Northern Lights

by Janet Rogers  (A runner-up entry in the inaugural Travel Writing Competition)

He promised me a trip to see the Northern Lights. But it didn’t turn out quite as I expected.

Gaudy blobs
Weird and gaudy plastic blobs

I ventured outside as darkness fell and I did see great swathes of blue and green light swirling above. There were also rows of purple and pink and yellow lights and a giant flashing wand pointing heavenwards, like a rocket about to launch.

Blackpool may be the country’s great illuminator and master of illusion, but it has not yet managed to harness the natural phenomenon that is the aurora borealis.

I walked along the seafront and stared up at the weird and gaudy plastic blobs, flashing and shining in a lighting frenzy. A tram disguised as a boat floated by and then another disguised as a plane. A million bulbs and six miles of light have brushed over the town’s imperfections and brought colour and sparkle to its fading façade. A hundred fish and chip bars beckoned, taunting my nostrils with the aroma of fat.

Blackpool Illuminations, billed as the greatest free lightshow on earth, have been a major part of the town’s tourist trade since 1879 when they were described as “artificial sunshine.” Every year from the end of August to the beginning of November, the town is lit up and the visitors pour in.

The tourist information leaflet suggests ways of viewing the “glittering spectacle.”

Blackpool in daylight
Blackpool in daylight

“While most visitors drive through the lights¸ there are some more exciting and rewarding ways of viewing the dazzling displays. Hop aboard an open top tram for the clearest view of the lights, or perhaps a ride in a horse drawn carriage. You can of course walk through the Illuminations with a warm coat and a bag of chips, the best way to get involved with the interactive elements of this uniquely Blackpool attraction.”

In daylight I’d seen the litter swirling in the gutter, the peeling paint, the rusty metal seats and grey wires hanging like spaghetti above the seafront road. I’d ambled on the pier, past dodgems and a darts stall with a giant stuffed turtle flopping over the counter.

At the end of the pier I’d read the memorials to two young men. Red carnations and roses were attached to the railings. A life belt had been left loose from its casing, the rope uncoiled ready for use. Darkness had come and wiped away the blemishes but I sensed that the bright lights concealed more than peeling paint.

Basking in the early morning sun

I had decided to stay in the centre of Blackpool to get the real Blackpool experience. My hotel was just a hundred yards from the seafront. “It’s a strange place, Blackpool”, the hotel owner told me; these words from a woman who had walked straight out of the pages of Dickens with her sunken eyes, grey skin and wiry hair. She rubbed her hands together and stood in humble anticipation of my next request.

“Is there anything else I can get for you, my dear,” she enquired, bowing her head.

I took the tram up the coast to the end of the line, to Fleetwood, the country’s first planned new town in the Victorian era. I visited the old Custom House, a grade II listed building which houses the local museum and learned about the town’s fishing industry.

Fleetwood’s deep-sea trawler fleet fished the North Atlantic from Newfoundland to Russia. Two galleries tell the story of the fishermen and the harsh conditions they endured to bring home their catches. Trawler nets, bobbins and fishing gear were all on display. One of the museum’s volunteers told me about his school holidays on a trawler at the age of eight, working alongside the men, often in appalling condition.

A life size statue in bronze of a mother and daughter and their dog, looking out across the bay stands on the seafront. This “Welcome Home” statue celebrates the heroic lives of Fleetwood’s fishermen and families. At low tide the sands are exposed for miles out into Morecambe Bay, and on a clear day the Lake District hills can be seen in the distance.

Sandstone steps swirled in a graceful curve
Elegant sandstone steps swirled in a graceful curve

From there I took the ferry across the River Wyre and walked through the brine fields of Knott End, a circular six-mile walk across the coastal plain. Extensive deposits of rock salt were found below the surface in the 1890s and extracted by pumping fresh water down bore holes to dissolve it. Many of the well-heads can be seen in the fields today.

I returned by tram to Blackpool for a firework display and more bright lights and then took refuge in my darkened hotel room. The next morning I woke early. A cooked breakfast odour was wafting through my window.

I wanted to walk on a deserted beach, dip my toes in the sea and breathe in the fresh sea air.

Simple pleasures among the dazzle
Simple pleasures among the dazzle

The sun was rising behind the seafront hotels as I walked down the elegant sandstone steps which swirled in a graceful curve from one pier to the next. The tide was out and a seagull was peering at its reflection in a silver pool. At the water’s edge, the wind was catching the top of the breaking waves and blowing up pure white wisps of spray. The sun was lighting up the sand and turning it golden.

A group of children were running in and out of the waves, laughing. A horse box was unloading donkeys. There were still simple pleasures to be enjoyed among the dazzle.

I turned and looked back at the seafront. Its colours were muted, a mere silhouette lit up by the rising sun. This was Blackpool’s best illumination, I decided. I would have to travel a lot further north to get anything better.

(Photographs were taken by the author and supplied after the competition had been judged.)