It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas on the Prom, the hotel decorations are out, the turkey and tinsel promotions have started, rates down to £20 a night at some seafront hotels which could have charged three times as much five years ago.
Off the showcase seafront, the ghosts of souvenir shops past haunt the likes of Lytham Road. Gift stores, guesthouses, cafes boarded up or fallen on hard times. I count 25 for sale or to let signs lining the route that leads, with a fine sense of irony, to Blackpool Enterprise Centre, or what most of us fondly recall as the old Lido.
Time was when this area made a real splash on the seaside scene. A tourism corridor where you could book a tiny terraced hotel for a song, hope the room would be clean, with a bar nearby for a quick jar before heading off for the sands or shows.
The sense of dereliction is almost poignant. Designer street lighting and redesigned roads emphasise encroaching emptiness of some satellite shopping centres. One Bond Street trader tells me: “Just look at it, it’s all charity shops now. The heart’s been ripped out.”
Eerie echoes of happier days rest in cheery guesthouse names that drew inspiration from the Costa del Seventies; or in the faded gaudiness of chirpy shops that once sold shells, rock, or the tack now cluttering many a gran’s display cabinet, should the son or daughter she seldom sees notice the junk they bought as a child has been consigned to the bin.
This is part of Blackpool which appears to be have been hit by lack of investment, while attention has been focused on the People’s Promenade, contractors hard at work on the festival headland, new trams about to be put to the test or that make or break 10 minute service, Sainsbury’s seen as the panacea to at least some of the town centre’s problems.
Dorothy Baker, 71, former landlady turned part-time cafe worker, says she doesn’t “notice grot” any more. “I’ve got that used to it.” Tram spotters Geoff Baker and Tim Rawcliffe stayed over to stake Rigby Road depot out for departing heritage trams and admit: “We’d have been warmer sleeping in the depot. The guesthouse is dreadful. The whole area’s down at heel.”
Blackpool’s new chief executive Neil Jack has vowed to do “something” about Central Drive – another historic highway into Blackpool – his Coastal Housing background making him well aware of the unique potential for social deprivation if a town reliant on tourism is down at heel.
But one Lytham Road trader known simply as Mike says he’s already on his uppers. He sells bags and brollies out of a doorway of a shop he was forced to shut. “This is no way to live. It’s no livelihood. We need investment. Not just in the roads.”
He’s alluding to whatever pot of cash enhanced resort roads under the old council guard, giving us benches in the middle of Layton main roads, random cycle lanes in terraced hotel streets, a rash of residents’ only parking, mini roundabouts and a one-way system at Bond Street which the current council now hopes to reverse.
That’s before we near the triumph of shared space which is Central Promenade – and the unnerving experience of being overtaken by landau horses in Ben Hur mode when traffic is idling through. It’s another item on the “things to reconsider” list by council officials although guru of shared space Ben Hamilton-Baillie urges them to “keep the faith” and claims if the scheme had been “more ambitious” it would have won more fans. “I don’t think they went far enough,” he explains. “It’s a bit piecemeal. It’s not what I thought it would be.”
The adjacent Comedy Carpet packs the greatest punchline with visitors yet to appreciate the Winter Gardens makeover or The Tower’s transformation under Blackpool Council (ergo our) ownership and Crown Leisure and Merlin’s management.
The carpet is to Blackpool what Eric Morecambe’s statue is to another ailing resort. It adds to the surreality of a seafront dominated by such curiosities as a golden “shed” which will be the new wedding chapel once electrical problems are resolved. Resident North Pier entertainer Joey Blower is deeply underwhelmed by it all.
He carpets the council over suggestions the comedy carpet will be covered to protect it in the event of big public events staged there. “What’s the point? That’s a joke in itself.” So ... in the immortal words of one comedy duo: What Do You Think Of It So Far?
Well, the good news is it’s not the visitors who rubbish the resort. Even ones from Morecambe. David Lord drives a vintage red bus nightly through the Lights for Norbreck Castle Hotel guests, although had to knock £3 off last year’s price, £8, to get more on board, rather than put 50p on for fuel hikes. He says they barely blinked when a mile-long stretch was down the other night. “Most said the Lights, and Blackpool, were better than last year. I agree.”