Fylde Coast: it’s not all about Blackpool!

 

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Winter sun sets

Streaks of light above the western horizon

Glittering reflections dance on dark sea

Pale orb retreats in sullen sky

Like smouldering charcoal on muted canvas

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Blackpool is, indisputably, the best known seaside resort in the UK. For several months of the year it is teeming with holiday makers from all parts of the country. A magnet for stag and hen parties, outings for all occasions (and none), it has in recent years earned a dubious reputation as the ‘Las Vegas’ of the north west. Blackpool is bold. It’s brash. It’s cheap and cheerful, depending on the particular type of cheer required. It has become a haven for would-be and has-been celebrities, trying to break into or hang onto the bargain basement of the entertainment world. Its vast array of hotels and ‘B&B’s are hugely popular throughout the year.

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I don’t like Blackpool. I never have, even as a child. To me, Blackpool is garish, vulgar and even sinister. Beneath its façade of raucous laughter, bright lights and fairground attractions lies an emptiness and a sadness and something quite disturbing. Blackpool is a bit like a clown. I try to avoid it, or at least the worst of it.

Blackpool is also like a portal which I pass through when journeying to other parts of the Fylde coast which offer an altogether different experience. Even a relatively short distance along the north coastal road in the direction of Fleetwood there are quiet and peaceful stretches of beach which offer solace and opportunities to sit quietly, enjoy the sea and relax.

Thornton Cleveleys, about 4 miles north of Blackpool, is really no more than a village, yet has a bustling shopping centre and a busy high street which includes several chain stores and a number of eateries. I was surprised to find that even in winter the crowds were out and the cafes were busy. It’s easy to forget that places like Cleveleys, whilst being popular with tourists, have their own communities for whom everyday life comes with a sea view. Cleveleys is one of a number of north west seaside resorts which has benefited from a ‘make-over’ which includes some striking seafront architecture.

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From my seat at the top of a flight of concrete steps leading down to the water’s edge (these also serve as cleverly designed sea defences) I spend a happy hour admiring the awesome sight of the waves rolling and crashing against the groynes. Brown and murky with sand from the seabed, the powerful surges of aquatic energy rush in with force, then break and transform into white foam before being gathered on the next currant and taken back out to sea. The sea’s rhythms soothe and hypnotise, telling stories of primal life and the cosmic dance. Salt water is caught in the wind, creating that instantly recognisable aroma found only at the coast, prized throughout time, a cure for those seeking revival and recovery. Sea birds swoop and squawk, scanning the surface for the meal which lies beneath.

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The sun starts to set and the wind picks up, causing me to draw my coat closer around me. Reluctantly, I end my reverie and return to the promenade, still busy with enthusiastic dogs chasing sticks, or happily pulling on their leads, basking in the admiring looks of passers by. Despite the declining day, the beach is still full of life.

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The tram pulls in to rush hour Blackpool and I can’t help noticing that under the street lights and against the backdrop of the now black sea, it doesn’t look that bad after all.

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Carnforth Station Heritage Centre – A Brief Encounter

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Brief Encounter is one of my favourite films – and I’m not alone. It ranks in second place in the British film industry’s list of 100 greatest films. Directed by the much-celebrated David Lean in 1945, the film was based on Noel Coward’s 1936 screenplay Still Life. Filmed at various locations in England, Brief Encounter is set in 1938 and relates the love that grows between Alec, a doctor, and Laura, a middle-class housewife. They meet by chance at a fictional train station, Milford Junction, where Alec comes to Laura’s rescue and gallantly removes some grit from her eye.

A profound yet unconsummated passion develops from that meeting. It’s a very British film of the times; its respectability and restraint make it all the more intense.

There was no big budget and the cast included no A list actors, but Brief Encounter is credited as one of David Lean’s greatest works and was met with wide critical acclaim when it was released. It has gone on to achieve world-wide iconic status.

Carnforth Station sits less than ten minutes outside Lancaster on the scenic line which winds its way along the Cumbrian coast. Designed by architect William Tite and opened in 1846, there is nothing particularly striking about this station, nor – it must be said – about Carnforth. The Station’s claim to fame is that it was chosen as the site of the railway platform scenes in Brief Encounter. Its rural location enabled night time filming to take place whilst avoiding the war time blackout which was necessary in England’s towns and cities.

The Station’s now iconic clock appeared in Brief Encounter, and it is that same clock which today tells the time to passengers and visitors to the excellent Carnforth Heritage Centre. Step inside and you will be transported (pardon the pun) back in time to the heyday of steam travel.

