I AWOKE early in my hotel room in St Anne’s, dazzling sunlight reflecting off all the walls. The sun was up, the sky was blue and my stomach was ready for breakfast, which seemed the correct order of things. Had the sun been blue and breakfast all stomachs I think I’d have just stayed in bed. I fancied that I could smell bacon and decided that it needed to be mine.
Lytham St Anne’s
Napoleon & Nourishment
The bacon joined forces with scrambled eggs in a valiant attempt to outflank me but even with a large bust of Napoleon Bonaparte inexplicably supervising its manoeuvres it was unable to escape. Still, not the first time that the Emperor was defeated; this year marks the two hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. I might have said as much when asked if my breakfast had been all right.
‘Oh, I didn’t know that…’ said the waitress vaguely. Her facial expression was rather more eloquent, portraying a mixture of ‘…and I didn’t care to’ and ‘so that’s Napoleon is it? Who was he again?’
Well, fair enough.
With breakfast eaten, bag packed and hotel bill paid I stumbled blinking into what was already a glorious day and promised much more of the same. The forecast, I recalled, had been for cloud all day but I wasn’t going to quibble. A slight breeze was keeping things tolerably cool, which meant it was perfect for walking. Later there would be redness and pain but I’d burn cross that bridge when I came to it.
St Anne’s Pier
St Anne’s Pier was opened in 1885, having been some five years in the making at a cost of £18,000. It was 279 m in length and the opening ceremony involved local dignitaries, a military band and the lifeboat RNLB Laura Janet (she would tragically lose all her crew in the Southport Lifeboat Disaster the following year).
The pier was extended to 288 m in 1891 with the addition of a landing jetty for steamer services between Blackpool and Liverpool but the dredging of deep channels to better serve the Port of Preston changed the shape of the estuary and left the jetty high and dry — it now stands above the tidemark.
After the mock Tudor entrance was added, further embellishments followed including a Moorish-style pavilion (added 1901, burnt down in 1974) and a steel and glass ‘Floral Hall’ or winter garden (added 1910, burnt down in 1982).
Much of the pier was then demolished for safety reasons, reducing it to a mere 180 m in length, three quarters of which is occupied by an amusements arcade, somewhat undermining St Anne’s aspirations to be more genteel than Blackpool. Bizarrely, due to protests, the furthest 46 m of the seaward end — the old landing jetty — were left in situ, sundered from the rest of the pier and decaying,
I was largely expecting that my walk for the day would entirely feature beachside promenades but St Anne’s quickly endeavoured to prove otherwise.
My route northwards ran alongside a road named North Promenade but there were tall sand dunes between me and the beach. This was a bit of a shame as the beach is a gloriously flat expanse of sand, so much so in fact that it used to be something of magnet for land sailing (or sand yachting) until 2002, when a land yacht ran someone over and killed them, after which the activity was banned on the beach.
I took advantage of a path through the dunes to divert onto the broad sands and wander down to the water’s edge, which was some considerable distance albeit one that was narrowing visibly. I watched for a few moments, slowly backing up as the tide crept visibly forwards, before I turned about and made my way back. I rejoined the road about a hundred metres further on, just in time for it to turn inland and deposit me onto the busy A584.
Clifton Drive North
There, the sand dunes continued to block any sight of the beach to my left, while on my right buildings gave way to a new development being constructed on an empty stretch of flat ground. This ground had hitherto also been dunes, lying between the road and Blackpool Airport but was now all set to become estates of new houses, glorying under trite marketing names with lovely words like ‘dune’ (all flattened) and ‘copse’ (not a tree in sight) in them.
Ahead, in the far distance, I could see a sticky-up thing that had to be Blackpool Tower.
Just past the airport and a couple of miles since St Anne’s Pier, Lytham St Anne’s came to an end and Blackpool began.
