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.