A fantastic team of volunteers works 360 days a year to keep the museum running. Visitors come from all over the world to experience their own brief encounter with British film-making at its best, though they form more of a steady trickle than a flock. I chatted with two Canadian ladies in the gift shop who had digressed from their holiday in the nearby Lake District to see where their all-time favourite film was made.

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The Heritage Centre isn’t just about Brief Encounter. In what was once the main waiting room which is now used for presentations and educational activities, a film runs on loop which shares a potted history of the Station and the wider context of British rail travel in the decades before the end of steam.

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Authentic artefacts are displayed throughout the Centre’s various rooms and a lot of time and trouble have been taken to create a vintage feel.

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A photograph of members of the Women’s Voluntary Service who famously served tea to the troops passing through Carnforth Station during war time

Head towards the gift shop and you will see an array of Brief Encounter themed items on the shelves. I was greatly amused by the boxes of fudge and biscuits, some of which are to be included in suitcases bound for Canada. I bought a mug and ‘far too nice to be used as a tea towel’ tea towel.

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From the gift shop can be heard a melody familiar to fans of the movie: Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto Number 2 –  the soundtrack. Tucked away round a little corner is a tiny cinema where visitors can sit and watch Brief Encounter from proper plush picture-house seats, perhaps whilst nibbling on some of the gift shop fudge.  This is a lovely touch and a nod to the plot, as Laura and Alec initially meet innocently once a week to watch a matinee together.

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The Heritage Centre includes a year-round David Lean exhibition which celebrates the director’s life and work.

At the heart-breaking end of the film Laura and Alec, having decided to put their families and responsibilities before their doomed love, meet for the last time in the same spot where they had that first encounter; the Station’s refreshment room. Those scenes were filmed in a studio, but the set bore a strong resemblance to the refreshments room at Carnforth Station. Though now enjoying modern facilities, it still has a vintage charm.

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It is run by lovely friendly staff who serve a splendid pot of leaf tea; just the ticket on a cold January afternoon whilst waiting for a train back to the 21st century.

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Southport at midwinter

 

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The sea: mighty, powerful, deep, dark, mysterious, salty, soothing, calm, as old as the world. I always feel as though I am taken in by its great gravitational pull. It seems to call out to me and I love to answer that call and be in it or near to it. I lose track of time when I sit on a seaweed- covered rock and become absorbed into the rhythm of the rolling waves and watch the majestic sea birds soar and swoop above the foam and into the rock pools. The hypnotic horizon where the sun sets into the depths tantalises the imagination with suggestions of mysteries beyond.

Southport, whilst not the greatest or most inspiring of coastal locations, is the nearest seaside resort to my home and I go there from time to time. I have very early childhood memories of playing on the beach with family and friends, the great expanse of sand seemingly endless. The sea never seemed to make an appearance on Southport beach and as a teenager I had come to believe it was an urban myth. My passion is for the water; I want to paddle in it and feel the waves lap around my legs. Southport never seemed to suggest more than the possibility of it, by way of marine offerings strewn across the damp sand: slimy seaweed; shiny shells, flotsam and jetsam deposited by the always absent waves. Over the years I lost patience and interest and for a long time I stayed away. However, I have learned that taking the trouble to consult tidal timetables produces wondrous results: the urban myth has been dispelled……..the sea, in all its glory, DOES grace Southport sands with its presence.

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Southport seemed to lose interest in itself for a while, slipping into decline throughout the 1980s, ’90s and the early part of this century. The fairground closed and lurid yellow safety boards were, at one point, the brightest things to be seen along the front.

The town’s few shopping streets had always retained their elegance and been amongst its attractions, seemingly operating under a pulling power unconnected to the phases of the moon. Southport has always had a reputation for refinement and though this brooch of honour has slipped a little way down the town’s tailored lapel since its Victorian heyday, everybody knows that Southport has standards. Famously the one-time home of one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s descendants, who sojourned on Lord Street, it has always maintained a bourgeois air. Home to millionaire footballers and other celebrities, Southport and surrounding areas have status. Royal Birkdale, a short and pleasant trek along the sand dunes, is home to one of Britain’s most prestigious golfing tournaments.

The town holds its own amongst the better known and commercially more popular Irish Sea coast holiday resorts. A popular retirement destination and general desirable place of residence, this little town is synonymous with quality and class. It is commerce more than sandcastles which has kept Southport on the holiday map; it has succeeded where places such as Morecambe have declined. Massive investment in the promenade has injected new energy into Southport as a place to take a holiday, and it is now, happily, back on track.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It seemed fitting that on a grey afternoon at the end of the year I should visit the sea and contemplate the ebb and flow whilst considering what 2017 had brought and taken away.

