Part One: To Hell With Blobbyland
Before package holidays grew in popularity, Morecambe was known as Bradford-by-the-Sea. Owing to the “Little” North Western Railway line via Carnforth, it was a popular resort for Bradford folk. A western alternative to Bridlington and Scarborough for a Wakes Week jolly. There was at one time the largest lido in Britain, neatly complementing the Midland Hotel. The Winter Gardens had a ballroom as well as its theatre. There was two piers: three if you counted the Stone Jetty.
In spite of its proximity to the then new M6, Morecambe fortunes started to wane in the late 1960s. Firstly, the Lancaster Green Ayre line from Wennington closed. Despite its pioneering work in electrification, it didn’t escape Beeching’s cuts in 1966. It was the busier of the two lines into Morecambe. Then came the loss of Heysham’s trains, thanks to the withdrawal of Sealink’s Belfast sailings in April 1975.
As with most English seaside resorts, it saw its theatres and cinema turn into bingo halls or shopping arcades. Some were demolished to become shopping centres, like the Royalty Theatre and Opera House. Lastly the Royalty Cinema, it was demolished in 1967 to make way for Morecambe’s Arndale Centre.
The 1970s could well have been a decade to forget for Morecambe. In 1970, the Alhambra Theatre burnt down with a lot of the original building ruined. Lancaster City Council – who took over civic functions from Morecambe and Heysham Municipal Borough Council in 1974 – must have ran over several black cats. The Super Swimming Stadium developed structural faults which warranted its demolition and replacement with a modest open air swimming pool. The Dome was built on part of the site, creating a new live music venue.
In 1977, the Winter Gardens closed due to structural problems, with the ballroom demolished five years later. Later that year, a storm and flooding besieged the West End Pier. With the £500,000 sum needed to repair and reopen the pier, it was demolished the following year. As a consequence, the attractions along Marine Road West, from The Battery to the amusement park started to dwindle. The palatial Floral Hall with its cinema and theatre closed in late 1983. In Easter 1986, Central Pier closed after decking collapsed at the seaward end.
The change in holidaying patterns was probably more noticeable in Morecambe than in neighbouring Blackpool. At one end of the market, Majorca, Benidorm and Tenerife increased in popularity. At the other, more cost conscious end of the market, a week in any of the North West’s holiday resorts was elusive, thanks to high unemployment. Day trips instead of a week away became the norm, depressing the resorts’ coffers. As a result, boarding houses lining the front offered rich pickings for the buy-to-let market.
Morecambe has tried to reinvent itself as often as Madonna. 1964 saw the opening of Marineland, Europe’s first dolphin arena on the same lines as Sea World. In 1987, Morecambe Amusement Park reinvented itself as Frontierland. With a western theme, it gave the park a brief shot in the arm and hope for the beleaguered resort.
A 1980s trip to Morecambe
I first went to Morecambe in 1986, around about 31 years since I wrote the post. My family had toyed with the idea of moving to the resort with my father, possibly working at Nuclear Electric’s Heysham site. Not least the bonus of sea views and its famous sunsets. In August 1986, this meant three trains from Stalybridge. Firstly, the peak hour service to Manchester Victoria (operated by a Class 110 Calder Valley DMU); then The European to Lancaster; and finally, the shuttle service to Morecambe station via Bare Lane.
The station, adjacent to the Midland Hotel, was an inviting welcome to the resort. Its four platforms and Edwardian grandeur got me thinking, “we’re in for a wonderful time”. The station concourse was every inch of ‘traditional railway station’ with some of the modern day creature comforts. The Railbar kiosk made for a slightly continental air with natural light for passengers enjoying a BR sandwich and a brew. Seats took up part of the concourse.
First off was the Morecambe Amusement Park, with the Log Flume a highlight of the trip. Afterwards, we walked along the Marine Drive, went to some amusement arcades, and went to Marineland.
Inside Marineland, there was a bar at one level, and an aquarium – all of which underneath a spectator gallery with a covered stand and open air seating. There was two small pools: one for the sea lions, and another for Rocky the dolphin, its star of the show. Rocky would jump through hoops and catch balls. When the ball passed to yours truly, I threw it towards the sea lion pool.