Originally a Mediaeval hamlet, Blackpool remained tiny and insignificant until the mid eighteenth century when it transformed into a seaside resort on account of a seven-mile stretch of beach at low tide. It was doing pretty well when just connected to the rest of the country by stagecoach but the arrival of the railway in 1846 saw it explode, swallowing up neighbouring resorts along the coast. Even with the relative decline of domestic tourism it has still grown to be the fourth-largest conurbation in northwest England (Manchester, Liverpool and Warrington are larger).
Starr Gate Tram Depot
Blackpool is the UK’s only town to retain a first-generation tramway, by which I mean that while many towns built tram networks in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, all of them except Blackpool’s were ripped out by 1962. They were seen as old-fashioned and more expensive than simply buying buses.
Recently, trams have made something of a comeback, with half a dozen new networks operating in Croydon, Manchester, Sheffield, Nottingham, Edinburgh and the West Midlands. All of these have been fairly major infrastructure investments. But Blackpool, which never got rid of its tramway (established in 1885), only needed to give its existing system a bit of tender love and care, such as some track layout changes and a bunch of shiny new trams (Bombardier’s Flexity 2 model).
New South Promenade
Crossing over the tram tracks returned me to a seaside promenade although the actual beach was now underwater, the tide having apparently rushed in at a quite unseemly rate.
Looking ahead, I could see… well, nothing, on account of a dazzling glare that half-blinded me. I blinked rapidly as multi-coloured after images swam across my retinas and the light flashed into my eyes again. What could possibly be doing this? It was as though some maniac had erected a gadget to blind people. A large gadget. A dangerous one. Possibly one made from forty-six thousand mirror tiles, rotating on a stick. But that was hardly likely…
Honestly, I have not the words.
Blackpool Pleasure Beach
As I staggered past the mirror ball, gradually regaining my ability to see, I realised that what I could see were the roller-coasters of Blackpool Pleasure Beach towering over the buildings ahead. Occasional screams of delight and/or terror were carried to my ears as the cars crested the highest points of the rides.
An amusement park opened in 1896 by William George Bean, who had just failed in an advertising career in New York, Blackpool Pleasure Beach is allegedly the most visited tourist attraction in the UK. It remains a family business and its current managing director, Amanda Thompson, is William Bean’s great-granddaughter.
The Pleasure Beach is full of various roller-coaster type rides that are absolutely not my cup of tea. Not ever.
Somewhat less terrifying, which is perhaps ironic, is the Ghost Train, which was the first of its kind and opened in 1930. There are other non-ride elements to the park such as an ice rink, where skating shows are put on, and a host of food stalls and cafés. Someone I know and love dearly once sold candyfloss there.
Not far from Blackpool Pleasure Beach is the South Pier, one of the town’s three pleasure piers. Originally known as Victoria Pier, it was opened in 1893 and is both the shortest (149 m) and most genteel of Blackpool’s piers, being home to a number of retail outlets and a bandstand.
Fires in 1958 and 1964 destroyed its Grand Pavilion, which was replaced with a theatre and then became an amusement arcade before being demolished.
The pier now mostly houses a number of rides such as dodgems and a small ‘wild mouse’ type roller-coaster (i.e. one with sharp turns and little or no banking). Frankly, given its proximity to the Pleasure Beach, its rides seem a bit laughable.
In Search of Tea
I passed both Pleasure Beach and South Pier with the screams from The Big One wailing in my ears and thought to myself that I would really like a cup of tea. But not within earshot of the roller-coasters.
As I made my way towards what I hoped would be tea, I spotted a fairytale carriage heading down the street beside the seafront. And when I say ‘fairytale’, I don’t mean ‘an old-fashioned stagecoach’ I mean ‘looking like it just escaped from a Disney animation’. There was a whole rank of them a little further on, waiting to convey anyone whose glass slippers were too uncomfortable to walk in. I shrugged.
‘Blackpool,’ I said to myself.
As I headed north, Central Pier drew slowly closer. Opened as South Pier in 1868, twenty-five years before the current South Pier, it was built by the same contractors as had built the North Pier. The pier was 460 m long with a landing jetty at its far end and its owners put an emphasis on fun, initially with dance halls and later with amusement arcades, fairground rides, theatres and bars.