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Beyond the twinkling festive lights of Lord Street and the garish electric luminosity of the side-street amusement arcades and candyfloss kiosks, the lonely promenade was almost deserted. The heavens opened as I crossed the road in front of Silcock’s Funland, its flashing lights surreal in the winter gloom.

The heavens opened, sending down a sheets of rain, bouncing off the wooden board walk of the pier, adding to the strange atmosphere. As a moment in time it was quite beautiful.

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The sunset could just about be seen behind the smoky grey clouds to the west, as millions of raindrops fell into the sea, adding to its vastness.

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Heysham Village and St. Patrick’s Chapel

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Heysham is a coastal village in the north-west of England, just a few miles from Lancaster and from Morecambe. It has a ferry port and the Isle of Mann Steam Packet Company operates  daily between Heysham and the Isle of Mann, 66 miles off shore. It is also, in my view, one of the most stunning locations in England. I am not on my own in holding that opinion: British artist JM Turner painted a view of Heysham in the early 1800s.

A very busy and noisy main road cuts through Heysham and it appears, at first sight, to be a quite ordinary sort of place: a doctor’s surgery; an assortment of takeaways; a hairdresser’s; a Co-op – all the usual suspects are in situ. Rows of neat but modest terraces back onto the sea wall, a curved buttress to protect against winter high tides. The port and dock can be seen in the distance; hardly the seaside idyll. But there is more than meets the eye in Heysham. Turn off the main thoroughfare and a hidden gem is waiting; a village within a village in another place and time.

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‘The village’, once a cluster of fishermen’s cottages typical of many dotted around the British coastline, now looks like a scene from a vintage chocolate box. This could be Midsomer or St. Mary Mead. I half expect Miss Marple to emerge from one of the picture pretty cottages to water an effusive hanging basket or wave to a genteel neighbour. There is still a slipway in the village but the fishermen are long gone. There is the unmistakable aroma of affluence, potted and climbing the bourgeois trellis. As the super-sleuth does not make an appearance I continue to explore the village alone.

Heysham village has been claimed, not reclaimed. One cloud on the otherwise perfect blue horizon is that few local people would be able to afford property prices here. Gentrification and the housing market have made this location – and may others like it – desirable residences now priced beyond the pockets of most whose roots lie in the local soil. Two tea rooms – one of them particularly characterful – an excellent pub offering great food, an ‘antiques’/bric-a-brac shop, a visitor centre and an out-of-place hair salon at the bottom of the cobbled the main street sums up the world of village commercial activity. There is no cash machine. It is notable and significant that this tiny hamlet boasts so many places in which to sup and dine, a testimony to the village’s popularity with visitors.

Most of the houses have character, clearly treasured by their lucky inhabitants. Homes in this village tend to have names rather than numbers. Explosions of vibrant flora burst forth from containers and beds, stopping visitors in their tracks. I take a photograph of a particularly enchanting garden but it feels wrong to do so; I am taking a liberty. An elderly couple sits on a bench behind me and I make an admiring comment. The woman replies that she lived here as a child when  the place was different, a simple fishing village. The family moved to Morecambe when her father stopped going out on the boat and had to find factory work. She would not be able to live here now and is visiting with a small coach party for the afternoon.

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So why do these visitors come? This quaint chocolate box location, despite winning the prestigious ‘Village in Bloom’ award twice in recent years,  does not in itself pull in coach parties. There is more…………

At the edge of the village the headland overlooks the poetically named Half-Moon Bay. There stands the remains of the 8th century St. Patrick’s Chapel, reputedly built by St. Patrick and his religious community when he arrived across the sea from Ireland bringing with him Christianity. Not much of the chapel is left, but it stands as a reminder of the importance of Lancashire and Cumbria in the story of early Christian spirituality. It retains an aura of mystique, enhanced by its magnificent surroundings. It is also a wonderful place to sit in peace and quiet. Alongside the chapel are the mysterious barrow graves, more of which can be seen in nearby St. Peter’s church yard. These ancient tombs speak of the lives and deaths of those ancient communities for whom that desolate craggy point was home and centre of spiritual life. Archaeological excavations have uncovered stone tools and grave goods indicative of much earlier settlements at Heysham.  The site is now cared for by the National Trust.

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The headland is a beautiful place to walk and sit, to look out to sea and down to the beach below. The cliffs along this stretch of coastline form a cove, private and sheltered. It is unsurprising that in the 18th century Half-Moon Bay served as an ideal location for smugglers bringing ashore their illicit wares on the low tides, in the dead of night, by the light of the moon. It’s easy to imagine it.

