A Blackpool shop assistant greeted her customers: “Hiya Love…”
And then the lady in front, a snowy haired pensioner with limpid eyes and an affluent demeanour, turned to me and addressed me.
You could have knocked me down with a chihuahua. Because that’s not what other people do. I’m the odd one who talks to strangers in queues.
“You’d think he was one of the staff, wouldn’t you? ” she smiled.
“Er….pardon?” I queried. I was wrong-footed now: not only had I lost the plot, I suspected I had never had it in the first place.
The lady gestured over to the table my family had commandeered. We needed a big bench seat because Felix is eight, and fidgets for Britain, and falling off chairs is one of his hobbies.
But the only vacant bench seat-table was stacked with crockery from previous customers. We sighed, and sat down anyway. It was early in the day for boys to balance unaided on chairs.
My queue companion was rolling her eyes at a man who had procured a tray because none of the staff seemed to be doing so. He was clearing our table in front of my mother-in-law’s delighted eyes.
I blinked. “He’s my husband,” she confided. I gestured an expansive thank you across the shop in his direction.
The hustle continued. I got “Hiya love, sorry to keep you waiting” when it was my turn. I grinned and made my order: tea and iced buns.
I unloaded my tray at the table and prepared to put it back on the tray pile at the entrance to the shop. But a voice piped up: “Put that here, love! Don’t you worry about it!”
A lady at the next table was gesturing to her spare table space. Why, she reasoned kindly, walk the yard to the pile when she had room for all right there?
Camaraderie is king, here on the west coast, hundreds of miles north of the Thames.
And the characteristic warmth of the Blackpool folks has been courting tourists for some 250 years, ever since the craze for sea waters as an aid to health came into being.
Blackpool, which had until the mid 1700s been a sleepy hamlet, quickly capitalised on it’s greatest asset: seven miles of golden sand.
But how to get to it?
In 1781 the first links arrived. A private road was built In 1781, and Stagecoaches began running to Blackpool from Manchester in the same year, and from Halifax soon afterwards.
But it was the iron horse which must take the credit for what happened later: the mill town workers need a holiday, and train could take them where they wanted to go.
The whole of a town would up sticks and move for a week to this resort where canny businesspeople knew how to capitalise on such an opportunity.
The great names began to appear: the North and South piers, the Winter Gardens, the Opera House and that Tower, commissioned by Blackpool Mayor John Bickerstaffe after he had seen Paris’s wonder in the Great Exhibition of 1889. While it lacks the stature and magnificence – and, dare I venture, style- of its Parisian predecessor- its gung-ho sideshow savvy keeps us all entertained, here on the plains of Lancashire.
My mother in law grew up here. She took holiday jobs washing plates at the Tower Ballroom and danced as a little girl on stage at The Winter Gardens.
Rumour has it Hitler ordered a light touch from his squadrons of Dorniers: papers show he fancied it as a leisure resort fit for the Third Reich.
Blackpool is shabby, these days: the mill folks no longer make their money weaving cloth, and most of us jump on a plane to go abroad rather than avail ourselves of sticks of rock and Kiss Me Quick hats.
But the place is still here and every worn facade tells stories about how it used to be, long ago.
I wanted to see the Tower. It was not available to view for it’s own sake, though: you have to buy tickets for the ballroom -where tea dancing is still the thing -or the soft play empire for kids on the top floor. We paid up, and went in; and instantly the lavish decor rushed in to meet us: plush dark-clad staircases, florid tiles depicting splendid natural scenes. The language was unmistakeable, an interior from an era of fascination long gone.
My family had to drag me away from the wonders of original lighting and wood panelling and original signage, up to the top floor, a great conservatory worthy of Kew Gardens.
What was this once, I asked the lady behind the counter? It must have had another life.
Oh, yes, she said: it was the aviary. It also, for the delectation of the public, housed lion and tiger cages. My mother in law concurred : she had been brought to see the lions as a little girl. Blackpool always had its seedy side.
We wandered out to take a tram. The door stuck and the affable tram conductor grumbled sotto voce:”Not again….”
“That’ll be the hydraulics”, Phil ventured helpfully.
The man grinned “You’ll be lucky,” he rejoined. “These trams are rubbish. It’s probably held together with an elastic band…”
We took our tram back to 0ur car and turned the satnav away from this shabby unchic town.
The one-liners were still ringing in our ears.