Delegate passes for the Winter Gardens.  Plenty of social events organised to keep us amused while we were there.

I hated it.  I found it tacky and ugly.  I hated the food and the bars.  I hated every single thing about it.  I have never been so glad to see a motorway as I was the day I saw the M55 again.  As I've subsequently said, if you can't enjoy it when you're 20 and it's free, you never will.

You can imagine how pleased I was when Merseytravel revamped the map and yup, suddenly Blackpool North was on it.  Now I had to go back.

The branch is probably the most inaccurate part of the whole map.  Firstly, it's impossible to get to Poulton-le-Fylde from Liverpool without changing trains.  You used to be able to, but then they changed the services and didn't bother updating the map.  Secondly, there are two stations on the branch between Preston and Poulton-le-Fylde, and between Poulton-le-Fylde and Blackpool North is another station, Layton.  None of them are to be seen.

Will that stand in my way?  Of course not!  I got the train from Liverpool Lime Street to Preston, and changed to a Pacer (grrr) for Poulton-le-Fylde.  The stations inbetween could wait.

Here's a bit of advice: don't listen to comedy audiobooks on a train.  I was listening to Alan Partridge's "autobiography" and it was very difficult not to laugh out loud.  I'm sure I must have terrified a fair few passengers, hissing and shaking with suppressed giggles, until I could finally get off at Poulton-le-Fylde.

It was a very pleasant surprise.  I've become used to country stations being a platform and not much else by now.  Instead, I got herringbone bricks, an old-fashioned canopy, and plenty of flowers and plants (supplied by the Plant Place Garden Centre, apparently).  Unused advertising boards were used to exhibit work by the Poulton-le-Fylde Photographic Society, or to show off old LMS posters of the line.  It was pretty and well-maintained.

The ticket office had been nicely buffed up too, with the wood varnished and clean.  And a member of staff to sell you passes to places.  It's not hard to make stations nice.  It should happen more often.

I'd like to apologise for my hair in all my appearances, by the way.  The strong winds, occasional rain showers and the hood of my coat made it assume all sorts of unusual shapes.

The town is also delightful.  It was a proper market town.  The buildings were quietly grand, the streets pedestrianised here and there, and you couldn't move for ambling pensioners.  Do pensioners actually go places, or do they just walk the streets?  Like zombies?

Poulton-le-Fylde is also home to a certain supervillain, who's decided to become even more evil and has retrained as an estate agent:

I was taking the Blackpool Old Road which, despite its name, didn't seem that old at all.  It was home to a lot of detached houses, set back from the street behind gates and long drives.  Not in a security compound type-way, more like a nice place to retire too.  Poulton-le-Fylde would seem to be a good place to retire to.  It's compact and pretty and flat.  The people seem pretty nice, too:

There weren't any apples to pick up, though.  Maybe someone took advantage of the honour system and turned up with a truck.

It was a great morning, the weak sun just warm enough on my face.  The rain that had striped across the train windows had stopped and so every surface had a gentle sheen to it.  Here and there it caught in droplets and fragmented.  This is the pleasure of Autumn; this is how I want mid-October to be.  Nature winding down and resting.

The houses thinned, but imperceptibly; from the road it still looked like town.  Sometimes you glimpsed fields in the gap between houses, but the only real sign that I had left suburbia behind came from the jarring presence of a farm beside the road, stinking of manure and scattering mud across the pavement.  They carried on the generosity of the area though:

My eye was soon grabbed by a vast, modern complex of buildings, complete with a crane and steelwork extension under construction.  It was Blackpool Sixth Form College.  I found it a fascinating building, but of course I didn't take a photo.  I've stood in oil refineries and by nuclear processing facilities and broken out the camera, but there's no way I'm going to take a picture that might, entirely accidentally, have a picture of a 16 year old in it.  Our society has become depressingly obsessed with the idea of paedophiles loitering on street corners snapping pics of school kids.  I didn't want to be arrested for being in charge of a camera in the vicinity of an educational establishment.

Layton was less charming.  It was a bit down at heel, a bit more grudging, but still pleasant enough.  The station was a big let-down though.  The ticket hall was boarded up and closed.  Leaving it off the Merseyrail map may have been a kindness.

I had five minutes before the train arrived, which left me with a quandry.  The proper station sign, with the BR logo on it, was on the Preston-bound side, up and over the bridge.  If I hurried, I might make it over and back in time for my train.  I might not though, and I could just take a picture with one of the platform signs behind me...

Of course I went over to the other side.  I'd have been riddled with anxiety otherwise.  OCD is a cruel mistress.

I had to jump down the steps two at a time to be there for the train, but it was totally worth it.

Soon we were in the acres of track that herald the entrance to Blackpool North.  At one point the station had sixteen platforms, and the massive spread of rails acts as a testament to it.  With the importance of Blackpool as a resort receding though, the station was cut back.

