By night, Blackpool’s Illuminations dazzle; by day, Helen Werin finds the resort has smartened up its act.
Roll up! Roll up! It’s Blackpool’s Great Promenade Show. There’s glam rock and glitter balls, light shows and music actually played by the sea – yes, really. If this all sounds like another load of over-the-top entertainment typical of Britain’s most full-on fun-filled seaside resort, then it is. But my, it is a lot more tasteful and sophisticated than you might expect.
This being Blackpool, the mirror-ball is the biggest in the world. By day its 47,000 tiles throw a cascade of diamond patterns across the promenade. By night it’s illuminated with a colour-changing light show. Pretty dazzling stuff – and this is just the start.
Strolling from one amazing sculpture to the other along the revamped prom turns out to be the perfect way of easing myself into Blackpool mode. You see, crowds, noise, flashing lights and surround-sound music is not my usual scene. Give me deserted hills or bracing coastal paths any time. So when I succumbed to persuasion from my youngest daughter, Sophie, my friends laughed and said: “Blackpool; now there’s a challenge for you”.
But here I am, clinging on for dear life, my stomach doing flips, as I hurtle dip after dip along a dragon’s back of a clacketty wooden rollercoaster at the Pleasure Beach. As soon as the ride stops I’m in the queue again.
My favourite rides are the oldest. The Flying Machines (1904), the Big Dipper (1923), the speedy carousel which certainly lives up to its name of Derby Racer (1959) and, for me, the most enjoyable, the Steeplechase (1977).
Away from the fairground, the biggest thrill is the birds’ eye view through the glass floor of the SkyWalk at The Blackpool Tower Eye. It’s an unnerving, yet strangely compelling, experience this. Your brain might tell you that there’s nothing between you and the pavement 500ft below; your feet know that there’s about five centimetres’ thickness of glass supporting you.
Plenty of people are standing gingerly on the sidelines whilst others tentatively tiptoe across one of the girders, not quite sure about the transparent underfloor. Far below I can read Bruce Forsyth’s famous ‘Nice To See You …’ catchphrase on The Comedy Carpet.
I had imagined that it wouldn’t be long before I’d be yearning to retreat to the mountains of the Lake District, which I can clearly see in the distance, leaving the rest of the family to the glitz, glamour and ubiquitous entertainment. Yet it’s not hard to find some quiet spots in Blackpool to escape to.
Ironically, the best place to unwind is in The Blackpool Tower itself. We’d just left the circus, one astounding acrobatic feat after another, and headed upwards. The famous ballroom becomes my sequinned sanctuary; all plush red seats and opulent décor. It’s entrancing to watch twinkle-toed couples twirling and gliding to the Viennese Waltz.
There’s rather an air of sophistication too in the Italianate Gardens at Stanley Park, just 10 minutes from the Pleasure Beach, with a marble fountain and four sea horses at their centre.
Whilst Sophie clambers over the adventure playground I take the steps past imposing copies of the Medici Lions of Florence and into the Art Deco café. I’m surprised by the fabulous interior. Even the waiters look like they have stepped out of the 1930s. Oh, and you should see the array of gooey cakes in the chiller cabinet ...
Food’s on the menu at my next destination. Unfortunately it’s not for me. It’s for the magnificent Marcella, a former circus elephant who’s putting on a bit of a show by having a pedicure in public at Blackpool Zoo.
Marcella is not the only mammoth attraction here. I squint into a dark hut, uncertain of what I’m going to find. Inside is Darwin, a giant tortoise who’s about 80-years-old. He’s certainly the biggest tortoise I’ve ever seen and looks more like a giant boulder than a beast.
A sign outside the Wallaby Walkabout warns that the animals are free roaming and to put away any food, drink or loose items. I realise, far too late, that stuffed right at the bottom of the outer pockets on my rucksack are some tissues. In a blink some tiny squirrel monkeys have filched them and run off. I can almost hear them laughing at me.
A regular visitor looks at me with a ‘told you so’ expression. His wife explains that, the last time they came, she’d had an entire packet of cream cakes whipped from the bag on her granddaughter’s pushchair.
On the prom we’re shielded from a spell of Blackpool’s blustery weather by shelters which swivel with the wind but for more than a mile we’ve jumped from one dazzling discovery to the next.
There’s the High Tide Organ and a fascinating artwork powered by the wind, which determines the colours and patterns of pulsating light units. It’s title? The Sound of the Wind Looks Like This.
So what’s been my biggest discovery? That Blackpool’s been surprisingly easy going; from the good parking facilities at the Pleasure Beach to the impressive cycle hire arrangements and, especially, all the free fun of wandering the promenade and piers.
Before we leave, we chuckle our way across the Comedy Carpet opposite the tower. I could spend hours reading all the daft jokes from popular entertainers and laugh-out-loud scripts from acts like the Two Ronnies.
Things to see and do
Blackpool Illuminations (www.blackpool-illuminations.net) run until November 10. Travelling by tram is the best way to see the lights as displays stretch over more than six miles.
Blackpool Tower (0871 222 9929, www.theblackpooltower.com). As well as the famous Tower Ballroom (it’s free to visit the upper galleries) Tower Circus and the Blackpool Tower Eye at the very top, there’s also the gruesome The Blackpool Tower Dungeon (0871 2229928, www.thedungeons.com).
The Great Promenade Show, South Shore (01253 476520, www.visitblackpool.com) Some of the country’s top artists have created two kilometres of sculptures and lighting.
Cycling Blackpool ( www.hourbike.com) Blackpool has hundreds of bikes for hire under a system which lets you take a bike from one of 70 hubs and use a network of bike lanes along the coast and to inland attractions such as the zoo and Stanley Park.