BLACKPOOL, UK: Can a place be as bad as its name? Well, sadly, and I really hate confirming this, but the answer is yes; Blackpool is such a place.
I had my doubts initially. The UK is full of odd places, places that I actually like which co-workers and flatmates say, “ooo, stay away from there!” I’ve been here long enough now to pick up on the prejudices, it must be a northwest sort of thing. Places like Liverpool, Wigan or Bolton, with accents that make those from the south of England cringe. When it came to Blackpool, I was intrigued. What sort of place is named Black – and then – pool? What is it like? Who lives here? What do they do? Just how did it come to be?
What’s in a name?
We in America seem to take for granted the influence of other cultures on naming of our towns and cities. We believe everything has a literal translation which we do not know the meaning, as with so many of the Native American names, or it was a proper name of some long dead person. So I assumed something similar would be the case with Blackpool. I was not really expecting the water to be black but it did make me wonder if there was perhaps a historic reference to the colour. Indeed, there was. Wikipedia turned up the following:
Blackpool gets its name from a historic drainage channel (possibly Spen Dyke) that ran over a peat bog, discharging discoloured water into the Irish Sea, which formed a black pool (on the other side of the sea, “Dublin” (Dubh Linn) is derived from the Irish for “black pool”). Another explanation is that the local dialect for stream was “pul” or “poole”, hence “Black poole”.
What I find interesting about this reference is how the discoloured water traveled from Blackpool, across the Irish Sea and ended up in Dublin. I suppose they had a way to confirm that at the time.
What’s in Blackpool?
My first question answered, I decided I had to see this place for myself. The perfect opportunity arose in the form of a late summer Bank Holiday. It was a quick trip, I never thought I would need more than a couple days. Train fare booked, I set out looking for a hotel. The prices were very reasonable at the time so I thought I would go upscale and find a place in one of the old swanky establishments, something with history, class, posh for its time, even if its time had passed. I pretty much got what I bargained for in the Savoy Hotel, except what I didn’t realize is that its time had not only passed, it was expired. This hotel was not exactly what I would call an upgrade and I would have been better off saving the extra money spent.
Being a seaside town, one wants to stay close to the water and the Savoy is located just pass the central part of town, but still close enough to walk. There is also a relatively quick and efficient tram to take you up and down Queen’s Promenade. A word of advice, if you find yourself ever having to stay at the Savoy Hotel, be prepared to change your pronunciation so that the taxi driver can understand you. It took me three or four attempts before my driver understood that “Sav-oy” is the same as “Sahvoy”.
At first glance, from my taxi ride between train depot and hotel, Blackpool lived up to what I had been expecting, a quaint town in the UK with a few historical offerings and a lot of quirks. Checking into the Savoy however I could see the facade quickly falling apart and the hotel’s demise was more or less in step with the town as a whole.
This poor hotel at one time offered everything you would need to enjoy your time away from London, find that holiday romance you might have been looking for. British troupes were billeted here during WWI while training. Deep fuchsia paint with gold moldings reveal a once glamours past. The ballroom was its main attraction, which 100 years ago must have seen many lovely soirees. The ballgowns swaying in the evening light, glittering chandeliers and whichever band playing. As though it were a place in some sad Tennessee Williams short story, the Savoy’s time had shrank away without anyone taking care to preserve it for future generations.
One creaky lift with conflicting signs – one sign stating no more than three people allowed on the inside, and on the outside a sign with maximum capacity of five people allowed. And there is a personal favourite – no mobility vehicles allowed. Probably due to the small size, one could get stuck trying to back out. If you are restricted to a wheelchair you will find this hotel very difficult to stay at.
Getting out of the lift and making my way to my room, I noticed the art on the walls repeat every few feet – usually faded depictions of historical places and various scenes. A grey room, lit by florescent lighting and more what you would expect in a youth hostel. The window did not open and the thickly frosted glass gave the room an appearance of it raining, regardless if the sun was shining brightly outside. I reminded myself that one does not come to Blackpool expecting a hidden English gem rivaling the French Rivera.
Places like this are all across America, in every town with a formerly grand hotel you will find a hard to maintain, crumbling building. Historic places are still very beautiful, but it is sad to come across these once magnificent establishments seemingly uncared for. Do we find that taking care of of old places too much effort, money, not worth the investment? Is this what we think of our old people too? It was a thought that came to mind.
