An ode to Blackpool in winter
North Shore, Blackpool, January 1959. Or maybe 1960. Conceivably 1961. It doesn’t much matter. I was an infant throughout, my family took a winter Blackpool break in all those years and, as winds whipped waves over the prom, I was discovering that the off-season seaside left you wet, cold and wonderstruck. Quite unbeatable. Still is, decades on, when my local seaside is the Mediterranean. Its resorts may lack piers, towers and sticks of rock but they spur the spirits in winter nonetheless.
Granted, the strict French lockdown has left these beaches beyond the reach of anyone living more than a kilometre away. But that’s not going on forever. The moment I can, I’ll be roaming the unkempt dunes and sands beyond Palavas-les-Flots, looking far and breathing deep. I’ve been doing something similar all over the place ever since the Blackpool winters.
It goes without saying, of course, that Blackpool is a resort for all seasons. In spring, it is holding its breath for summer. In summer, it’s at full-tilt, hosting irresistible pleasures in primary-colour premises that look as if they’ve been chucked up on a Tuesday and might collapse by Wednesday teatime. Except they don’t. They’ve been flimsy for decades. Back in the day, folk on wakes weeks crammed the sands, the men in jackets and ties, the women in full floaty dresses, the tea in jugs from nearby stands. Everybody famous was here: Matt Munro, Gene Vincent and the Beatles through Frank Sinatra, Frank Carson, Frankie Howerd, Frankie Vaughan and Frank Ifield to a brace of Jimmies – Clitheroe and Hendrix. OK, one Jimmy and one Jimi. I’m hoping they met, at least once.
Autumn brought, and brings, th’Illuminations, switched on variously by Jayne Mansfield in 1959 and Violet Carson two years later: diversity was a Blackpool strength ages before everyone else caught up. Then there were the party conferences. As a young reporter, I was a regular. Particularly useful was the Labour event, affording – as it did – the scope for representatives of the proletariat to encounter bingo, candy floss, dodgems, fortune tellers, Ripley’s Odditorium, pints of Thwaites dark mild and other leisure activities favoured by the masses and with which conference-attending socialists were not necessarily familiar. Or comfortable. I recall mentioning to one of these tribunes of the plebs that Arts Council grants should go not to opera, ballet or soppy stuff like that but to subsidise tickets for Ken Dodd, The Bachelors and the Big Dipper. “I’m talking votes by the ton,” I said. He looked around anxiously, perhaps for assistance.
Then everyone left for winter, which was why it was so terrific. Almost everyone. We were there and, being too posh for a B&B, booked into the Savoy Hotel. The place was the size of a palace, overwhelmingly stately for a six-year-old – the promise was of endless discoveries – and, for all I know, it remains stately today. We’d issue forth to the front to be blown towards Bispham. The cream and green tram, rattling as if rivets were all working loose, took us on to Cleveleys, perhaps even Fleetwood where fish and lost souls accumulated.
Back on North Shore, we played soccer in duffel coats. My sister was OK in goal but easily diverted by pretty shells, my dad was struck with sudden incompetence strange in a sportsman of county level in tennis and hockey. So I won. My mum applauded. We shared the vast sands only with walkers too far off to be a bother, hurtling dogs, and seagulls. After some study and grim experience, I got the measure of gulls early on. Look at their eyes. They are the Nazi psychos of the bird world. They’ll swoop to steal your chips, peck you to death and then repair to their nests to listen to Wagner. Mark my words.
We’d walk the North Shore cliffs, then into town where most summer shacks, cabins and arcades were shut. It was like being in the theatre when the show was over. That said, the amusements on the North or Central piers had perhaps remained open proving, once again, that those shove-penny and crane-grab-to-bag-a-teddy-bear machines were works of the devil. My dad, not invariably frivolous with the family, coppered up relentlessly. We were never like this at other times. Usually, the parents were clever, hard-working and busy. Then, on summer holidays, there were always other people around – good people, aunts, uncles, grannies, cousins – but other people all the same.
At Blackpool in February, it was just us, and a table for four at the Lobster Pot. We were too posh, too, for takeaways in a bus shelter. So the family ate at the Lobster Pot restaurant. If you’ve never considered breaded plaice with a slice of lemon the most grown-up dish imaginable, you weren’t around in 1960. It came with a pot of tea, bread and butter and, if luck was in, ketchup. Then we’d walk back to the Savoy, quite a trek for tots. But we were out late, shop-fronts splashed light across the darkness, maybe the wind dropped and the rain stopped and my father surged off, a cowboy in search of Indians. And maybe this was the best of times.
So a pattern was set. Winter seaside pleasure persisted and persists. In recent times, I’ve strolled off-season Deauville’s vast beach. Race horses galloped by the water’s edge, as if through a TV advert for deodorant. Sands, sky and possibilities seemed endless. On the Côte-d’Azur, wandering the coastal path round the Cap-d’Antibes – past creeks, grey-green greenery, little beaches and shores of rock – was as intensely agreeable as a winter saunter can be. You get the same views as the billionaires, but for nothing. In town, you may also zip round the Picasso Museum without other visitors blocking your route. I’ve done it in 20 minutes, including five in front of La Joie de Vivre.
The Languedoc coast is, though, best, not least because I can be there in half an hour. Unlike the Riviera further east – HQ to high-rollers for 200 years – Languedoc has no tradition of winter tourism. It’s not got much tradition of tourism at all. Only in the 1960s did fishing ports expand, and new-build resorts go up, to entice French holidaymakers from the Spanish costas. Aesthetics weren’t always the prime concern. Some apartment blocks in, say, Palavas, come direct from the fast-buck school of architecture. Cottages are prettier. Villas, too. But, as someone once told me, high-rise apartment blocks ensure that a lot more people get their own slice of paradise.
Anyway, it’s winter now. Shutters down, the stacked-up apartments are in hibernation. The few restaurants and cafés open are delighted to see a visitor, because you’re the only one. There’s a sense of conspiracy afoot. They’ll chat, they’ll serve oysters from the Thau lagoon and Picpoul-de-Pinet wine and the low, late-morning sun will sparkle the water as if announcing the arrival of Shirley Bassey. This coast is dishevelled and so flat that the sea filters inland to create lagoons wherever it pleases. Tailored vineyards, marsh and garrigue scrub country lap round the edges of the holiday towns like Le Grau-du-Roi or St Pierre-sur-Mer.
Campsites are empty, water slides and skeletal roller coasters rise abandoned, and jolly signs are jolly in a void. It’s usual to say that this is melancholic. It is also nonsense. Thousands of holidaymakers had the happiest possible time here last summer, and will again next. Right now, the echoes of that happiness linger, enhancing a hint of privilege. At Palavas, funfairs and crazy golf are on hold. The winter sun outstares everyone. The blues of sea and sky meet at the horizon, remaining as distinct as colours on a flag. And, out of town, mine are the only footprints in the sand. Make that “ours”, if I’m lucky enough to have wife, children and grandchildren with me. The best of times, part 2.