A nostalgic reflection of the UK’s best loved seaside resort
‘Manchester on Sea’, the ‘UK’s Biggest Playground’, and a ‘Place Which Imports Its Own Idiots’; these are a few of the things which most people refer to Blackpool as. Everybody, whether they’ve been to Blackpool or not always have an opinion of the resort. It never tries to be another Brighton, San Tropez or Southwold. It is Blackpool. It is without exception, a one-off, and a place which numerous resorts have tried to imitate yet fail to do so.
11 million visitors a year cannot be wrong whether they are families, Stag or Hen parties or aged persons. It also seems to be classless; some may argue that the posh part of Blackpool is actually Lytham. Yet at 34, I still get a lump in the throat each time I see the Tower. Just as I did when I was 10 years old. Even if the flip side of this amusement is the awful social problems faced by its residents (as seen most recently in Channel Four’s 999, What’s Your Emergency?). Smokey Robinson’s Tears of a Clown could have been written about Blackpool.
For about several minutes or so, in about a thousand or so words or thereabouts, it’s time for us to book our coach ticket at the newsagents. Then, present ourselves at the bus stop for 8am or thereabouts on a weekend. Bon voyage, and time to party like it’s 1989 again.
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Like many seaside resorts throughout the UK, Blackpool’s rise was thanks to the railways. From the Lancastrian mill towns, it was a popular destination on Wakes’ Weeks, and trains from in and around Manchester, Blackburn, Bolton, Oldham and Ashton-under-Lyne would arrive at the grandiose Blackpool Central station.
By 1980, Blackpool Central had had closed thanks to The Reshaping of British Railways, with trains switched to Blackpool North and Blackpool South stations. They became shadows of their former selves by the mid-1970s, with the latter being an unstaffed halt. Blackpool North, though with its late 1930s Excursion Platform concourse refurbished, saw its palatial main station building and revered buffet bar demolished. On its site, a less attractive Fine Fare supermarket, which by the 1990s became Food Giant and Kwik Save. It is now a Wilkinson store though the original embossed Fine Fare logos on the ground floor walls can still be seen.
Till the early 1990s, it was common to see loco-hauled trains. Before 1992, it had a direct route to London Euston with InterCity 125 High Speed Trains making regular appearances. Till the 1980s, the odd weekend train would see loco-hauled stock from as far as Sheffield and Birmingham New Street.
By Bus or Coach
On a budget, many 1980s and 1990s families would opt for the coach or express bus. These included Ribble Motor Services’ scheduled X60/X61 service from Manchester (which in the 1950s was the most frequent express bus in Europe) and Abbotts’ X69 service from Oldham to Fleetwood via Blackpool. The latter would begin at Mumps Bridge, opposite the former Yelloway Coach Station.
Also popular was Mayne of Manchester’s Holiday Express service. This called at nearby holiday camps as well as Blackpool itself. Period returns were available on Mayne’s summer only service and offered a cheaper and convenient alternative to the train for passengers in an around East Manchester.
For many operators – as of now – the Blackpool Pleasure Beach car park was a popular stopping place for excursion coaches. Till the late-1980s, the Coliseum Coach Station was another one. Managed by Ribble Motor Services, it was a 1960s era building with a café and a little gift shop as well as the coach stands. Just off Rigby Road, it was next to a Blackpool Transport Tram Depot and close to Bloomfield Road. Close by was another coach station on Bloomfield Road. This was Yelloway Coach Services’ domain.
Aboard one of Blackpool Transport’s buses, there’s every chance you would have entered the cavernous Talbot Square Bus Station. Built in 1938 with a multi-storey car park, it predated Chorlton Street in its dinginess, but it was well used by local services and National Express coaches. It was also a calling point and terminus of the X61. Today, the coaches have moved to a new facility off Bloomfield Road or to its more inferior replacement near Coral Island. Plus, the X61 is no more.
Throughout our two decades, the long version of the Leyland Atlantean (bodied by East Lancashire) dominated the municipal fleet. Crew operation finished in 1982, though returned in the late 1980s on seafront services using AEC Routemasters. Ribble’s Eastern Coach Works bodied Leyland Olympians too dominated, either in the NBC Poppy Red or the Starsky and Hutch style early Stagecoach livery.
Blackpool also saw municipal action from Fylde Borough’s buses, till their fleet were absorbed by Blackpool Transport’s in the early 1990s.