Naturally, being a pier, it caught fire more than once with blazes in 1964 and 1973 gutting the theatres. The low-tide jetty was removed in 1975, shortening the pier to 339 m and a Ferris wheel added in 1990.
I could, no doubt, have found myself a cup of tea on Central Pier but I kept going, finding a café on the promenade a little further up. There, I sat sipping my tea and alternately consulting my map and staring out across a flat, blue sea. I was about a third of the way along my day’s walk. I was also a stone’s throw from this:
Blackpool Tower is the resort’s most iconic symbol, which is mildly amusing and not a little cheeky given that much of its design was deliberately borrowed from that icon of Paris, the Eiffel Tower.
Blackpool Tower is rather shorter, standing at 158 m, which is about half the height of the Eiffel Tower, and was opened five years later in 1894 (a good year for things with ‘tower’ in their names as London’s Tower Bridge was completed the same year).
Price of Admission
It originally cost sixpence admission and another sixpence to ride the lift to the top, making a total cost of one shilling. Today, it costs £13.50 according to the website but thanks to some very confusing signage, which mostly bundled tickets for various attractions, I was given the impression that they wanted £35 and so decided to give the tower a miss.
This was a shame really, as I wanted to see if I dared stand on the ‘Walk of Faith’ glass panel floor installed in the observation chamber in 1998 (probable answer: no).
The Tower’s Owners
From its opening until 1964 the tower was owned by the Bickerstaffe family, descendants of former mayor John Bickerstaffe, who had been chairman of the company that built it. Following its sale, it had a various owners until Blackpool Council bought it in 2010.
Just north of Blackpool Tower was North Pier, the oldest and longest of Blackpool’s three piers. Opened in 1863 at a cost of £11,740, it is also the oldest surviving pier designed by noted engineer, naval architect and pier-builder Eugenius Birch (1818-1884) and has accordingly been grade II listed by English Heritage.
In keeping with Blackpool’s other piers it wasn’t called North Pier when it first opened but Blackpool Pier, there being no others from which to differentiate it; its location was conveniently sited for Blackpool North railway station.
Damaged by Collision
Originally 428 m long, the iron pier was extended in 1874 and a pavilion added. As is typical with piers, storm and fire damage occurred over the years although being damaged in a collision with Nelson’s former flagship — HMS Foudroyant slipped anchor while moored alongside in a storm — is a unique twist on that.
Another collision occurred in 1936, when a steamer from Llandudno ploughed through the structure, leaving people stranded at the seaward end.
North Pier Tram
Between 1991 and 2004 it had a narrow gauge tram of its own, conveying people along its 500 m length to the theatre, thus avoiding inclement weather.
Today, it is very much still a typical Victorian pier — much like those at Bangor and Llandudno — although somewhat marred, I feel, by the amusements arcade at its entrance.
One final point of (possible) interest is this: The pier was also the birthplace of children’s TV favourite Sooty.
Entertainer Harry Corbett (1918-1989) bought the first Sooty puppet on the pier in 1948. Interestingly, the puppet was entirely yellow and didn’t gain its black ears and nose, or its name, until Harry Corbett darkened them with soot in order to improve their contrast on television, which then broadcast in black & white with poor definition.
North Pier didn’t really hold any attraction for me so I put it behind me and set off apace along the promenade, heading north with the sun at my back. It really was a glorious day.
The part of Blackpool that lies along the shore immediately north of the town centre is imaginatively known as North Shore. The promenade conveyed me through and past this for approximately two miles before approaching the suburb of Bispham.
Although now a suburb of Blackpool, Bispham is centuries older as suggested by its Anglo-Saxon name, which is cited in the Domesday Book as ‘Biscopham’ (where ‘biscop’ means ‘bishop’). Its parish church was the only church in Blackpool until 1821.
Today, Bispham is largely residential and has lost much of its historic character following ‘modernisation’ and redevelopment of the village centre in the 1960s. Its most prominent industry, the independent sports car manufacturer TVR, closed its factory in 2007 after sixty years of operation.
