Birthday Weekend – Introduction and Blackpool


Less than 60 hours after I landed from Brazil, we headed off on a long weekend adventure in the north of England.  This was mostly to celebrate my birthday, but also to get reacquainted with each other (after 2 months of virtually non-stop work for both of us!) and to visit some places that had been on our list but never high enough to make it onto the calendar (or into the diary, as folks say in these parts).

So, back when I last had a few minutes in September, we sketched out the weekend trip and made arrangements.  Some of you have hinted (or outright suggested) that we must be rolling in quid (i.e. cash) to be able to travel so much and take weekend trips, but I assure you that we do so on a pretty strict budget by being flexible, planning ahead, and knowing a few tricks.  I’ll use this particular example to explain how we do that.

Blackpool was the main attraction behind this trip, mainly because it has a historic tramway that is almost extinct (more on that in its own post!) and that is part of Blackpool Illuminations, a nightly light display for two months in autumn that helps to extend the summer season a bit at this old seaside resort.  I started by looking for train tickets; unfortunately, leaving London on the Saturday morning and coming back on the Sunday afternoon was coming in at close to £100/person (and this was 6 weeks in advance!), and decent hotels in Blackpool, of which there appear to be few by my standards, were also about £100.  The other thing to consider was Blackpool’s reputation; most Londoners we told that we were going there responded with “why?” or simple laughter – the catch phrase was “the Atlantic City of England, without the gambling.”  Of course, for us that kind of reputation can be an attraction – kind of like our perhaps dark desire to visit Detroit (how often do you get to see in reality a scene from one of those post-apocalypse “disaster porn” flicks?).

Anyway, this is where the travel know-how sort of comes in.  Whenever I’m faced with a high-priced train ticket (and, in Britain that is often – pricing is incredibly complicated, highly variable, and yield-based, like airline tickets), I consider alternatives or ways to break up the trip – and then start manually looking for those combinations.  Back in August 2010 we scored big savings by traveling to Edinburgh via Birmingham; although it added a couple of hours to our total journey by not taking the direct route up the east coast, we saved lots of £s and got to see one of the contenders for “England’s second city” in the process.

This time, I realized that all trips from London to Blackpool require a change in Preston, a city on the West Coast Main Line that is almost exactly half way between London and Glasgow.  Sure enough, tickets just to Preston were much cheaper, and I checked to confirm that we could get fixed-price tickets for pretty cheap “local” travel between Preston and Blackpool.   What about accommodations?  Score – a Premier Inn (the UK’s largest hotel brand with more than 600 hotels, which I might equate with a top tier Comfort Inn or a middle tier Holiday Inn Express) in the Preston city centre was available for a mind-boggling £26 (~$42) per night!

So, for the first time ever (I think), we decided to depart on Friday night.  Normally, we don’t do this because a) it is hectic getting ready to leave Thursday night and b) we don’t want to pay for a hotel night that we don’t really fully utilize.    But with a cheap train and a very cheap hotel, it was possible.  Under those circumstances, I think we would do it again, as it made the weekend away feel a bit longer.

Our £13/person tickets on the 21:10 Virgin Pendolino service from London Euston to Preston also came with a major case of "train tummy" due to the high-speed (well, up to 125mph) tilting train running on the mid-19th century West Coast Main Line. This is a Pendolino at Birmingham New Street Station (courtesy of Wikipedia).

Once we had the Preston hotel and the Blackpool plan, I started scheming – which led to us taking Monday off and plotting visits to nearby Lancaster, Carlisle, and the Settle-Carlisle scenic railway line – but more on those in other posts!  Now, on with the show about Blackpool…

Blackpool is a seaside resort town of about 140,000 people located on England’s west coast along the Irish Sea.  I was quite interested to learn that Dublin, which is across the sea and just slightly to the south, gets its name from the Irish for black pool.  When talking about location, it is important to note that “west coast” does not mean quite as much as it sounds, given that the east coast is just about 125 miles to the east (incidentally, the same as the distance across the Irish Sea to Ireland).  So, Blackpool is coastal but only 30 miles north of Liverpool (with more than 1.1 million people in the metropolitan area) and 40 miles northwest of Manchester (with more than 2.6 million).