The Morecambe of 1986, to use today’s terminology was “Just About Managing”. Heysham nuclear power station would open in 1989. Morecambe, three years before the power station’s opening, was a second home for its construction workers. With scope for employment opportunities, could the town benefit?
“There’s More to Morecambe Bay…”
Throughout the mid to late 1980s, and the early 1990s, Morecambe was promoted as a viable alternative resort to Blackpool. One selling point was its illuminations. In addition to lighting up Marine Drive from The Battery to Happy Mount Park, the latter place would play host to themed tableaus. On entry into the park, the visitor was presented with generic themes, or those featuring cartoon characters.
In 1994, there was one character more than anyone that would send shivers down the spine of the people of Morecambe: Mr. Blobby.
Mr. Blobby was a monster hit that year, following its first appearance on Noel’s House Party in a Gotcha! Oscar strand of the programme. In today’s terms, the pink and yellow blob went viral. So much so that it spawned a number of theme parks under the name of The World of Crinkley Bottom. Part of Happy Mount Park, it was one of a few Blobbylands up and down the country. The format was available for licence to local authorities with a £1m licence fee. Lancaster City Council thought this was a shot in the arm for Morecambe.
It wasn’t. After the hype died down, reality bit its crinkly posterior. It closed at the end of 1994 due to poor visitor numbers and lack of value for money. Then, Noel Edmonds wanted his million back, but the council had to settle out of court for £900,000. The whole saga was known as Blobbygate in The Visitor, Morecambe’s local newspaper.
Apart from the lack of visitors to the park, Morecambe had continued to lose visitors throughout the first half of the 1990s. The Midland Hotel had lost its sheen; animal welfare issues saw to the end of Marineland; and the western theme at Frontierland seemed a little tired. The amusement park saw the arrival of Skyride (1991), a cable car ride; and the Polo Tower (1993). Previously The Space Tower at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, it was moved to make way for The Big One.
In 1990, there was a possibility of the Central Pier reopening. Work to repair the pier began in 1990 but a March 1991 report condemned the pier. On Easter Sunday that year, the ballroom caught fire, and the pier was demolished in March 1992. What did Morecambe do to deserve such catastrophes in such a short period? Perhaps its time as Bradford-by-the-Sea was up.
This could well have been expressed by its public transport infrastructure. Firstly, there were plans to simplify the track layout into Morecambe station, with a new more modest station. Secondly, two of its bus stations at Euston Road and The Battery were closed by 1992. The former became flats. A pharmacy and clinic stands on the site of The Battery’s bus park. Furthermore, the municipal operator, Lancaster City Transport, was taken over by Stagecoach Holdings. They still run Morecambe’s buses to this day.
A 1990s trip to Morecambe
In 1992, yours truly reached The Terrible Teens. In spite of its decline, he saw potential with the scenery being a redeeming feature. Though 1992 saw the loss of Central Pier and Marineland’s demolition, The Dome still had a good innings as a live music venue. Adding to the leisure pool was its indoor sister Bubbles, in Rhyl Sun Centre or Blackpool Sand Castle mould.
This time, the railway station was in semi-dereliction. Part of it was given over to the English Tourist Board as a Tourist Information Centre. The station, as denoted by British Rail publicity at the time, would move to its modest present site in May 1994. Its main service was the Lancaster shuttle with a limited service to Heysham Harbour (reinstated in 1987 to connect with Douglas sailings).
Frontierland was still a feature of the town and a good draw. The Midland Hotel had lost its sheen and offered bargain breaks, and Marine Drive was well patronised. But the town’s wrinkles were showing. It was in limbo, but the need to regenerate the town was forthcoming, taking us to Blobbygate.
A break with the past
By the second half of the 1990s, you could say that brand repositioning was in order for Morecambe. Instead of trying to compete with Blackpool, which was (and still is) the UK’s most popular seaside resort, the town did a bit of soul searching. It has three characteristics that are a unique selling point. One: its position as a gateway to the Lake District. Two: its stunning sunset. Three: Morecambe Bay’s reputation with bird watchers. By the late 1990s, it was this aspect which has inspired the town’s regeneration strategy.
We shall be looking at how Morecambe has tried to turn itself around and where next for the resort.
S.V., 28 August 2017.