Though the bus scene was vibrant, it would be amiss to forget its trams. The Balloon Trams remained a feature of its route from Starr Gate to Fleetwood. There was also the open-topped Balloon tram Princess Alice, the open top single decker boat style trams and the twin-car single decker Progress tram. At the start of the 1980s, single decker one-person-operated trams were seen in a red and yellow livery.
There was also the Jubilee trams, built in 1977 to commemorate Queen Elizabeth the Second’s Silver Jubilee. In 1985, they would be joined by the Centenary class of OPO single decker trams, commemorating 100 years of Blackpool’s trams.
Today, it is hard to imagine seeing 1930s and 1950s trams in regular service along the Golden Mile. Present day holidaymakers are more likely to see modern Flexity trams along its full length. The Balloon, Coronation, Progress, Jubilee trams – along with other non-Blackpudlian restored vehicles – see occasional appearances in the summer between Little Bispham and Blackpool Pleasure Beach. In the 1960s, when tramway and trolleybus systems were being ripped out, Blackpool Borough Council saw its trams as both a mode of transport and a tourist attraction. They laughed then, but Manchester knew that ‘Manchester-on-Sea’ was right in the mid-1980s (hence Metrolink and other cities following suit).
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The Golden Mile
On our Magical History Tour, we leave our coach at South Shore for…
Blackpool Pleasure Beach
Throughout our two decades, Blackpool Pleasure Beach was free to get in, with extras for ride tickets as per usual. The ever-popular fairground was in the care of Dorothy and Geoff Thompson, whom in our period also had Frontierland in Morecambe and Southport Pleasureland. By the end of the 1980s, other revenue streams outside of rides grew in scope. Its eateries were refurbished and rebranded, with Bean Street one example (next to the Ghost Train). Franchised outlets would appear by the late 1990s.
Even so, it was still the place to go: their proud boast of having a new ride each year remained. For every Northern child, a trip to Blackpool Pleasure Beach was a rite of passage. All the more special if you went on a ‘grown-up ride’ like the Grand National, Big Dipper or the Revolution. Equally special if you went on the Ghost Train, Wild Mouse or miniature railway. Doubly special if you went to see The Hot Ice Show. Several times more special if your mum or dad could afford an ice cream!
There was also the Funhouse, an Art Deco influenced building designed by Joseph Emberton. Along with the Grand National and the Casino they became iconic structures to many a visitor and for many people, their first taste of 1930s style Art Deco. By 1991, the Funhouse was ravaged by fire which led to its demolition. Valhalla stands on the site.
The 1980s and 1990s was a good period for new rides. 1984 brought us the Space Invader (now closed). In 1988, came the Avalanche, a gravity ride which mimicked the mechanics of a bobsleigh ride. Its crowning glory came in 1994 with the Pepsi Max Big One opened. It was for a short while the World’s Tallest Roller Coaster with a drop of 235 feet and a top speed of 74 mph. Three years on came the Sony Playstation ride, a vertical thrill ride close to the Casino (now the Tango Ice Blast).
How can we forget the side shows? Besides coin-operated amusements, there was also 1001 Troubles, a transparent maze. Their new Ocean Boulevard development of 1991 which includes the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not exhibition.
For many people in the 1980s and 1990s, a trip to the swimming baths meant surly instructors, freezing water and changing cubicles. In the start of the 1980s, Blackpool had two outdoor swimming pools along the promenade. The southern one was replaced by the Sandcastle in 1986. It was different to the Derby Baths at the northern end of the resort: water slides, palm trees, wave machines and drinks by the pool. It was a hit which led to more modest imitators in its wake (such as the Tameside Leisure Pool in Hyde and the now-demolished Water Place in Bolton).
Even so, its idea wasn’t original. Similar principles were applied to Summerland on the Isle of Man in 1972 (which was rebuilt in 1978 after a disastrous fire on the 02 August 1973). Rhyl Sun Centre opened in 1979 with a new purpose-built theatre next door.
I always found the South Pier Blackpool’s most brashest of the three owing to the amount of walk-around stalls and side shows. At one time, all three of Blackpool’s piers had theatres, and the South Pier’s was the preserve of Roy Chubby-Brown. Its theatre was on the seaward end of the pier, now occupied by fairground rides, including a catapult style roller coaster.
The busiest of the three piers and one which I’ve found as the best for fairground rides and coin-operated amusements. In 1985, the Central Pier theatre became Maggie Mays’ showbar. A big wheel was introduced around the 1980s, which at one point was referred to as the Burtons Wagon Wheel, sponsored by the local biscuit manufacturers.
