It was late afternoon and I was standing on Blackpool prom, rather wishing I wasn’t. The rain was bucketing down. “It’s been a reight day to come to Blackpool,” said a Pacamacked pensioner next to me. At that moment, a bus trundled up with Fleetwood on the front.
Fleetwood? Hadn’t I seen the name on Blackpool trams when I was child? Didn’t we once get a ferry to the Isle of Man from it? Wasn’t it where John Lennon spent his childhood holidays? I caught the bus. It went north, passing fortress-like hotels and small bungalows with enormous extensions, and, after about eight miles it pulled into Fleetwood, an out-on-a-limb port-cum-resort with a fascinating past.
These days, it’s probably best known as the place where Fisherman’s Friend lozenges are made. Nearly two centuries ago, however, it was the first British seaside resort you could reach by train (no trains now, and no trams when I was there, but they’ll be back next Easter after a £100m upgrade).
It was the brainchild of the local squire, Sir Peter Hesketh-Fleetwood, a man with big mutton-chop whiskers and even bigger ambitions. In the late 1830s, he wanted to create a Brighton for the North (“Sea Bathing for the Working Classes”) and a port to serve the region’s industries.
And there was another angle. The railways were just starting up and he reckoned the West Coast line to Scotland would never get over the fells between Lancaster and Carlisle. So he built a terminus at Fleetwood, where passengers could stay overnight and take the morning steamer to Ardrossan to continue their journey north.
Sadly for him, the railway forged triumphantly over the fells, leaving Fleetwood high and dry with a grand new hotel it didn’t need any more – the North Euston, run by a Corsican who had worked for Napoleon and brought in musicians from Italian opera houses to play in the grandly pillared ballroom.
The North Euston is still there, curving magisterially around its Esplanade corner, like a stately home that’s warped in the sun. The bus from Blackpool drops me in front of it. It’s teatime and a man is booking a dinner dance at Reception (“Just a little chinwag to sort it out”) and a big wedding party is gradually arriving.
They head for the bar, a convivial place with wistful framed prints of “Balmy Fleetwood in days gone by”, when it was the “Floral Resort of Many Happy Returns”. Bathing Beauty contests judged by Tommy Cooper, the annual Landladies’ Race (carrying trays of tea), the biggest model yacht lake in Europe: it was all here and so were the crowds.
“In August, you’d always have people knocking on your door to see if you’d got a vacant room,” local historian Dick Gillingham tells me. “People used to sleep in the cellar to free up rooms.”
On summer Saturdays 60 years ago, 10,000 people lugged their suitcases onto ferries to the Isle of Man and Ireland, admiring Fleetwood’s vast fishing fleet as they went. Now the fishing has finished, and the ferries are reduced to the gallant little Wyre Rose. It crosses the estuary to the village of Knott End-on-Sea: a three or four minute voyage just long enough for the crew to play the safety announcement.
You can watch the ferry from the front windows of the North Euston. Morecambe Bay stretches out behind it, with the Lake District mountains on the far horizon, blue-grey on a misty morning, deep purple in a clear dusk. People drive their camper vans out here and sit watching gulls, herons and distant container ships. My teatime glimpse of Fleetwood was so intriguing that, a few weeks later, I came back to stay at the North Euston for a couple of nights and was enchanted by its old-fashioned charm.
I didn’t do anything very active – wandered round the strangely haunting town which, if it had ever been finished, would have had a waterfront to rival Liverpool’s and radiating crescents of smart terraces to rival Edinburgh’s or Bath’s.
I followed the heritage trail from the spruce museum, with its pictures of forests of trawler masts and “Floodlit Boating in the Lovely Lagoon” and the great days of Pimpo the Clown and Professor Aubrey Winston Grey, a showman who pulled in crowds by grooming guinea pigs, polishing a Buddha, selling “lucky numbers” and exclaiming “Ishbulla Kushtibok!”
I took in the two shore lighthouses, great chess pieces abandoned on the street, and I had a lot of cups of tea and coffee. There are cafes on practically every corner, undercutting each other. Brenda and Tracie’s Family Cafe (very friendly) does a three-course roast lunch “with large tea or coffee”... for £5.95.
I took the Wyre Rose to Knott End, where a man was watching a flock of oystercatchers – perhaps 500 of them – scurrying up and down the beach. “Fleetwood’s an insular place,” he said. “You could probably still find people here who’ve never been south of Blackpool.”
I bought some Fisherman’s Friends from the Fleetwood Beach Kiosk on the Esplanade. Aniseed or Blackcurrant? Cherry or Menthol Eucalyptus? Hard choices. Even on a chilly day, Craig McOmish was serving ice creams. “The locals don’t have any airs or graces,” he said. “They’re down to earth and friendly.”
Dick Gillingham certainly was. He filled me in about John Lennon. “He came here between the ages of four and eight,” he said. “He claimed he learned to swim at the open air pool, and he stayed at a house owned by Mr Shipway, who was the grandfather of my best man.”
As I got back to the hotel, sultry music lured me to the ballroom. Organist David Windle (“considered the best musician on the Fylde coast,” I was told) was smooching out rumbas and foxtrots for a tea dance: silver slingbacks in the sunset. A glamorous older blonde buttonholed me. “Are you a dancer?” she asked. “If I’d seen you at the start, I’d have grabbed you.”
Lennon found the right word for it: Imagine.
The North Euston Hotel (01253 876525; www.northeustonhotel.com) has doubles from £66, including breakfast. Travel information: Visit Wyre (01253 887445; www.visitwyre.co.uk).