Prior to 1910 the parish was known as Bispham-with-Norbreck as Bispham was linked to its immediate northern neighbour, the hamlet of Norbreck (from the Norse for ‘north hill/slope’). Norbreck’s name suggests a Viking settlement but its inhabitants seems to have lived side-by-side with the Anglo-Saxons of Bispham easily enough.
Norbreck Castle Hotel
Norbreck appears to have been one of those places that is just a tiny speck on the map, at least until the late nineteenth century when a large country house (built in 1869) became the site for many lavish parties. Initially held just for friends of the owner, the parties soon expanded to include paying guests and the house slowly transformed into what is probably Blackpool’s most visually distinctive and well-known hotel.
Now owned by Britannia Hotels, the Norbreck Castle Hotel still markets itself as an entertainment venue, with various facilities and events provided to keep its guests diverted.
Like most hotels these days, it also provides conference facilities and it was at the Norbreck Castle in 1988 that the Liberal Democrats were born, formed of a merger between the Liberal Party (a former giant of British politics that had severely declined) and the Social Democratic Party (founded in 1981 by breakaway Labour moderates).
The merger was not embraced by all the members of both parties but most saw it as a way to consolidate their position in the political middle-ground and thus boost their electoral chances. That didn’t work out quite as well as they had hoped but, given that the Liberal Democrats have just spent five years as part of a coalition government, it was hardly a disaster either.
North of Norbreck lay Little Bispham, another anciently insignificant hamlet that now forms a suburb of Blackpool. There the tramlines diverted inland but not before they’d passed through Little Bispham tram stop, which has an art deco shelter, designed to vaguely resemble a contemporary (1932) tram.
The result is something that can somehow only be tram stop; it is clearly not a bus stop or a railway station.
When the tramlines diverted inland, my path tried to do something similar on account of some work taking place on the seafront. Many dog-walking locals were mostly ignoring the restrictions and I took a leaf out of their book, roaming along the seaward edge of Anchorsholme Park. This soon dropped me back onto a coastal road with a broad promenade.
I had now technically passed out of Blackpool and into the Borough of Wyre. More specifically, I was entering Cleveleys. Glancing back, I could see the Blackpool Tower only as a tiny protrusion way behind me. (I took a photo but it was pretty pointless, as it mostly shows that you can’t see its subject).
Today, Cleveleys forms part of the wider Blackpool conurbation but in the past it was a small town sandwiched between the sea and what was then Thornton Marsh. While the marsh has since been drained, becoming useful land, much of its coast has been lost to creeping erosion (measured at three yards per year in the nineteenth century).
In fact, if you go back just five hundred years the coast was a mile further out than today and the land between still occupied by the remnants of the Forest of Amounderness.
Victoria Road West
Cleveleys itself was small and unimportant until the building of a proper road northwards through the marsh in 1805. This was called Ramper Road after the ‘ramparts’ enclosing the marshland but was later renamed Victoria Road after the Queen; it is now Cleveleys’ main shopping street and at its seaward end is bustling with cafés. This suited me fine as I was feeling peckish.
Cleveleys Clock Shelter
The Sea Ogre’s Paddle
Having hunted down a cup of tea, a ham and cheese toastie and an ice cream (in that order) I felt much refreshed and ready to press on, assuming I could tear myself away from some of the slightly weird sculptures dotted about.
The above object is The Sea Ogre’s Paddle. I know this because inscribed on the back are the words:
‘The Sea Ogre’s paddle drifted up to lie on the muddy sand like some strange offering…’
Mythic Coast Artwork Trail
The Sea Ogre’s Paddle is just one of a series of artworks coming under the banner of the ‘Mythic Coast Artwork Trail’, the particular mythology in question being one entirely made up for the purpose. The items relate to The Sea Swallow, a specially commissioned children’s book, and were made by a local artist named Stephen Broadbent.