Why is it known as the Atlantic City of England?  Well, originally because they both grew in similar fashion – after the railways were built, as seaside oases for workers and business tycoons made by the Industrial Revolution.   Blackpool was perhaps the height of a Victorian era English seaside resort, much as Atlantic City was the height of an early 20th century American one.  Most importantly, both places declined in the post-war period because of transportation innovation, ironically the same thing that largely made them in the first place  – but this time it was the airplane.  The British suddenly left for much warmer lands with better beaches (mostly Spain), while Americans headed to Florida and the Caribbean.  Also for both, the growth of roads and car ownership also meant that people could come for a day or two only instead of the traditional week or more, which contributed to the decline.

The stories diverge a bit from there; while both places faded, I think Atlantic City experienced much worse decline in terms of poverty, crime, etc., and also took more dramatic steps to counter that by legalizing gambling in the late 1970s – to very mixed reviews.  Blackpool on the other hand appears to be stuck in time; Astrid and I kept feeling like we had stepped into 1976 Britain, which was both interesting and a bit sad.  Blackpool has recently been trying to convince government (one of those words that never has “the” with it in British, like hospital) to allow it to go AC-style by introducing mega-gambling, but so far it has not passed.  Here are some views of Blackpool:

The beach looks wide, but you'll notice the pools that get filled in when the tide comes in - making the beach pretty unpredictable! In the distance is the Blackpool Tower, an observation tower that is the town's landmark, but that (despite my love of towers) I didn't find worth at least £12/person.

One of the few modern things we saw in Blackpool (aside from a pretty snazzy McDonald's, which was the fanciest restaurant visible near the South Pier) was the new sea wall, a massive reconstruction of the beachfront promenade. You can see from the construction that this provides some serious flood protection, as well as a pleasant top level for strolling, biking, etc.

Blackpool has three piers (which apparently makes it unique in the UK), usefully called North, Central, and South; this is South Pier, which to my view had a fairly typical (from an US East Coast beach point of view), if dated mixture of rides.

Riding along the sand also makes me think of beach trips as a kid to Ocean City (MD) or Wildwood (NJ). The tide is stating to come in, so riding won't be possible for too much longer!

Horse and buggy rides were happening along the 7-mile promenade, which also contributed to the retro feeling (pre-dating the trams running on the tracks in the foreground by a bit as well).

My favorite site in Blackpool was the White Tower entrance to the Pleasure Beach, Blackpool's biggest attraction and largest amusement park. The streamlined Art Deco, "moderne" design was a classic! In an interesting old world-->new world-->old world situation, the Pleasure Beach was founded in 1896. The quote from the founder (from the history section of http://www.blackpoolpleasurebeach.com) is "we wanted an American Style Amusement Park, the fundamental principle of which is to make adults feel like children again and to inspire gaiety of a primarily innocent character." Oh, those British tycoons! According to Wikipedia he went into this business after failing to become an advertising man on Madison Avenue (perhaps hoping to be the 1890s version of Don Draper?).

The pleasure part of this beach shines at night, joining in the Illuminations throughout town and highlighting that masterpiece building. Pleasure Beach Blackpool has 38 rides in just 42 acres, including 10 roller coasters (5 wooden), one of which was for a time in the mid1990s the tallest, fastest, and steepest in the world. It was waaaay too cold to consider roller coasters, but I might consider going back to enjoy the retro park some day!

Don't let that beautiful sunset through the perfect ridge of clouds out over the sea fool you - look at that scarf! It was windy and cold there. The average high in summer only reaches about 67F, with the average summer low in the low 50s. You can perhaps see why the British were so easily persuaded to take a short flight to the so-called "Spanish Riviera".

I'll end with another breathtaking view of the sea wall and that amazing cloud wall out over the Irish Sea. This is north of the town center, near Bispham, where things are (even) quieter and the promenade is smaller and higher up from the sea.

It was hard to capture that stuck-in-time feeling in photographs, but all around us the place felt like a time warp.  I don’t know what the future holds for Blackpool, or how the 140,000 residents possibly support themselves in the off-season, but it was well worth a short visit to see that point in time.  While so much of the country (and what we do) focuses on much much older history, the history of Britain from a more recent time is also quite interesting.

Well, I think that is more than enough for one post – up next I’ll cover getting to Blackpool and, most importantly, the Blackpool Tramway!

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Posted on 15/11/2011, in Exploring the UK, travel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. S-o-o-oooo interesting ! So I was wondering about this ‘stuck-in-time’ concept and Dublin. It’s such and old place, shouldn’t it at least be Triplin’ by now?

    • Maybe, but in British (can’t say for sure about Irish, but probably) it would be Treblin! 🙂

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