Louis Tussauds’ Waxworks
Now much upgraded, it was among a cluster of UK seaside resorts which had a Louis Tussauds Waxworks. As well as the usual celebrity waxwork models, there was also a Chamber of Horrors. Its coffee shop had a number of 1950s and 1960s arcade machines.
When I went in 1993, it was a recent addition to the Golden Mile, and one where I had the joy of a Danish pastry. As well as the Shark Tunnel (its main selling point), there was a harbour style tableau and a Touch Tank. I had had experienced the Touch Tank at the Oban one in May 1986 and theirs was like a nursery school water tray compared with Blackpool’s.
Always the quietest and most genteel of the three piers. The early 1990s saw the pier benefit from refurbishment work. The promenade end saw covered walkways and shops below the amusement arcade near a ticket office and a café. A short lived tram ferried promenaders from the café to the theatre end. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it kept its theatre (and I can testify from personal experience myself when I saw Cannon and Ball in 1991). Before 1997, the end jetty was to be used for helicopter rides.
Most of Blackpool’s amusement arcades are concentrated around the Tower, from the Tower all the way down to Manchester Square. A cluster would be seen on South Shore with the Lucky Star indoor fun fair near a crazy golf course. This was true in the 1980s and 1990s as of now.
Today’s amusement arcades tend to be full of fruit machines and grab machines. In the 1980s and 1990s, coin-operated arcade games were big business. As well as Space Invaders and Pacman, we would see sit-in cabinets emerge for games like Afterburner. Racing games would replicate cars or motorbikes (for example Super Hang On) and some, like Buggy Boy, would have three screens. Some would use Laserdisc and video footage such as Mad Dog McCree and Dragon’s Lair.
The Lucky Star indoor fun fair appealed to, as of now, younger people. Funland and Mr. T’s would dominate the Central part of Blackpool with its outdoor lights. Silcocks’ Fun Palace, when I went in 1993, sold tea for 10p (coffee was 20p), and it was the weakest brew I ever tried (till I bought one from a vending machine at Scarborough railway station in 1996).
My favourite one was Coral Island, built on the site of Blackpool Central railway station. Though it lacked the coin-operated arcade games (leanings towards fruit machines and other gambling games), it was the most slick yet brashest amusement arcade in Blackpool. At one time, it used to have a disco, one which shared the name of one in Stalybridge (also defunct). The best part, as well as the pirate style theme was the indoor monorail. After walking upstairs, you would along with three others ride around the amusement arcade in a parrot shaped car. Very Blackpool!
For coin-operated entertainment, I found the amusement arcades on the three piers my favourite areas. It was never for the likes of Sega Rally or the Star Wars cabinet, more for the football games. Or, that other trusted yet low tech standby of the modern amusement arcade – the air hockey table.
Need I say more: nobody should be allowed to leave Blackpool, at least once in their life without visiting any part of The Tower. It’s an institution along with another famous tower over 230 miles away (change at Manchester Piccadilly), or over a 1,000 miles away (from Squires Gate or Ringway). In recent times, Blackpool Borough Council had taken over the Tower and its buildings, though let a few of its attractions to Merlin Entertainments (of Sealife Centre fame).
In the 1980s, the Tower buildings’ attractions were refurbished. The consolidation of this was the rebranding of its buildings as Tower World. In the mid-1990s, the Tower Circus was relaunched, with human only performers. Anyone visiting the Tower between the 1980s and 1990s would have been familiar with:
- Jungle Jims: an indoor play area (still going to this day);
- The Dawn of Time: a dinosaur themed dark ride. Opened in 1992 when Blackpool Tower and its buildings were rebranded as ‘Tower World’;
- Aquarium: part of the Tower buildings till 2009. Now replaced by the Blackpool Tower Dungeon;
- The Hornpipe Gallery: a big pub with food and live entertainment. Now Restaurant 1894;
- Out Of This World: optical illusions and other adventures with science. My favourite part was a multi coloured light installation where one colour played a different note on the floor.
The Tower itself and the Ballroom was, and remains, the main draw. To celebrate its centenary in 1994, the Tower was painted gold.
Professor Peabody’s Playplace
Rivalling Jungle Jims in The Tower was Professor Peabody’s Playplace. This occupied the Olympia Exhibition Hall in the Winter Gardens. In recent times, it has been restored to its original purpose as the Olympia exhibition hall. There was also Professior Peabody’s Playplaces outside Blackpool, in Rhyl and Llandudno.
An impressive and much missed Art Deco building which opened in 1939, demolished in 1990. It was a venue for amateur swimming events and held 1,800 persons in its spectator gallery. There was also a purpose built studio for the BBC, allowing for live radio and television broadcasts of swimming events. Owing to its reputation, it was dubbed The Wembley of Swimming.
