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Blackpool: Britain’s Coney Island

By Rick Steves
Beach in Blackpool, England
British people flock to Blackpool to soak up the seaside resort's atmosphere. (photo: Rick Steves)
Blackpool's lively Central Pier hosts the town's Ferris wheel, and a range of carnival attractions. (photo: Tom Griffin)

When I tell British friends I'm going to Blackpool, their expressions sour and they ask, "Oh, God, why?" For me, the answer is easy: for the joy of experiencing working-class England at play.

For over a century, until the last generation, Blackpool — a carnivalesque tipsy-toupee, ears-pierced-while-you-wait beach resort on England's northwest coast — was where the mill workers and miners of Yorkshire and Lancashire spent their holidays. Working blokes took their families here hoping for good fun for the kids and a bit of razzle-dazzle entertainment for themselves.

Today, Blackpool's vast beaches are usually empty — often too cold for comfort. In this era of cheap airfare between Britain and Mediterranean Europe, warm beaches are a year-round option for even the working class.

But Blackpool remains a wonderland of cheap fish 'n chips, gambling salons, schmaltzy variety shows, and candy floss (that's British for "cotton candy"). It's as English as can be, and that's why I like it.

Its waterfront is dominated by the Blackpool Tower. Shaped like a stubby Eiffel Tower, this giant amusement center seems to grunt, "Have fun." At the tip of this 518-foot-tall symbol of Blackpool is a grand view that's just smashing, especially at sunset.

The tower's gilded ballroom is festooned with old-time seaside elegance. A relay of organists keeps pensioners waltzing, fox-trotting, and doing the tango. Many of these dancers have been coming here regularly for 50 years. They're happy to share an impromptu two-step lesson with any curious visitor. Many more pay to sit with their fish-and-chips and mushy peas and watch.

Blackpool's waterfront promenade leads along a string of noisy amusements. Countless greedy doors open, trying every trick to get you inside. Huge arcade halls broadcast tape-recorded laughter and advertise free toilets. The randy wind machine under a wax Marilyn Monroe flutters her skirt with a steady breeze. The smell of fries, tobacco, and sugared popcorn wafts with an agenda around passersby.

You can cruise the promenade on one of the vintage trolley cars that constantly rattle up and down the waterfront. (On my last visit, I noticed that the traditional horse carriages, which had also long plied the promenade, had been replaced with sugary-pink Cinderella carriages, apparently to meet demand from girls who want to be princesses.)

Three amusement piers stretch out beyond the promenade into the sea, each with its own personality. Kids in tow? The south pier is for you. Young and frisky? Central pier. If you're feeling sedate? Head to the north pier to stroll its venerable boardwalk, where the dominant sounds are the gulls and the wind in your hair.

In 1879, back when the north pier was new, Blackpool became the first city in England to switch on electric streetlights. Now, it celebrates this history — and stretches its tourism season into the autumn — by illuminating its seven miles of waterfront with countless blinking and twinkling lights. The first time I saw the much-hyped "Illuminations" years ago, the American in me kept saying, "I've seen bigger and I've seen better." But I stuffed his mouth with cotton candy and happily surveyed the spectacle like everyone else on my specially decorated trolley.

For modern-day thrills, Blackpool Pleasure Beach is tops. Its 42 acres of rides (more than 100, including "the best selection of white-knuckle rides in Europe"), ice-skating shows, cabarets, and amusements attract seven million people a year, making Pleasure Beach one of England's most popular attractions. Its biggest roller coaster is among the world's tallest (213 feet) and fastest (74 mph).

But for me, Blackpool's top sight is its people. Appreciate the noisy 20-somethings pulling down their pants to show off butt cheeks reddened by new tattoos. Ponder what might inspire someone to spend his golden years here, wearing plaid pants and a bad toupee.

Blackpool has plenty to keep its visitors entertained in the evening. Besides quality plays, nighttime options always include a few dancing-girl, racy-humor, magic, and tumbling shows. I enjoy the corny "old-time music hall" shows, which are neither hip nor polished. It's fascinating to be surrounded by hundreds of partying British seniors, swooning again and waving their hankies to the predictable beat. Busloads of happy widows come from all corners of north England to giggle at the racy jokes. A perennial favorite is Funny Girls, a burlesque-in-drag show that delights footballers and grannies alike.

If you're not into kitsch and greasy spoons, skip Blackpool and spend more time in nearby North Wales or England's Lake District. But if you're traveling with kids — or still are one yourself — visit Britain's Coney Island and experience England like you can nowhere else.