A down-hill walk back through the village leads to the beach. It is small and mostly quiet. The promenade along the south end borders a stretch of sand favoured by families building castles and paddling at the water’s edge. Cyclists and hikers pass by en-route to Morecambe or the Lake District beyond. The north end of the beach offers a different vista: a backdrop of cliffs, sea-weed covered shingle and a plethora of rock pools to sit amongst for an hour or three, undisturbed and solitary.

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The tide rolls out towards the ’emerald isle’ revealing a dense green carpet of sea plants on the beach and the white-winged birds circle above to feed on the fruits of the sea, oblivious to property prices and closing times. To them all is open all the time and they are free.

 

Conishead Priory, Cumbria: a magical place

Conishead Priory, home of the Majushri Kadampa Buddhist Temple and learning and meditation centre, has experienced several incarnations in its own right. On a hot day in August in a secluded corner of the temple’s wild flower garden, it is easy to experience a sense of nirvana.

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Built on the original site of a 12th century Augustinian priory, the grade 2 listed Victorian gothic house was for hundreds of years home to many generations of Cumbrian aristocracy. It has also been a hydro-hotel, described as the ‘paradise of Furness’, a convalescent home for miners and was used as a hospital in World War II.

Conishead instantly fascinated me when I first heard about it two or three years ago. I had been meaning to go there since that time, but never got around to it. It was as good as I had hoped it would be and a place I am sure I will visit many more times.
The Priory is about 2 miles from Ulverston Station. On their website, Conishead Priory recommends travelling there by taxi and even provides an ample list of local taxi numbers. Based on prior (no pun intended!) experience of poor taxi services in parts of Cumbria (see Furness Abbey blog) I decided to add no less than ten of these numbers to my mobile before making my journey. It seems you can never have too many taxi numbers to hand when in Cumbria: the first firm I rang had nobody available for 40 minutes; the second had nobody available at all; the third rang through to a recorded message………….at the fourth attempt I got through to a chap who sounded quite put-out that I had disturbed him, but said he would be with me in 10 minutes and was good to his word, though surly with it – and expensive.

I was surprised at first that the Priory house was not older; I had misunderstood the blurb and had thought it was 12th century, whereas that was the when the original Augustinian building was erected. The existing house is early Victorian. Tours are available at a reasonable price, but I didn’t partake.

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A short walk across the car park leads straight into the gardens and outdoor dining area. The café is situated inside the conservatory. Buddhist monks and visitors alike sit and chat, appreciating the vibrancy of the garden and enjoying food together. The café offers a selection of vegetarian sandwiches, snacks, homemade soups, cream teas and cold drinks and ice creams.

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I liked that the gardens were beautiful in a very understated and natural way, not artistic or flamboyant, but tranquil and vibrant without trying too hard. I particularly enjoyed walking in the wildflower garden (as wildflowers are my favourites) and the many and varied pots on the terrace.

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There is a short walk (a quarter of a mile, or 7 minutes as the sign says) down to the beach. The first part of the path is a bit steep, which was fine on the way down but means that the return is more of a challenge. This route is possibly not suitable for some wheelchairs or prams.

The walk through the wood is short and pleasant. The pebble beach at the end is an inlet, though you can see out to open sea. A word of advice to anybody hoping to sit on the beach: bring a lightweight folding chair or a thick cushion. The pebbles are big and uncomfortable to sit on. There is a small number of benches, but probably not enough. The beach is, after all, part of a retreat and not a tourist destination.

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In one sense, the temple it is so strangely incongruous in that English-country-house setting, yet it is perfectly at ease there. It wasn’t as large as I had expected and not as ornate. It’s modern and airy and has some religious art and beautiful displays. On entering, I was welcomed and given the choice of removing my shoes or covering them with the disposable covers provided. I chose the former. I would have stayed for one of the meditation sessions, but none was planned to take place during my short visit. Everybody is made welcome, Buddhist or non-Buddhist alike.

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After more peace and quiet time spent looking out over the lawns behind the temple, I decided to call a taxi in plenty time to get back to Ulverston Station. My first call was to the same driver who had picked me up on my journey in – no luck there. After three more unsuccessful calls I managed to book a taxi which arrived about 20 minutes later. The driver told me that they were the largest company in the area, but still tiny compared with firms in larger towns.

Conishead is well worth a visit and I would defy anybody to not find something there that appeals to them, be it the grand house, the beach, the temple or the wonderful gardens.

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