In addition to the paddle, they include a giant steel seashell sculpture and a stone statue of the Sea Ogre whose paddle it was.
Were a Sea Ogre to lose a paddle somewhere in the Irish Sea it is not at all unreasonable that it might wash up at Cleveleys — Irish Sea storms have been flinging debris at Cleveleys and the Fylde coast for centuries. For example, in 1894 the Norwegian-flagged (but Canadian built) barque Abana had her sails shredded by such a storm and found herself adrift. It probably didn’t help that the crew mistook Blackpool Tower for a lighthouse.
Abana drifted northwards past Blackpool before beaching off Little Bispham. The landlord of the Cleveleys Hotel raised the alarm but such were the weather conditions that the Blackpool lifeboat (stationed near Central Pier) couldn’t possibly have made her way up to the wreck. Instead, the lifeboat RNLB Samuel Fletcher had to be transported seven miles overland before launching — much like the Lynmouth lifeboat five years later but without the inconvenient hills.
Abana’s entire crew were rescued, including the captain’s dog and the vessel herself can still be seen at low tide.
Not that such shipwrecks are a thing of distant history, far from it. As recently as 2008, a storm caused the Irish Sea cargo ferry Riverdance to be struck by a wave with such force that her cargo shifted, listing the vessel by 60° and beaching her close to the wreck of the Abana.
A helicopter from RAF Valley on Anglesey airlifted the crew to safety. The ferry, which briefly became something of a tourist attraction, was scrapped on site later that year with an additional moment of drama provided when two of the lorries in her hold caught fire during the process.
Rossall & Earl Tostig
North of Cleveleys was Rossall, held before 1065 by Earl Tostig Godwinson, brother of King Harold Godwinson. As Earl of Northumbria Tostig made himself deeply unpopular with his subjects, partly through his heavy-handed incompetence while using Danish mercenaries as enforcers and partly because he was a southerner (some things never change).
Tostig was ousted in a rebellion centred on York and fled abroad when King Edward the Confessor, advised by Harold, agreed to the rebels’ demands and deposed him from office. The following year he would ally with Norway‘s King Harald Hardrada and die in battle against his own brother’s army at Stamford Bridge. Nineteen days later Harold would also die, this time in battle against William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy.
Allens and Fleetwoods
After the Conquest, Rossall — ‘Rushale’ in the Domesday Book of 1086 – had various owners until King John gave it to Dieulacres Abbey, a Cistercian abbey in Stafforsdshire, in 1206. It was occupied by the Allens, a family of prominent Catholics related to one of the abbots until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536, when it was bought by Thomas Fleetwood, Comptroller of the Royal Mint.
The Fleetwoods and their descendants occupied Rossall for three hundred years although the ravages of the sea decreased the size of their land holdings over time.
Swallowed by the Sea
Indeed, in 1555, just two decades after their purchase, a massive sea surge destroyed several villages including Singleton Thorp, which lay about a mile directly seawards of Rossall Hall. The inhabitants mostly escaped, fleeing inland, but the sea never retreated, turning forest and field into tidal mudflats.
In 1821, Rossall Hall itself succumbed to the sea, a replacement having already been built nearby. The new house was extensive and rambling and by the 1830s was in the ownership of Sir Peter Hesketh-Fleetwood, MP for Preston and High Sheriff of Lancashire, who fell out with his agent and saw his finances crumble.
In 1844, the new Rossall Hall was sold off to the local vicar, who rejoiced in the improbable name of St Vincent Beechey. Beechey, who had founded Marlborough College the previous year, set about turning Rossall Hall into its northern equivalent, a Church of England boarding school ‘for the sons of clergymen and others’. Rossall School is still in business today as an independent school although now it is co-educational.
A detour was in place from near to Rossall School on account of major repair works underway on the sea wall. This necessitated heading only very slightly inland and wandering parallel to the coast along the streets of Larkholme, the southwestern suburb of Fleetwood. It was very suburban in that ‘pleasant but still makes you want to scream’ sort of way that suburbia often is.
