The modern winter break – escaping to the south to get some sunshine – was probably invented by snow-phobic Americans. But 145 years ago, when Florida was still a retreat for ageing alligators, Blackpool invented the winter holiday when it launched the Illuminations – or The Lights, as most northerners call them.
They were switched on for the first time in September 1879 so that the seaside resort, already the most popular holiday destination in the north, could extend its season and keep its many hotel, restaurants, theatres and pubs busy come rain or squall or sleet. It was a huge success, and still is. According to research by Trivago, Blackpool is more popular than Benidorm – packaged to Brits as “the Blackpool of the Spanish Costas” – both for New Year’s celebrations and for holidays booked for the early part of 2024.
As Strictly Come Dancing returns to the town for its annual Blackpool week, the famous Tower Ballroom will once again steal the show – its gilded rococo interior and glittering chandeliers can outshine any sequinned dress or shimmering shirt – but Blackpool’s appeal has deep, enduring roots in British social history.
Many of us will have collective memories of Blackpool. For those of us who grew up in Lancashire, there are personal recollections of childhood visits. We had our first open-water swims there, enjoyed our first big dipper rides there, had our vinegary chips stolen by gulls for the first time there.
But Blackpool is a national destination. It drew an astonishing 23.5 million visitors to the seafront during this year’s summer months – up from 21.8 last year. For many Scots, especially in the west of the country, Blackpool’s is one of the closest beach resorts. For Midlanders, it’s as close as West Wales or Devon resorts. For southerners, Blackpool is the affordable option, especially now the South West has reinvented itself as a region targeted at high-salary gourmands and second-home owners.
We are often being told the British seaside is rundown and/or grim, and that Blackpool, in particular, is a health and crime blackspot and one of the worst places to live. Remember when Tory MP Heather Wheeler called it “godawful”?
But for those of us who love Blackpool – and we are legion – the story of the rise and resilience of the UK’s premier holiday town shushes all nay-sayers.
Blackpool was a humble sea-bathing spot in the 1770s, but only grew into a substantial resort 100 years later, long after Scarborough and some decades behind local rival Southport. Isolated from good roads and surrounded by farmland, it was hard to get to and short on amenities. Nonetheless, along with a handful of well-to-do waders from Lancashire high society, there came artisan workers from the milltowns around Burnley. Dubbed ‘Padjamers’ – because some came from Padiham – they travelled by cart, on foot and riding pillion on horseback, believing seawater had “physic” or health-giving properties.
In the Victorian era, there were attempts to keep the resort for posh people, but loose planning laws and no lord of the manor bent on building mansions for his kind of people meant Blackpool evolved piecemeal. The beach turned into a meeting place for the masses, part urban fair, part country fete. There were freak shows, waxworks, monstrosities, quack medicines, popular dramas and small mechanical rides. Taking advantage of trains to Preston, Manchester and the West Riding, trippers came in their hundreds of thousands. Blackpool became the first working-class holiday resort in the world.
The golden age came at the end of the century, with the opening of the Winter Gardens, erection of Blackpool Tower and beginnings of the Pleasure Beach. Blackpool was glamorous and cosmopolitan. Of the Winter Gardens, a historian wrote: “Visitors were taken on a journey – inspired by international exhibitions and current fashions – from India to Spain, from pirates to princes, from extravagant High Victorian to elegant Streamline Moderne.” The widespread adoption of Wakes Weeks holidays in milltowns saw visitor numbers soar – as many as 17 million a year by the 1950s.
Every entertainer, from Arthur Askey and Thora Hird to Frank Sinatra and The Beatles, wanted to play Blackpool. Morecambe and Wise, who performed there more than 1,000 times during their long career, called it their “spiritual home.”
Decline hit the town hard. When Pevsner wrote about Blackpool in 1969 he noted with some surprise that it had no listed buildings. It was one of the last local authorities to designate Conservation Areas, and during the 20th century the town lost dozens of landmarks. It was assailed by roads and multi-storey car parks. Eye-catching theatres and elegant townhouses were replaced by amusement arcades and shops.
In Blackpool’s success lay its potential ruin. As both residential and holiday town, it was defiantly proletarian; when the UK economy tanked in the Sixties and Seventies, Blackpool was doubly damaged. Many B&B owners turned to the DHSS for tenants and the long story of the centre’s transformation into a sink estate for some of the poorest, most marginalised and least healthy members of society began. When people could travel, they opted for packages in Spain and Greece. Blackpool survived on elderly people’s memories and ex-miners taking convalescence breaks.