Cabin Boating Pool
As we head towards Bispham, Blackpool assumes a more sedate character with the area along the Queen’s Promenade and Gynn Gardens. A popular haunt at one time was the Cabin Boating Pool. By the early 1990s, it had reduced in size with greater emphasis on kiddie rides and go-karts. Model boats instead of rowing boats took over the truncated pool. Today, filled in, it is now the FormulaKart go-kart racing track, proudly boasting itself as ‘The Region’s Only 60mph Karting Experience’.
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Hounds Hill Shopping Centre came into its own during the 1980s as Blackpool’s popularity as a regional shopping centre grew. The opening of the M55 motorway made the resort appealing for car owners, and as a consequence, gave them a suitable alternative shopping destination to Preston, Blackburn and Lancaster.
Away from the multiples, it is the resort’s plethora of walk-around shops and markets which separates it from the Manchesters and Trafford Centres of this world. This is the Blackpool shopping experience I liked in the 1990s.
- Beach Market (Station Road): I remember it as having a good record stall. On one visit in 1997, I bought a ‘best of’ type annual of The Sunday Sport showing its daftest headlines (i.e. the ‘World War Two Bomber Found on the Moon’ or Buddy Holly being found alive as a woman called Peggy Sue);
- South Shore Market: more of the same.
- Unknown Walk Around Shop: similar to the other two premises in nature, a former F.W. Woolworth department store.
- Bonny Street Market: always a pleasure to visit, and one I enjoyed on visiting in 1993. It was a dependable source for Irish music and Dusty Young CDs. It still is today.
- Rock shops and stalls: several of them. True of 1989 and 1997 as of today;
- Pricebusters: after Woolworths vacated its store near The Tower, the bargain basement retailer took over two floors and opted for a market style format with separate stallholders. Today, the ground floor has been subdivided with one part let to J.D. Wetherspoon as The Albert and the Lion;
- Woolworths: original occupants of the Pricebusters unit, it had an upstairs café and was one of its flagship stores. They moved to a new unit further up from The Tower after a long absence before the UK chain left our High Streets in 2008;
- Lewis’s: familiar to Mancunians and Liverpudlians, Blackpool’s branch lacked the external finesse of its Manchester and Liverpool counterparts, though a modern building. Demolished from 1993 onwards, it was subdivided into separate units, one of which to Woolworths and later TJ Hughes (who have disappeared from most town and city centres including Blackpool);
- Springfield Market: probably the resort’s most northerly walk-around market on the corner of Springfield Road. I found it a rather cosy and less brash market, and it had a good little café.
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Stanley Park and surrounding area
A short bus ride from the centre of Blackpool is Stanley Park. On Sundays, Blackpool Transport operated special buses to Blackpool Zoo with a stop on the side. Today, the seasonal service 20 [Pleasure Beach – Marton Mere Camp] fulfils this function from 0900 to 2026, every half hour, seven days a week.
Stanley Park in Blackpool is a real gem, one which exudes 1920s and 1930s grandeur. The lake is splendid and, as I found in 1993, the café was spacious. It is hard to imagine how far away you are from the hustle and bustle of the Golden Mile.
The zoo has gone from strength to strength in the last five years. From the dawn of the 1980s, animals had began to settle in to their then new enclosures. Some of which may have transferred from the menagerie in the Tower building.
By the late 1990s, it amassed a miniature railway and saw continuous improvement (though the former attraction was part of the zoo’s appeal since the late-1970s). Like the park, Blackpool Zoo was in municipal ownership. Today, it is now operated by Parques Reunidos, an international entertainment operator based in Madrid, Spain.
Blackpool Model Village
Close to the zoo and Stanley Park is the model village. Opening in 1972, it is still thriving and has since acquired a Thomas the Tank Engine model railway layout.
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Time To Go Home
As with any trip back in time, or any excursion of the present day, such great things come to an end. We return to our coach at either the Coliseum, Bloomfield Road, or Talbot Square Bus Station. Some of us might take our place in the queue for a Manchester bound train and hope the Sprinter unit/Heritage DMU/Class 47 with Mark 1 carriages don’t let us down. Full after fish and chips, maybe the odd ice cream, we carry our stuff home and aim to be back in time for the News at Ten or Coronation Street.
Our next part, whenever that may be, will focus on the night time attractions. There may be reference to theatres, clubs, pubs and of course, the world famous Blackpool Illuminations.
S.V., 21 August 2013.