I’M HOPELESSLY lost in Blackpool, blundering around beneath the Tower, dodging the touts and the hot-dog sellers, looking for the remains of Blackpool Central. Once everyone would have known their way here. It was the largest and busiest seaside station in the world.
But all that’s left today of the institution that was once synonymous with the jolly British holiday by the sea is a bleak block of gents’ toilets surrounded by a vast car park.
The toilets were once once urgently needed to relieve the pressure on bladders from all those crates of ale consumed aboard excursion trains without corridors. Now they are the coin-in-the-slot kind, where stingy local councils force you to jiggle for change to open the door. Come off it – 20p for a pee? No self-respecting bladder would have put up with it when the trains ran here.
How times have changed. The rest – all 16 platforms and a glorious chapter of social history – is buried beneath our feet. Here lie the fragments of a grand terminus that once funnelled tens of millions of holidaymakers directly onto the most celebrated stretch of promenade in Britain, just a “99” Flake’s throw from the sea.
For 101 years Blackpool Central transformed a backward coastal hamlet into Europe’s top tourism resort. The newly leisured masses of northern England poured through the ticket barriers straight onto the Golden Mile to a myriad of sensuous delights – the tang of sea spray on the air, the sugary whiff of candy floss and throat-catching aroma of salt and vinegar from a hundred fish ‘n’ chip shops.
But when the last train ran in the autumn of 1964 and services banished to the edge of town, it delivered a fatal blow to the essence of the British seaside holiday as we once knew it. Blackpool was the railways – and the railways were Blackpool, in the same way they defined every other seaside resort in the land – from Bournemouth to Bridlington and Skegness to Southsea. It was the end of an era.
A family holiday to the seaside was one of the greatest inventions of the industrial revolution. In the years before motorways and easyJet, trains were the only means to enjoy the pleasures of the seaside. They were mostly comfortable, and the journey, was relatively stress-free (certainly compared with security-dominated anxieties at airports today).
Right up to the beginning of the 1960s, the annual journey to the seaside aboard a train was associated with pleasure, relaxation, the joy of sharing simple delights with your children in an era before iPads, smartphones, Snapchat and Twitter. It evoked warm memories, bringing huge reservoirs of goodwill to the idea of railway travel. As one historian wrote: “Surely it was always summer when we made our first railway journeys…”
Until they were transformed by the railways, seaside resorts tended to be haunts of the sick and the snobbish, with the Prince Regent savouring the waters at Brighton, and the Yorkshire gentry dipping their toes in the sea at Scarborough. But enter another great British invention – the seaside excursion train. The celebrated Thomas Cook pioneered the idea in 1841, with a trip for 570 Temperance members and their families, offering a day excursion from Leicester to Loughborough with tea, cricket and sandwiches – all for a shilling a person.
The new breed of train-bound holidaymakers brought with them their young children,changing the seaside holiday from an aristocratic pursuit into a family affair. By 1914 the people of every large manufacturing city except Coventry could reach the seaside in less than three hours – and tiny coastal hamlets everywhere dedicated themselves not to fishing, but to pleasure.
It couldn’t have been more perfect. The railways enjoyed the value of the business the seaside resorts brought in and the resorts, with tills ringing, acknowledged their dependence on the railways. Among the biggest money-spinners were the trains laid on for the unique“ Wakes Week” holidays in industrial England, when most of the factories in a town would close at the same time.
In the days before cheap package holidays a week at the seaside was the height of aspiration for millions of factory workers and they saved for it all year from often meagre wages. As one historian wrote “Marx and Engels could never have predicted that the enlightened self-interest of the employers would find such an ingenious method of maintaining the health – and morale – of their workforce.”
Travel by railway to the seaside reached its peak in the 1950s, when stations in summer school holidays were thronged with crowds surging along departure platforms, children with tin buckets and spades, strawberry jam and marmite sandwiches, beach balls, cricket bats and parents staggering with heavy luggage in brown leatherette suitcases.
This was an innocent era, with father possibly in his best Sunday togs, boys with short trousers and girls in ankle socks. When the platform announcement came and the tickets were clipped, there would be a rush along the platform to find the seats on the seaward side for the best views on arrival at the coast.
It’s all very different now, when the relatively few passengers taking the train for a holiday in British seaside resorts often have to endure changes from the comfort of the main line onto ancient, wheezing diesel multiple units on secondary, forgotten lines, There’s not much special about travel by train to the sea any longer – where it can be an uncomfortable marathon to get to Scarborough, Skegness, Great Yarmouth, Morecambe, Bridlington, Pwllheli or Whitby aboard uncomfortable trains on often meagre timetables.
Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, services to seaside towns such as Brighton, Southend, Bournemouth, Clacton and Southport these days are filled, not with the bucket and spade classes, but with perspiring commuters on their way to and from the office – condemned to long commutes by high central London house prices.
Worse, many of our most charming and beautiful seaside lines are gone for ever. No more the coastal delights of Whitby to Scarborough; the toy train to Southwold; the rickety wooden causeway on the “Hayling Billy” line to Hayling Island; and Betjeman’s favourite – the slow train through Fenland from Kings Lynn to Hunstanton – favoured by generations of the Royal Family on their way to Sandringham.
But perhaps a revival is on the way. The roads to the seaside at St Ives in Cornwall are now so congested that people are reverting to the train in droves. Lucky that the St Ives Bay line – one of the most scenic in Europe – was reprieved from closure in the 1960s. It not only has an excellent service but is busier than ever. Book now while you can…
Michael Williams’s new book ‘The Trains Now Departed: Sixteen Excursions Into the Lost Delights of Britain’s Railways’, is published by Preface, a division of Penguin Random House, price £20