A story of doom and gloom has dominated reports on Blackpool for two decades. But the secret of its appeal to a surprisingly diverse demographic is still intact – and has deeper roots than the socio-economic malaise. Indeed, the town’s willingness to accept the poor and needy is itself part of its basic DNA.
Because Blackpool is democratic, welcoming to all and stridently populist. It has retained the elusive magic of a collective experience. In the bars and pubs, chip shops and arcades, on the trams and the three piers, it’s a resort where you can mix with anyone and everyone. Blackpool treats everyone the same.
The resort displays a remarkable ability to adapt to change and reinvent itself. The annual Rebellion festival, launched in 1996, draws punks of all ages from around the UK and overseas. Next year’s festival will see The Stranglers play to packed crowds. The town’s Pride parade is no mere token or bandwagon event; Blackpool is internationally recognised as an LGBT trendsetter.
There are smaller pockets of innovation all over, like the Art B&B, with rooms designed by artists, the swanky Mode apartments in the Art Deco Music Hall Tavern or the clever designers who have turned the old Pump and Truncheon pub into No 13 Bonny Street and protected a lovely old frontage.
The centre might be chaotic and a bit garish, but the Tower – once the country’s tallest man-made structure – still rises high above, phallic, iconic, loftily distant from the melee and downright handsome. Its interiors – Frank Matcham’s ballroom, Maxwell and Tuke’s Moorish circus arena – are still drop-dead gorgeous, as are the views of the Fylde Coast from the 380-feet Tower Eye.
The Imperial and Metropole hotels, Central Library, Casino and Grand Theatre are throwbacks to a time when proud civic burghers beautified their towns rather than feathering their nests; no wonder Strictly loves to come to Blackpool, even if our sniffy politicians now largely disdain it for their conferences.
It’s impossible to generalise about why people keep coming. Many visitors no doubt concur with Dan, 37: “I have lovely memories of coming with mum and dad for the Lights. I know my grandparents went too and before that they went for Wakes Weeks. My own children love it.”
Many come for the world-class rides, which are as impressive as any in Orlando. Families love Blackpool because it provides plenty of safe spaces for children.
The resort never sits on its laurels. In 2022, openings included a new £1 million Peter Rabbit attraction, a Harry Potter-inspired mini golf course called Hole in the Wand in May, and the Arcade Club, for retro gaming aficionados. The World Fireworks Championship takes place in Blackpool every September and October.
This year saw the unveiling of the world’ first Gruffalo & Friends Clubhouse on the Golden Mile, a new big cat enclosure at Blackpool Zoo and the much-anticipated return of the award-winning Valhalla thrill ride at the Pleasure Beach. A new multiplex cinema in the town centre featuring one of the country’s largest IMAX screens is scheduled for next year. The Talbot Road tram depot is also being redeveloped as Tramtown, a visitor attraction that’s part of a wider heritage-based renaissance.
Despite all prophecies to the contrary, Blackpool endures. It has something for everyone, and is sophisticated with a common touch, and always very entertaining. In winter, a romantic air adds to its appeal, as far as I’m concerned. I like the bright lights against the cold night sky. I like the cosy pubs and eating fish and chips in the shelter of the pier. But Blackpool can still do rowdy and raucous, even when it’s freezing outside. It will take on all weathers just as it will cater to all needs and dreams – as it has been doing for 250 years.
Only in Blackpool: five things you can’t leave without doing
Stroll along the prom, prom, prom
Blackpool’s Promenade is a very distinctive combination of sea breezes, golden sands, historic piers, cutting edge sea-wall architecture, public art and people of every stripe and style. An hour’s stroll will reveal more about modern Britain than any earnest documentary.
Take a tram along the Golden Mile
There are frequent departures along the front between Starr Gate and Fleetwood Ferry. Book an Illuminations tour for £10.
Ride on something terrifying
Take your pick between the Skyscreamer reverse bungee on South Pier, the Icon and Big One roller coasters at Pleasure Beach, or the white knuckle slides at Sandcastle Waterpark.
Eat salty and sugary delights
Enjoy cockles or oysters (from Roberts) for starters, fish and chips (from Papa’s) for mains and ice cream (from Notarianni) or a stick of rock for dessert.
Do the Blackpool Illuminations
They were switched on by Sophie Ellis Bextor on September 1, and will light up the night sky till January a, 2024. Joining a six-mile traffic jam might not sound like a grand evening out – but it is!