For more than a century, Blackpool was where workers and miners from Yorkshire and Lancashire vacationed.
When I tell my British friends I’m going to Blackpool, their expressions are sour and they ask, “Oh my God, why? For me, the answer is simple: for the joy of working-class England at stake.
For more than a century, down to the last generation, Blackpool, located on the west coast north of Liverpool, was where mill workers and miners from Yorkshire and Lancashire vacationed. The workers have taken their families to this queen of seaside resorts in the north of England hoping that the children will have fun and have a little fun.
Today Blackpool’s vast beaches are mostly empty, often too cold to be comfortable. In this age of cheap airfare between Britain and Mediterranean Europe, warm beaches are a year-round option, even for the working class.
Blackpool is dominated by Blackpool Tower. Shaped like a truncated Eiffel Tower, this giant amusement center seems to growl, “Have fun.” At the tip of this 518-foot-tall symbol of Blackpool is a breathtakingly grand view, especially at sunset.
The tower’s gilded ballroom is adorned with old-world seaside elegance. A relay of organists allows retirees to waltz, foxtrot and tango. Many of these dancers have been coming here regularly for 50 years. They are happy to share an impromptu two-step lesson with any curious visitor. Many more pay to sit down with their fish and chips and pea mash and watch.
As I leave the ballroom, I make my way through a series of noisy amusements on the seafront promenade. Countless eager doors open, trying every trick to get me in. Huge arcades play recorded laughs and advertise free restrooms. The excited wind machine under a Marilyn Monroe wax flutters her skirt with a steady breeze. The smell of fries, tobacco and sweet popcorn wafts with an agenda around passers-by.
For a quick diversion, I hop on a vintage tram to ride the boardwalk. Driving the wagons, which constantly rock the waterfront, is more fun than driving. While the old carriages survive, the traditional carriages have been replaced by sweet pink Cinderella carriages. Little girls want to be princesses and the demand is pushing for change.
Each of the three pillars of fun has its own personality. Do you feel calm? Head to the north pier. Young and dashing? Central pier. To drag a cart full of children? The South Pier is for you. For a peaceful side of Blackpool, I hop over to the North Pier and stroll down this venerable boardwalk to the sea where the only sounds are the seagulls and the wind in my hair.
In 1879, when the North Pier was new, Blackpool became the first town in England to switch on electric streetlights. Today, it celebrates that history – and extends its season into the fall – by illuminating its seven miles of beachfront with countless flashing and twinkling lights. When I first saw the much publicized “Illuminations” years ago, the American in me kept saying, “I’ve seen bigger and I’ve seen better.” But I filled her mouth with cotton candy and just had fun like everyone else on my specially decorated wagon.
For modern day fun, Blackpool Pleasure Beach is the top. Its 42 acres of rides (over 100, including “the best selection of white-knuckle rides in Europe”), ice skating shows, cabarets and entertainment attract seven million people a year, making Pleasure Beach the one of England’s most popular attractions. . Its largest roller coasters are among the tallest (213 feet) and fastest (74 mph) in the world.
Blackpool has plenty to entertain its visitors in the evening. A fun part of my afternoon is deciding how I’ll end my day: with a play or an old-fashioned variety show. Nightly options always a few dance shows, racy humor, magic and tumbling. I like cheesy “old school music hall” shows that aren’t hip or polished. It’s fascinating to be surrounded by hundreds of partying British seniors, passing out again and waving their handkerchiefs to the predictable rhythm. Buses full of happy widows come from all over the north of England to laugh at the racy jokes. A perennial favorite is Funny Girls, a slapstick drag show that delights footballers and grannies alike.
For me, the main attraction of Blackpool are its people. You experience England here like nowhere else. Take someone’s hand and a big stick of “rock” (rock candy), and walk around. Appreciate loud 20-somethings pulling down their pants to show off their reddened butts with new tattoos. Consider what might inspire someone to spend their golden years here, wearing plaid pants and a bad hairpiece.
A British friend once told me: “Blackpool is part of the DNA of northern England. It is a ritual where family memories are created and where those memories are passed down through the generations. It is a place not to see but to do. You have to eat the candy, ride the carousel, dance in the ballroom, walk the pier.
If you don’t like kitschy, greasy spoons, steer clear of Blackpool. But if you’re traveling with kids – or still have one yourself – dive into this quintessentially English puddle of fun.
This article was adapted from Rick’s new book, For the Love of Europe.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public television and radio, and organizes European tours. You can email Rick at [email protected] and follow his blog on Facebook.