Taking a stroll along the promenade at Blackpool is always bracing. No matter what the month there always seems to be a constant gale and, if my own experiences are anything to go by, the sun never shines.
Yet despite the unreliable weather, I love this northern seaside resort. It may only be a few hours by train from London, but it’s like arriving in another world – a brash place with arcades, tatty pubs, variety shows and grand piers to walk along. While the rest of the country has modernised, here a continuity with the past remains.
Blackpool has in fact quite a claim in seaside history as it was the first resort in the world to cater overwhelming for working classes – a ‘playground’ where factory workers from northern towns could escape the fumes for a day out and later for a week long holiday.
The Blackpool story is a compelling one, growing from a small village with fewer than 500 inhabitants in the early 19th century to almost 40,000 a 100 years later, and is the subject of a new English Heritage exhibition.
But don’t go looking for ‘Wonderland of the World’ in the seaside resort itself, for this exhibition is bizarrely being held in a newly refurbished gallery space at Wellington Arch in none other than London.
Taking two iconic venues, the Winter Gardens and Blackpool Tower, the displays wonderfully capture the glamour of Blackpool and highlight the array of entertainment on offer to the masses – both then and now. As the exhibition points out, by 1900 Blackpool offered ‘more than 20,000 theatre seats each night and only London could match the variety of shows on offer’.
The Winter Gardens, a complex of indoor attractions for select clientele to enjoy during inclement weather, boasted, by the late 1800s, the Empress Ball Room and Opera House, along with bars and restaurants. It was the place to see and be seen – and patrons went to great lengths to dress up in lavish outfits, as pictures on display at Wellington Arch illustrate.
Blackpool Tower, which opened in 1894, included an aquarium, small zoo, ballroom (used recently by the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing Series), circus (which hasn’t missed a season since 1894), bars and restaurants. It was, at the time, Britain’s tallest building, ‘a technical triumph and an act of financial coverage’.
Wonderful early advertising posters capture the ornate interiors and the array of attractions on offer at the Tower for patrons. The exhibition also features souvenirs, like branded mineral water bottles, from the opening and a scale model which demonstrates the enormouty of the structure.
While the scope of the displays are restricted to the Tower and the Winter Gardens (clearly stated as the focus) a larger exhibition would be able to do Blackpool as a whole better justice – punch and judy, trams, lavish hotels, trains, piers and of course the beaches have all played a key role in making the resort what it is today.
But for an exhibition in the capital I’m sure ‘Wonderland of the World’ will whet the appetites of at least some tourists enough for them to want to visit Blackpool. Ten million people visit the resort every year, but there may be many more on the way.