No Turkey and Very Little Tinsel with Abigail and Barney
Brian Spencer braves the winter storms on the Lancashire coast.
When Sheila suggested we try Blackpool out of season by joining a turkey and tinsel trip, I thought ‘why not? At least we can fit in some bracing walks along the promenade and maybe take in one of Blackpool’s out of season shows. How did we know that storms Abigail and Barney would interfere with our best laid plans?
As neither of us had ever been on such an outing, we soon realised that despite Sheila’s recently broken wrist, we were the only members of the coach trip not using things like Zimmer frames or other mobility aids. This was something that was to be a bit of a problem later on during the trip. Not only did it pour with rain for most of the time, but storm Abigail rapidly followed by her boyfriend Barney, was doing her spiteful best to blow even the fittest out into the crashing waves of Morecambe Bay. As even the shortest walks in winds gusting to well over 70mph required expedition style planning, we decided to give up on our idea to walk sections of the Fylde Coast Way. Instead we joined the offered coach trips to Morecambe and Southport.
The last time I was briefly in Morecambe was a decade or so ago, when, to say the least, it was run down and neglected; even its famous sands had abandoned the place and the seafront was lined with boarding houses fronted by ‘for sale’ notices. Not one of those still in business seemed able to boast a ‘sorry full’ sign. Despite the rain and winds that blew umbrellas inside out, it was immediately apparent on my latest visit that Morecambe has dragged itself out of the depression I remembered from years before. Even with visibility down to a few yards, it was easy to see the out of season ‘sorry full’ notices and cheerful cafes hopefully waiting for the view to reappear.
We had heard reports of a statue of Morecambe’s favourite son, born there as Eric Bartholomew. Not many actors and comedians take their stage name from the place where they were born, but Eric Morecambe is what we remember him by. The statue is a little larger than life and shows him in the silly dance he and Ernie Wise used at the end of their act. Her Majesty the Queen unveiled the statue and it is easy to imagine the wry smile as Eric appeared in all his glory. No one can say she doesn’t have a sense of humour – which past monarch can you imagine jumping out of a helicopter with 007 in order to open the London Olympic?
Someone told me a story the other day about Eric Morecambe. When he had his first heart attack, apparently the para-medic asked him for his name and other personal details. Thinking he should be accurate, he naturally gave his real name, Eric Bartholomew. What followed was like something out of an Eric and Ernie sketch with the medic refusing to believe him, and losing valuable minutes before getting Eric Bartholomew/Morecambe to hospital.
The concrete art-deco Midland Hotel stands at the opposite end of the promenade from Eric’s statue. As though confirming Morecambe’s resurrection it only needs Hercule Poirot the famous Belgian detective to come simpering through its portals to complete the effect of 1930s luxury: in fact the hotel has already been used in one of the Poirot series as background to Double Sin. As the rain prevented much more external wandering, we had no problems in deciding where to stay for lunch; ambience, table décor and the meal itself would have met with the great detective’s approval.
Southport is the third of the trio of Lancashire seaside resorts. On our visit the seaside accolade was a bit of a misnomer; even after the half mile or so walk along the pier in a howling gale, the sea was still too far away to even recognise shipping waiting in the Mersey estuary. Sand dunes that once graced the foreshore have been concreted over and filled with a huge shopping complex – what the natterjack toads and lizards once roaming the dunes thought of it all, can only be guessed.
The shipping barons of Liverpool built their mansions in Southport and their wives shopped beneath the elegant arcades of Lord Street. The street is still there, parallel to the coast, but sheltered from wind coming off the sea by blocks of lowlier shops and apartment houses. There are still a number of better class shops, but it is obvious they are struggling against invading ‘pound shops’ and betting emporiums. The one link with better times that appears to be still holding its head high was the poshest gents’ barber shop I have ever come across – it was a pity I didn’t need a haircut.
Blackpool has always prided itself as being Lancashire’s chief centre of theatrical entertainment. The piers now hunkered down against the crashing waves still had their adverts for the likes of Canon and Ball’s show. Every comedian and entertainer from Rochdale’s sweetheart, Gracie Fields has trod the boards as they would say, in Blackpool. To commemorate this link with entertainment for the masses, part of the promenade has been given over to what is called The Comedy Carpet. It consists of an area of large interlinking plaques, each devoted to one of the comedians who have entertained visitors to Blackpool throughout the years. Cleverly made out with varying styles of font, it brings back the trademark sayings of each comedian. Typically it was unveiled by Ken Dodd who despite his age (and the attentions of the tax man), still manages to keep up his non-stop brand of chatter.
Entertainment still comes at a higher level than comedy. While we were there we managed a trip to the Victorian opulence of the Grand Theatre to see a performance of Carmen, by Opera International – a world away from Ken Dodd and his Diddymen. Incidentally our local comedienne Sue Pollard appeared in the recent panto as the Wicked Witch in Snow White. Although who is less wicked than Sue can hardly be imagined.
Walking back from the theatre was to say the least, hazardous and with one broken arm between us we had to make our way in a zig-zag around the sheltering back streets. With this in mind, the only suggestion on the joint next day’s agenda was ‘let’s go for a ride on the tram’. All the vintage trams had been put into hibernation, along with the illuminations that hadn’t been blown away in the storm and so we enjoyed the luxury of one of the new super-smooth models.
It can only be said that Fleetwood has seen better days. Its fishing industry is almost gone and ferries no longer set sail for the Isle of Man; the only ferry that seems to run is the one which connects the town to Knott End on the opposite side of the estuary. Shops are boarded up and the only café open within scuttling distance, between gusts of now rampaging Barney, was the Ferry Café. As you can imagine it sits above the Knott End ferry terminal and seems large enough to cater for a cruise liner. Although a boat was tied to the slipway, the ferry didn’t seem inclined to make the hazardous run to Knott End, and the surprisingly large number of patrons in the café did not seem interested in making the crossing either. There is a small museum further along the quay, set in a couple of houses, part of a handsome row of Georgian villas, but like the shops, it was closed, but only until March.
The last night at the hotel was probably the most exciting for most guests, one that might have been their last. While I was in the bathroom I became aware of a siren which at first I thought was coming from a play on TV. When it went on rather longer than one would expect, it dawned on me that it was a real fire alarm, especially as Sheila had already put on her coat and shoes.
As many of the guests were relying on mobility aids the stairs became a mass of moving humanity, many wearing nothing more than cotton nighties (there was at least one old dear in her bare feet).
Fortunately the fire was confined to a kitchen toaster and the firemen soon gave the ‘all clear’ to go back inside. Going back to our room we passed an elderly gentleman only just leaving for the evacuation, but he was fully dressed as though going for a brisk walk along the prom – obviously a gentleman who set his priorities high
After all this we didn’t get the promised turkey dinner, it was served while we were at the theatre, and as for tinsel, well, you can keep it.