Larkholme was mostly developed in the 1960s on low-lying land that once would have been marsh. I followed the road until sand dunes and a golf course separated it from the inaccessible promenade, at which point a bridleway allowed me to stick close to the latter. This turned out to be a good move as, once I had passed the construction works, a stile let me back onto the sea front.
The tide was very much out, revealing the miles of mudflats that make up the Lune Estuary and Morecambe Bay.
Rossall Point Observation Tower
Rossall Point Observation Tower was completed in 2013 as both a post for the National Coastwatch Institution and a public observation deck that allows a 360° panorama. It replaced an older, more conventional tower, built in 1948. It has been described as ‘distinctive’. That’s one word for it.
I ambled my way around Rossall Point, where my general direction of travel shifted from northwards to eastwards. In the distance I could see the blocky shapes of Heysham Power Station far across the estuary mouth.
Model Yacht Pond
The sand dunes on my right slowly gave way to signs of civilisation as Fleetwood rejoined the promenade. It stayed at arm’s length for a while though, hanging back beyond a pond.
Soon enough, the dunes and ponds disappeared and I found myself properly entering Fleetwood.
A Planned Town
Fleetwood is said to be the first planned town of the Victorian era, and so it is, but the first buildings were actually constructed in 1836, when William IV was on the throne. Fleetwood was constructed at the behest of the aforementioned Sir Peter Hesketh-Fleetwood, something of a social liberal, who intended a sea port and popular resort for the less affluent.
This was no idle dream either, he had correctly spotted that it not only had a sheltered harbour and views over Morecambe Bay but that, until rail links were constructed to Scotland, it could serve as a transport hub, linking trains and steamers.
The actual architect of the new town was Decimus Burton (1800-1881), who had previously designed St Leonard’s-on-Sea in Sussex.
Burton hit upon a half-wheel street plan, using the largest of the sand dunes (once landscaped) as the hub, which also doubled as a vantage point. The sand dune had previously been known as Tup’s Hill but henceforth would be known as the Mount.
Fleetwood was initially successful but Sir Peter had been forced to engage an agent, Frederick Kemp, on account of the demands on his time of his Parliamentary career. He and Kemp argued over financial matters and Kemp funded Fleetwood’s expansion by taking out loans against the revenues of the Rossall Estate.
Heavily mortgaged and facing rising debts, it was this that led Sir Peter to sell off Rossall Hall and much else of his estates, before abandoning Parliament and retiring to Brighton a virtual bankrupt.
Kemp meanwhile, having bled him dry, went from strength to strength.
Flood of 1927
For over a hundred years, Fleetwood thrived as its focus shifted from steamers to tourism and fishing. It somehow survived a flood in 1927 which submerged everything other than the Mount.
The 1960s saw the town begin to decline however, with ferry services suspended and Blackpool’s attractions providing stiff competition. Its pier, erected in 1910, was destroyed by fire in September 2008 and demolished.
A Trinity of Lighthouses
Fleetwood is the only town in the UK to have three lighthouses, although one has now fallen into a state of disrepair.
Two on dry land — The Pharos and Beach Lighthouse — were designed by Decimus Burton; when the Pharos and Beach Lighthouse line up together, a vessel is directly on course to enter the River Wyre. The third lighthouse, which stands offshore on the mudflats, marking the low-tide mouth of the Wyre, was designed by Alexander Mitchell (1780-1868), a blind engineer from Dublin.
Fleetwood stands at the mouth of the Wyre, the crossing of which would necessitate a significant diversion if it weren’t for the fact that there is a convenient ferry. I made my way through Fleetwood until the ferry jetty came into view and there I ended my walk. Crossing the Wyre can wait until next time.
Fleetwood Ferry also happens to be northernmost terminus of the Blackpool tramway, which gave me an excuse a reason to hop aboard one of the shiny new trams and ride it back down to North Pier. From there, a train whisked me back to Preston and my hotel and the following morning I caught another train to London.
This time: 14 miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,989½ miles