Merchant Ivory films inform many travelers' notions of Merry Olde England. Castle turrets. Thatched villages. Guttersnipes and plummy aristocrats. But there's far more to the UK than Dickens and "Downton Abbey."
For some real-life razzle dazzle, look first to Blackpool, a seaside resort within a 75-minute drive of both Liverpool and Manchester. In the 1840s, daytrippers crowded into this North West town to ride donkeys, consult fortune tellers and nosh on fish and chips, thanks to new industrial rail lines.
Blackpool built nightclubs and swanky hotels, not to mention a racetrack, a skating rink and a monkey house (because what's a vacation without one, really?). Upper-crust patrons promenaded on the cast-iron North Pier, while blue-collar guests two-stepped under the stars on a different wharf. By the 1890s, the entertainment boom had ignited — and Blackpool has never looked back.
Its signature flair emerged 100 years ago, when the town fired up 120,000 electric lights — billed as "artificial sunshine" — to welcome Princess Louise, the liberal and artistic fourth daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Consort Albert. This kindled annual Illuminations, now billed as "the world's largest outdoor gallery."
Imagine a house tricked out with Christmas decorations from neon to fiberglass sculptures and jolly animated tableaus. Now multiply that by six miles and add a 518-foot tower inspired by Paris's Eiffel landmark. That's Blackpool every autumn.
As the Illuminations celebrate their centenary this year, blazing from August 31 to November 4, more than a million bulbs will wow about 3.5 million visitors. Displays include giant astronauts, teddy bears and Tiffany lamps. Pop culture also gets a chance to shine with sculptures of Doctor Who, SpongeBob SquarePants and other beloved characters. Even Her Majesty gets a nod with a special 60-year jubilee salute entitled "Diamonds Are A Queen's Best Friend."
Five years ago, style guru Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen got so enchanted with "Blackpool's high-kicking glamour and historical reputation for giddy glitz" that he dreamt up six kitschy and curvy statues of burlesque dancers. Now creative director to the nine-week event, he praises the Illuminations as a high point in an increasingly cold and hard world.
But you don't have to be a famous interior designer to brew up bright ideas for illuminations. Blackpool let everyone get in on the fun this year: for $161, members of the public could buy a Warhol-esque pop-art portrait in the Centenary Heads gallery.
"The Lights" are Blackpool's moment in the, um, artificial sun. But the city doesn't go dark after its annual 66 nights of bling. Among other attractions, Europe's most visited seaside resort boasts an amusement park called Pleasure Beach, a branch of Madame Tussauds wax museum and a portrait of Princess Di made from 2,500 pennies at Ripley's Believe It Or Not!
Other down-to-earth destinations in Britain also shine year-round. Here are three more favorite places for those who can appreciate a little grit in the sandwich (even if it's crustless and contains cucumber).
Newcastle upon Tyne
Once a beat-up dockside city, Newcastle bounced back to become a European hub of art and nightlife (especially in the square mile of the dynamic Quayside area). Expect brown ale, impenetrable accents and mini-skirted party girls braving the snow without jackets (a point of local pride).
Regency-era dandies lingered by the sea in Brighton, an hour and a half south of London. As the beautiful people decamped to socialize on the Continent instead, Brighton took on a slightly shopworn Coney-Island vibe. But that laissez-faire — the perfect blend of carny and boho — is now exactly what draws many visitors there for raucous weekends. (Well, that, plus Britain's first major nudist beach, which has been raising goose bumps since 1979.)
Over in Cornwall, vacationers tend to cover up a bit more. But officials still took the plunge and banned mankinis — the thong-like garments made famous by "Borat" — at stag and hen (bachelor and bachelorette) parties in this classic good-time town. So now there's less to distract from the cliff-top gardens, golden beaches and glorious Atlantic rollers of England's surfing capital.
- Blackpool first experimented with arc lamps in 1879 — several months before Thomas Edison applied to patent the light bulb.
- A year-round staff of 45 maintains $16 million worth of equipment, including more than 200 miles of cable and wiring.
- Blackpool helped pioneer rope (aka "linear") lights, as well as low-energy, eco-friendly outdoor lamps.
- The Illuminations cost $3.9 million to stage, but bring in more than $444 million in tourism revenue.
- In 2012, Team GB Olympians including boxer Luke Campbell, gymnast Beth Tweddle and long jumper Greg Rutherford flicked on the switch.
- The Illuminations sparked a proposal this year. Blackpool Tower's LED heart helped pet-shop worker Craig Glasscock pop the question to his girlfriend, the very appropriately named Amber-Sky Watts. "We were taking photos of the tower, then I saw this message coming across and I cried," the 22-year-old graphic designer said. "I knew the answer was going to be 'yes' straight away."
by Amanda Castleman