English seaside resort is chilly but not stuffy


Blackpool, England -- Mid-summer and the tourists are dressed as if they're out for a stroll in the Arctic.

Kids are tossed in the wind like discarded candy wrappers. Some brave soul in a wet suit wades in the sea.

Here come the Fredericksons of Liverpool bounding down the amusement park midway. They're easy to spot. Just look for Phil and his two grown sons, Desmond and David, wearing curly black wigs, thick glasses and mustaches. The wives and grandchildren act like this goes on all the time.

The Fredericksons have just spent $200 on rides and food. They are smiling. They love this place.

David, 25, and his wife Colette, 27, swear that if it hadn't been for Blackpool, they never would have celebrated their first wedding anniversary, let alone their seventh.

"We had our honeymoon in Paris," says David.

"We hated it," says Colette.

"It was the weather," says David. "Too nice. We left after a night and came to Blackpool. Saved the marriage."

Who needs Paris when right around the corner there is Blackpool?

This is Ocean City, Md., and Branson, Mo., wrapped into one. It's tacky. It's old-fashioned. And it's so British working-class, a low-brow, high-octane resort in England's northwest corner.

No one will ever confuse Blackpool with the Riviera.

Here, haute cuisine is a greasy serving of fish and chips and culture is a bingo parlor. Paris may have the Eiffel Tower, but that's nothing compared to Blackpool's Tower. A century ago, Blackpool's movers and dreamers built a replica Eiffel Tower atop a Victorian building that houses pubs, a circus, an aquarium and a grand ballroom where a Wurlitzer organ rises from beneath the dance floor.

And there's also the weather. There should be a wind-chill factor in the summer. Around here, the locals start complaining about the heat when the temperature reaches 75. And it's not a real Blackpool vacation unless it rains for three days straight.

The Irish Sea isn't much of a bargain either. It's freezing. In August. But this year, for the first time, the water actually meets European Community standards for cleanliness.

Still, the tourists come, at a rate of 16.8 million annually, according to local tourism officials. It's not like the old days, though, when the northern factory towns would shut down one by one for a week at a time, and the workers and their families would flock to Blackpool for a little sun and a lot of relaxation.

Nowadays, it's cheaper to spend a week in the south of Spain than a week in Blackpool. So the old tourist town survives on daytrips, long weekends and the granddaddy of all celebrations every September, the month-long illuminations when the town glows with seven miles of lights.

The tourists come to drink half-price beer, eat cheap food, and gobble up the local Blackpool rock candy canes. They saddle up for donkey rides along the beach and frightening tumbles in the amusement parks. They stumble drunk from disco to disco on Friday and Saturday nights, the women in high heels and tight dresses, the men in loafers and tight pants, a mating ritual that could come straight out of the movie "Alfie." They prowl along the Golden Mile, a honky-tonk strip of fast-food joints, pubs and video arcades. They flock to the family shows star ring the Kathie Lee Giffords and Regis Phibins of British television.

"Up here, we don't put on a pose," says Martin Witts, a theater stage manager. "People here aren't concerned about wearing the right shirt. And if they do wear their best shirt, they are invariably sick all over it."

Where else in the world can you still venture a quarter-mile into the water on a rickety pier (in this case, the Irish Sea) to watch a show in a 1,500-seat theater?

You have not lived until you've heard Su Pollard -- the woman needs no microphone -- belt out Tina Turner's "River Deep, Mountain High" to an audience of senior citizens.

The local jokes

The local jokes all revolve around the wind and the sea.

"Caught a fish last night," says comic and television host Roy Walker. "The fish said, 'Thanks.' "

"I've lived here 18 years, which is like three summers," Mr. Walker says while relaxing in his dressing room. He was 16 when he left Ireland for Blackpool, where he worked as a dishwasher, won a talent contest, and hit the big-time on the British show circuit.

"I don't know how Blackpool stands up to the weather," he says. "But this is England, man. Blackpool is the most incredible place in the world. For one reason or another, working-class people feel at home here."

But you should have seen it in the old days. That's what the old-timers keep saying. Allen and Marjorie Heap live in Wigan, but they pack a lunch and come to Blackpool every Sunday to dance the waltz under the gold chandeliers and pastel frescoes of the old Tower ballroom.

"During the war years, this was the mecca," says Mr. Heap, 69. "You'd have soldiers and girls packed up to the rafters. When you walk in here today, it's something of a time capsule."

For Gretta Hills, Blackpool at its best will always be a summer day in 1960, the beach crammed with sunbathers.

"First time I saw this place, I thought I hit paradise," she says. "It was that way for 10 years."

Now, Mrs. Hills is 50 years old, and she scratches out a living with her husband Allen selling wigs, candy and plastic toys to the tourists along the Golden Mile.

"The living isn't as good as it once was," Mrs. Hills says. "Some days, I open the shop with dread. You get a lot of these lads about. They drink a lot. They steal your things. We used to really enjoy working. But the fun of it is gone."

Hazel Parr, a former Landlady of the Year in Blackpool, runs the Haldene Guest House. She, too, notices that times are getting tougher. There are 38 bed-and-breakfast establishments on her street, and 12 are for sale.

"We're going through a little crisis here," she says. "I don't know what it is. We need someone to come in here and inject life and money into the town."

Some are prospering

But not everyone is singing the Blackpool blues.

At the Pleasure Beach amusement park, times are very, very good. The tallest roller coaster in the world, the Big One, is packing them in. Basically, this is a ride that makes bungee-umping look like a sport for wimps.

"Oh, come on, you've got to go on it," managing director Geoffrey Thompson says to a visitor. When the boss is rebuffed, he sneers, "Coward."

"We are in our heyday," says Mr. Thompson, whose family has controlled the amusement park since its inception 99 years ago.

Mr. Thompson doesn't mind that people in London deride Blackpool. The fact is, he laughs all the way to the bank.

"The attitude in London is, 'Oh dear, Blackpool is not the sort of place we want to be seen in,' " he says.

"Blackpool is not chic and it's out of date. But come here, and you can't believe it."

Even now, Blackpool tries to stay current. It has become the gay capital of the north, courtesy of a local boy made good, Basil Newby.

Mr. Newby owns four gay nightclubs with names like "The Flamingo" and "The Flying Handbag" and he is turning away customers at the city's newest attraction, the transvestite show-bar "Funny Girls."

"With Blackpool, you either love it or you hate it," Mr. Newby says. "I love it here. Everyone fits in. If you opened a transvestite club down in Brighton, people would be shocked and horrified. But not here."

It's tacky. It's low-down. It's Blackpool.

"When I come back to Blackpool, the first thing I see is the Tower," Mr. Newby says. "Then, I feel the atmosphere. It's special. We're like a risque Peyton Place."

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