How the Victorians Built Britain (Blackpool!!) – Channel 5


There’s a song by The Beautiful South which goes “Blackpool help me out, Scarborough see me through”.  There’s no football, there’s no tennis, National Trust tea rooms are closing, theatres and cinemas are closed, Tesco are no longer opening 24 hours (and they included an important reminder in their e-mail about how this is a very difficult time for their staff, and saying a few extra “thank you”s would be much appreciated) and Coronation Street‘s going down to three episodes a week.  No toilet roll is one thing, but no sport and no National Trust scones … this is serious. However, we still have the seaside.  And, if you’re not going out at the moment, there are some lovely videos on You Tube showing scenes of Blackpool through the ages.  But to get back to this programme, which was on before all this really started …

The other episodes in this series were about things like trains and bridges and ships, which are very nice, especially if you’re technologically-minded (which I’m not) … but this one was about Blackpool, which was far more exciting. The Victorians democratised the seaside. If you watched the ITV version of Sanditon (if you didn’t, don’t bother, because it really wasn’t worth it), you will have seen lots of posh Georgians (some minus their swimwear) frolicking about on the beach, but not an ordinary working person anywhere in sight. It was the Victorians who turned the seaside into a place for everyone – and it was great fun watching Michael Buerk discover how such incredibly important institutions as Blackpool’s piers, the Illuminations, the Winter Gardens, the Tower and Empress Ballrooms, the Tower itself, the trams, and, last but not least, Blackpool rock, came into existence.

First up, a lot of it had to do with the railways. Well, there were charabancs as well, but they were more for day trips. And then there were wakes weeks – which were still going strong when I was a kid, but sadly seem to be dying off now. So, off everyone went to Blackpool, for some nice healthy sea air! And, back in the 1860s, when the first two piers were built we had a bit of class … well, not class conflict, but there were class issues. To this day, the North Pier’s the “posh” pier. There was a really nice tea room there for a while, but it closed down 😦 . However, it does still have a sun lounge where you can listen to music, and deckchairs to lounge on. The Central Pier (the South Pier came much later) is the fun pier, though … and also the, shall we say, “less posh” pier. That’s where there are rides and stalls. And it’s where you get the best chips. They don’t sell chips on the North Pier.

And, also up at the north end, is the Imperial Hotel, for those who don’t want to stay at one of the less expensive hotels. Very nice. I went there for a posh afternoon tea as a birthday treat, once. And the Victorians had a sort of Turkish bath set-up there, which was forgotten about for years but has now been rediscovered. It looks amazing!

Anyway, hopefully we’re past the seaside class conflict stuff now. Blackpool is for everyone! But sometimes it’s cold and wet, so you may prefer to go indoors – and they didn’t have all those arcade machines in Victorian times, so they opened the Winter Gardens. And it gets dark at night, when it’s not high summer, so, in 1879, the Illuminations started. Yep, 1879!  “Blackpool’s artificial sunshine.” Making excellent use of electricity!  Six years later, the trams, the first electric tramway in the British Isles, opened. How clever were the Victorians? They’d never have got into all this mess over HS2, I’m telling you. Furthermore, they didn’t go around mithering that everything you were eating was bad for you. Victorians liked sugar. So they invented rock.

So, by the early 1890s, you could head there on the train, ride around by tram, go on the beach, walk along the pier, go in a Turkish bath if you were too snotty to join the crowds down by the sea, eat lots of rock, look at the Illuminations, and go in the Winter Gardens. But the symbol of Blackpool is the Tower. Even now, at my advanced age, I get excited when the Tower first comes into view as I head along the M55. When it opened, in 1894, it was the tallest man-made structure in the British Empire. High-rise buildings were not a thing in the 1890s! How amazing for people to be able to go up the top of Blackpool Tower and look all around them. And it’s perfectly safe, even in nasty storms like the ones we’re getting at the moment. The Victorians built things to last!

Then, rather amusingly, there followed what Michael called “the Battle of the Ballrooms”, as the Tower Ballroom and the Winter Gardens’ Empress Ballroom vied to outdo each other. They’re both amazing. So ornate and glamorous. I’d love to dance in both of them, although, if I had to choose, I’d go for the Tower Ballroom. No offence, Winter Gardens.  They look as if they should be in some grand royal palace somewhere … but they’re in Blackpool, for us.

And that’s Blackpool. If you want glamour, you can have glamour. If you want chips on the pier, you can have chips on the pier. However down I’m feeling, Blackpool always cheers me up – and I am so chuffed that Channel 5 devoted an hour’s TV to talking about how the Victorians invented the modern seaside resort.  Yes, trains and bridges and ships are very important, but, hey, where we would be without our seaside resorts 🙂 ?  Loved every minute of this!


2 thoughts on “How the Victorians Built Britain (Blackpool!!) – Channel 5

  1. Must try and catch this! I too spent many happy hours in Blackpool back when it was where Glaswegians went to party! I also attended several union conferences there back in the day, and boy, were they wild! I feel the youth of today take politics far too seriously – probably because they insist on staying sober… 😉

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