Realizing that staying in the hotel would have equaled a night in an insane asylum, I decided that eating out was the only option. A breezy walk along the waterfront, Blackpool actually does have a well-maintained promenade. It’s spacious, clean, and with the view across the Irish Sea it is perfect for cycling or running, or just sitting outside an meditating for a little while, the wind farms shrinking in the distance as you walk closer to the main area of town.
There isn’t much in terms of fine dining in Blackpool. A search for decent food in general is tough. I don’t believe salad or vegetables find their way to this part of the UK. In fact, they might’ve invented fried food or fish and chips the way it is touted at every stand along the promenade. The greasy stench is inescapable and follows you everywhere. Powdered fried dough is the dessert. It is a town where fast food chains are the safe option for eating. I literally ate at Pizza Express for the three days I was in there.
Horse and carriages click-clock up and down the main drag, decorated in pink or golden bubbles with lights and tacky plastic chandeliers. I’m not sure if these are meant to be a representation of a Disney princess or a Grimm’s fairytale nightmare. Many of the people walking about at this hour are middle aged. The women looked to be approaching 60, glitter purses, cigarettes hanging out of their mouths, wearing see-through florescent dresses, and shoes they could walk in. You see the plastic and patent leather torture devices kicked off under the chair by the end of the second drink and their owner opting to go barefoot instead.
All along the promenade are small hotels, many are boarded up. These are not chain hotels familiar across the world, although there is a Hilton and a Best Western competing with the likes of the Parisienne (complete with “boudoir styled rooms”), and the Presidential with its Kennedy Bar, Lincoln Room and Roosevelt Suite. The Cherry Blossom seems to be the only one which hasn’t added on a tacky front, instead opting to maintain the original Victorian facade.
My walk back to the Savoy did not provide me with any other sights. It was just a parade of the tasteless and the drunk, darting in and out of the News & Booze, singing intentionally and obnoxiously off key in the streets. The venues did much to encourage this. Blaring music permanently stuck on a loop from previous decades – Elvis enjoying a particular appreciation, as well as Northern Soul and 80s pop – the place seemed desperate to hang on to its past, sort of like the old women trying to keep the appearance of youthfulness even if youth had disappeared from their person.
Blackpool caters to the memories many seem to have of the place from decades ago. These memories, and these same individuals are the only thing which sustains Blackpool. I get the feeling that unless something significant happens to attract a different crowd, Blackpool will fade away in the coming decades, perhaps becoming a ghost town like dust bowl towns of Oklahoma, the people who made them either moving on or dying.
The next day I thought I should see if the daytime offers any better options for Blackpool. There are a few attractions highlighted on the tourism website: the Central and North Piers, Blackpool Tower, the Illuminations, Winter Gardens, and Pleasure Beach.
I didn’t go up to the Tower but I did take a walk along towards Pleasure Beach, the most northern sight, meandering in and out of the two Victorian era piers. Both offered gaming arcades, the dazzling lights providing a peek back in time of when this was a truly magnificent destination spot. The Winter Gardens hold a glimpse of a glamorous past when Queen Victoria’s daughter – was it Princess Louise – passed through town.
The historic trams, with the mostly male passengers, are well-kept. Train and tram enthusiasts line up with their cameras; they are the paparazzi of vintage trains. After snapping their piece of photographic memorabilia, it’s time to hop on and take a ride. The historic trams cost more than the modern replacements, meant to be less functional and more of an attraction, they follow the same path they have for years along the promenade without making all the stops. The designs are truly eye-catching. I can see why some of the tram buffs would come to Blackpool just to travel on the vintage rail cars.
Who lives here?
It is hard to say who actually lives in Blackpool now. The people I crossed paths with on the promenade were very likely to have come from other parts of the UK, as if this were the mecca of tacky. I could be wrong however.
What I can say is that Blackpool’s past residents are an impressive bunch of celebrity which includes two members of Jethro Tull, Dave Ball (Soft Cell), Chris Lowe (Pet Shop Boys), Robert Smith (The Cure), Cynthia Lennon (John Lennon’s first wife), Graham Nash (Crosby, Stills and Nash), Joe Mahoney (actor). I wonder how often any of the made it back to Blackpool.
And that was my experience of Blackpool. I am glad I went, satisfied my curiosity. It’s not the sort of place I would recommend to anyone visiting from abroad (unlike Bath or Liverpool), but I can at least share my experience with others. I do hope the current rejuvenation project helps to restore some sort of culture to the town.