I visited ‘the UK’s worst seaside town’ – it’s like the British Library of bad tattoos

Oasis Bingo Hall at dusk, Grand Parade, Skegness
The Oasis Bingo Hall is one of several entertainment destinations along the Grand Parade - Alamy

All summer we will be taking the pulse of our most famous traditional seaside towns, examining the efforts being made to regenerate them, and opining on whether they are still worth visiting. This week, Ed Grenby explores Skegness.

I have narrowly avoided winning a plastic lizard. Which is good because I think I might have been mugged for it by a seething crowd of septuagenarians otherwise.

At 49, I am the youngest person in the bingo hall by a decade or two, and the other patrons eye me with barely-veiled suspicion. Skegness, it seems, is not just the Midlands seaside town that time forgot; it’s the one time buried alive and then forgot.

This means that much of what made it famous is still right here and smelling only faintly of damp. Dodgems and donkey rides, candy floss and caravan parks, Butlins and indeed bingo – it’s all just where Freddie Laker left it when his cheap-overseas-package-holiday boom tore two-thirds of the town’s tourists away in the 1970s. Except now there are vodka slushies on sale alongside the ice creams. (Literally alongside, as it happens, which marks an interesting pathway to early alcoholism, and perhaps explains the bands of underage drinkers who make some of the streets faintly threatening after dark.)

Skegness isn’t exactly faded then; if anything it’s become brighter and more lurid (the vodka slushies are neon blue, in case you wondered). Welcome to what locals call “Skegvegas”...

Beach take away food vendors selling donuts and waffles
Health food is in short supply in Skeggy - Alamy

What’s it really like?

The pier is the epicentre of Skeggy’s entertainment offering and the great white hope for its future. Currently a little stunted – over the years storms have swept away chunks of it, and it’s now only a quarter of its original length – it was bought in 2021 by the Mellors Group, an ambitious leisure company who have the distinction of creating that zipline Boris Johnson got stuck on. They’ve secured millions in government regeneration funds (not from Boris, presumably) for their plan to rebuild and redevelop the pier to its full 582 metres, and they cite New York’s much-envied High Line urban park as an inspiration.

Manhattan it ain’t (you’ll find fewer fruit machines on Fifth Avenue), but they’ve already spruced the pier up dramatically, with climbing walls, escape rooms and a non-horrible bar, Playa.

There have been little pockets of investment elsewhere too – the Ivernia Hotel, for instance, has just emerged from an impressive makeover (theiverniahotel.co.uk) – and some bits of town need no rebooting at all, thank you very much (the traditional funfair at the foot of the pier, for instance, and the long, wide, soft-sand expanses of the beach itself).

Skegness beach, the big wheel and the fair ground, early morning
The beach itself is little changed from its heyday - Alamy

What’s not to like?

The “strip” here (South Parade, Grand Parade and North Parade, though its other name, “the B1451” more accurately captures the romance of it) is a grot-fest of migrainey slot machine joints, unpleasantly-carpeted accommodation options, nasty fast-food outlets and even nastier boozers. Chief among the latter is The Hive, which boasts “8 bars and clubs all under one roof open until 6am” – though when I was there, in early May, only two were functioning (the wine bar, Tantra, would have been, but “there was an event there last night and someone ripped the sound system out of the wall,” the hostess explains wearily). I am forced to content myself with Busters, its “80s fun pub”, where none of the punters look old enough to remember that decade, and none of the (seven!) bouncers look in the mood to allow much fun.

At the other end of the strip, both literally and metaphorically, is the North Parade Bingo Club (where I almost won that imitation reptile) and The Seaview (“family pub”). When I visit the latter, it’s karaoke night and a woman who looks like Willie Nelson is singing that song about a little mouse with clogs on. I do not stay to hear what comes next.

Butlins Funcoast World, Skegness, circa 1987
Butlin's water park remains great value - Alamy

Do this…

Billy B set up his very first Butlins holiday camp here in 1936, and it’s one of only three remaining. It’s worth the £27 cost of a day pass for the people-watching alone – it’s like the British Library of bad tattoos here – but if you’ve got kids this is actually a great value day out. The water park, in particular, is excellent, but the new Skypark outdoor adventure playground is fun too (and features something that claims to be “the UK’s longest interactive seesaw”). Sadly, day passes don’t get you into the evening entertainment, so I miss out on a brilliantly-named tribute act: Lewish Capaldi.

Accommodation blocks at Butlins
Accommodation blocks at Butlins - Alamy

Eat this…

Don’t even bother trying to eat healthily in Skegness. My B&B wasn’t offering breakfast (which makes it… just a B?), so I spent 40 minutes walking the streets fruitlessly looking for somewhere to buy a piece of fruit (“We’ve got doughnuts!” I was offered cheerfully in one cafe). Instead, surrender to the calories and get breakfast, lunch or both from Kirk’s, a family butcher with a century or so of heritage on the town’s high street. I bought a hot pork roll, with stuffing and apple sauce and – simply because I asked for it – also received a piece of crackling the size of my head, and so exquisitely crunchy I suspect every dentist in a 10-mile radius heard me munching and shivered.

But don’t do this…

Donkey rides are available on the beach in season. But isn’t it cruel that some poor creature has to haul extraneous weight up and down the strand all day in garish and unnatural attire, pausing only to be fed non-nutrious foodstuffs, then get put away overnight in cramped and noisy conditions? It certainly – wait for it – seems that way for the holidaymakers, so I can’t imagine it’s much better for the donkeys!

Feeble jokes aside, there are many who question the ethics of donkey rides, though the family firm who offer them at Skegness insist “the welfare of the animals is paramount”.

Donkeys on beach in Skegness
Donkey rides are available on the beach in season - Alamy

From a local

“I’ve no idea why people come here. Me and my mates are all trying to leave. None of us make any money off-season, though, so it’s impossible to save enough to get a place elsewhere. I’ll say one thing for Skegness: it’s cheap.” Rob, 23.

From tourists

“The worst seaside town in Britain”. (Over 3,000 holiday-makers were surveyed by Which? for their opinions on more than 100 UK seaside towns and villages – and Skegness came joint bottom, tying with Essex’s Clacton-on-Sea.)

Get there

Trains to Skegness run from Nottingham and Grantham (and it’s a lovely journey, through pretty villages and rapeseed fields, on the Poacher Line). Beware, though: in summer, the operator East Midlands Railway (eastmidlandsrailway.co.uk) often enforces an advance-bookings-only rule on trains in order to manage crowds.