The original station was in two parts: a Victorian terminus, with long trainsheds, and the "excursion" ticket hall, opened in 1938 and only open during the summer.  When the station became too large for its purpose, they took the unusual decision to demolish the older building.

I have to be honest: I'm glad they did.  Blackpool North is stunning.  It's open and airy, and the white walls and glass roof make a refreshing change from the bricks and tiles of the usual British railway station.  It's been restored well, with new facilities like a travel centre and ticket gates inserted into the fabric without ruining it.

It's not so impressive from the outside though.  Part of this is due to the location: it's in a depression, so there's a high wall in front of you as soon as you step outside.  It doesn't help that it's been covered in a giant advert for Joe Longthorne and the Billy Pearce Comedy Show.  An out of place brick extension holds the Pumpkin cafe, and the glass frontage is a bit Arndale Centre.

I love the look on that girl's face.

So: now I was in Blackpool proper.  I headed straight for the front, because really, where else would you go?  The wind coming across the Irish Sea was astonishingly strong.  It almost blew me into the road at Talbot Square, so I fled to the North Pier for a drink and a sit down.  They'd run out of hot chocolate, so I took a latte and watched the windswept holidaymakers trying not to get pushed over the side.

From that angle, it looked pretty.  The wind-battered sea was impressive too, depositing foam on the newly-built flood defences.

I have to confess: when I visited previously, I didn't go up the tower.  I didn't go to the Pleasure Beach. I didn't go on a tram.  It was all so miserable, I didn't want to.  So maybe I didn't judge the town on its finest assets.  Perhaps it was like going to Liverpool and not seeing the Liver Building.  There was certainly a massive queue for the Tower, and for something called the "Blackpool Dungeons", a queue so large it quite put me off.  I also imagined that the wind would mean the top was roped off, so I didn't bother.  Sorry.

Blackpool's town centre could be anywhere.  It's got a Boots, an HMV, a Debenhams.  The WH Smiths where I bought a CD of the Licence to Kill soundtrack was still there (I only had it on tape at the time).  The only difference is that here and there are random rock shops or t-shirt stores.

By now I'd been joined by the BF, who decided to drive up rather than wander round the train stations. He's an old hand with Blackpool, back to his childhood (he is Northern, after all).  He insisted we visit Coral Island, and I'm glad he did.

I'll be honest: the town wasn't winning me over.  Blackpool should be England's Las Vegas.  It should be elaborate and over the top and stupid.  When I went to Vegas, we watched a volcano explode in the street, ate dinner underneath the Eiffel Tower then went home to a King Arthur themed-bedroom.  It was utterly ridiculous.  Blackpool flirts with that sort of insanity, but most of it's half-hearted and tawdry.  No-one's got their heart in it.  No-one wants to spend any money.

Coral Island was one of the few places where it did work.  It was a big, throbbing, glistening temple of lights and machines and rides.  There was a monorail carrying kids over our heads, and punters furiously shovelling two pences into the entertainments.  There was a "family bar" and a "family restaurant" and all sorts of pirate themed animatronics.  I've mentioned before that I love arcades, and this was the best one I'd ever been to.  I had to be dragged away.

Mr T's arcade next door, meanwhile, was Blackpool's reality.  Sparse and cold and ugly.  Concrete and low-rent neon.  It smacked of laziness; with a site like that, right opposite the Central Pier, they didn't have to make it nice to visit.  People would chuck money at it regardless.

We walked down the front to the Pleasure Beach, past row after row of B&Bs.  That's the other problem with Blackpool.  Its hotels are firmly stuck in the post-war era; it's a town where en-suite bathrooms are rare enough to be advertised on the signs.  It's hundreds of tiny one man-shows when it needs to be massive super hotels and entertainment centres.

Blackpool needs to be torn down and rebuilt.  Why isn't there an arena, so they can attract pop stars while they're still in the charts?  Why are there no complexes like you get in Las Vegas, the kind of place you don't want to leave, because there's so much going on?  It's thinking small when it needs to be epic.  I could have enjoyed epic.

The only place that seems to get it right is the Pleasure Beach, because that really does think big.  Well, almost right: five pounds just to look round?  Stuff that.

Then the sun went down, and we were treated to the Illuminations.  We took a tram to Bispham, a real boneshaker that clattered and shuddered along the track.  The trams are due to be replaced soon with a new, modern design; I'd like to pretend I'm sorry, but the tram we rode on was uncomfortable, so it's no good as far as I'm concerned.  The only bit I liked were the reversible seats, so the train can change direction and the passengers can still face forward.

The tram ride meant I could add another station to my tarting expedition though:

It's weird that the Illuminations have managed to hang on into the 21st Century: electric lights aren't as impressive as they used to be.  The designs went from surprisingly tasteful:

to the gaudy:

to the borderline racist:

Plus there were Doctor Who lights, because Daleks make everything better:

Alright.  I didn't hate Blackpool as much as last time.  It's got some charm to it.  I liked the pier.  And the lights were impressive.  But I wouldn't complain if it was another fourteen years before I went back.