I was recently in a town that has famously been called “a famous seaside place.” In its heyday, it saw up to 17 million visitors a year. It has a lovely sandy beach seven miles long. It has a famous festival of lights, a famous amusement park called Pleasure Beach, famous entertainments…
I’d often heard of Blackpool, but this was my first time visiting.
What, you were expecting Boca Raton? Well, at least Blackpool’s name doesn’t mean ‘rat mouth’. (Things can sound so much less uncharming when not in one’s home language. Translate ‘Blackpool’ to Irish and you get Dublin – or, technically, its etymon, Dubh Linn, though the Irish name of that city is Baile Átha Cliath.) It’s named as it is because one of the local streams poured a black effluent into the sea from a peat bog it passed through. (No sign of that when we were there, but we did get told that there had been a “pollution incident” at one of the piers and we should probably not be in the water.)
Admittedly, “Blackpool” doesn’t sound as bright as “Brighton,” but that doesn’t seem to have bothered Britons. It was the most popular holiday resort in England in the late 1800s through the middle 1900s. For factory workers in the north of England, who for a long time all got a week off every summer – each factory would close for a week, but they didn’t all close on the same week – Blackpool was a lovely place you could easily get to by train and wouldn’t blow your bank account on. The Romans had panem et circenses; the English – especially the northern English – had Blackpool, with its beach and entertainments. No wonder an anonymous businessman is quoted as having said, in the 1920s, “Blackpool stands between us and revolution.”
(That quote is currently featured in a prominent public artwork by Tom Ireland.)
Blackpool was the first city in the world to have electric street lights. It has the oldest still-operating tramway in England. It’s the only town in the United Kingdom with three piers. It has what was, when it was built, the tallest structure in the British Empire. Its opera house, when opened, was the largest in Britain outside of London. And it is home to the oldest purpose-built ice theatre in the world.
Which, by the way, is why we were there: my wife, as you may know, is a former professional figure skater, and there was a reunion there for people who skated in Holiday On Ice.
Ice shows have, like Blackpool, outlived their peak days, and most of the people in attendance were somewhat older than us (and we’re over 50 these days too), but Blackpool still has an ice show, Hot Ice, that runs every summer with extremely skilled young skaters, and it was a highlight of the reunion. And I have to tell you, it was one of the most impressive ice shows I’ve ever seen. The calibre of the talent is stunning. But aside from the hundred or so there for the reunion, there didn’t seem to be more than a couple dozen people in the audience. Perhaps they were all at the beach or riding the roller coasters.
In truth, many a modern beachgoer might think Blackpool better suited to ice rinks than to summer holidays. It’s true that its average daily low never dips below freezing (though its record low is –15.7˚C), but its average daily high never gets above 20˚C for any month of the year, and it averages fewer than five days a year over 25˚C. But you take what you can get.
Everyone I talked to who knew Blackpool from the later 20th century agreed that Blackpool used to be very nice. They also all agreed that it has… gone downhill a bit.
The Blackpool economy still relies very heavily on tourism, but tourists in recent decades have been able to take quick and cheap flights to the Costa del Sol. A British co-worker of mine in Toronto was gobsmacked when she discovered how much our equivalent, a trip to the Dominican Republic, would cost. I should have suggested she try Wasaga Beach on Georgian Bay. It’s warmer on average in the summer than Blackpool (though not than the Caribbean); it’s the world’s longest freshwater beach, longer than the beach at Blackpool; and it’s only as far from Toronto as Blackpool is from Sheffield… but there’s no train from here to there anymore.
At least you can still get to Blackpool by train, as we did. The train helped make Blackpool; of that there is no doubt. And cheap airfare has helped unmake it. But other factors have also played a part: the decline of the factories, for instance, which were such an important source of annual visitors. They would go to Blackpool to feel good about life. With them gone, Blackpool itself doesn’t feel quite as good as it used to. Indicators of social well-being (such as health conditions, divorce rates, and employment) are in a bit of a… dark pool. This is not to say that the town can’t rebound. But it’s not the only place in England lately that’s seen better days. So… if Blackpool stood between businessmen and revolution, who’s standing between Blackpool and revolution?