For those of us who live up north, Blackpool will have been an integral part of your childhood. Visits to the Pleasure Beach (still one of the best funfairs in the country), walks down the piers- all three of them, picnics on the sands (award winning sands – Blackpool South has been awarded a Blue Flag for the past three years – the only beach in the North West to achieve this, whilst Blackpool North and Blackpool Central beaches both hold Seaside Awards), donkey rides on the beach, candyfloss, a trip up the Tower and of course the obligatory stick of Blackpool Rock, still made and mostly eaten in the resort. And, if all that wasn’t enough, every year the seaside season was extended with the ‘switch on’ of the illuminations.
For those who lived within easy travelling distance of the resort the ‘lights’ were something to look forward to every year when Blackpool was (and still is) transformed into a vision of twinkling lights and animated tableaux. Pick your brothers up with your Mum and Dad after school, drive through the lights and share a bag of chips; Sunday School coach trips through the lights then share a bag of chips; Dad parks up at the North Pier and takes Mum, you and your sister for a walk through the lights and then share a bag of chips!
We followed our northern family traditions and spent many a happy evening at the ‘lights’ with the kids -sometimes joining the queue of cars, sometimes walking; taking the kids in their pyjamas and slippers (just in case it ended up a late night!) and almost always ending with a bag of chips in the car on the way home.
Here we are many years later (many, many years!) and imagine our delight when quite by accident we discovered Blackpool Council ran heritage visits to the Lightwork’s workshop – home of the illuminations. A chance to tour the place where the actual lights are designed, created, repaired and looked after and all for just £8 a ticket!
With absolutely no preconceptions of the visit at all (but a great deal of excitement!) we arrived at the Lightworks on a stormy Saturday in April – cameras in hand as always, unsure of how much we would see or be able to photograph.
A brief, but very detailed, introduction to the history and heritage of the lights was the first of many surprises that day.
Who knew that Blackpool was probably the first place to install electric street lights, ‘artificial sunshine’ as they were known, when back in 1879 8 arc lamps were installed on the prom? Its easy to imagine what a big event this must have been bringing in almost 100,000 visitors from across the country to visit the seaside resort.
The early days of the illuminations began in May 1912 with a royal visit by Princess Louise to open the new prom. The prom was decorated with over 10,000 bulbs and once again bought in many thousands of visitors. The event was so popular the council decided to repeat it the following September and so the ‘lights’ were born. Apart from two breaks during the two Wars the illuminations have extended Blackpool’s tourist season for 6-8 weeks each year ever since.
Surprise number 2 was the actual size of the displays. Standing adjacent to one it is hard to imagine how they stay up particularly during months of the year which can bring some stormy weather across the sea!
Guided round the Lightworks by a very knowledgeable couple of volunteers, we followed the process from design to storage; visiting areas of the workshop where cutting, designing, painting and much more take place. We saw the 100-year-old drill still in use, boxes and boxes of parts and lamps (don't ever call them bulbs!), tableaux beginning to take form, old signs, lights in various stages of renovations and lots and lots of lamps (not bulbs!). There was time to try out the actual handle used to switch on the lights (six degrees of separation time – lets work out how many celebrity hands we followed….), marvel at the size of the building and its contents, venture into dark corners to see long forgotten light displays and finally as the tour approached its end wander up and down the aisles between hundreds of displays currently resident in the workshop.
There was great excitement and gasps of oohs and aahs as everyone spotted familiar characters – a rush to the Tardis and the Daleks, SpongeBob hiding in a dark corner. Alice in Wonderland, Noddy and whatever we call ‘Big Ears’ now, pirates, ghosts, motorcyclists. Some standing up some lying down. I’m not going to lie here it was wonderful!
We visited as a family of five ‘grown ups’ and had the most magical afternoon. There was something so exciting and special about being in and around the illuminations; designs you remembered (looking very different to the last time you saw them!), characters you love (in very unusual settings!) and a general feeling amongst you and your fellow visitors of excitement, happiness and almost disbelief at your surroundings. The guides were friendly, interesting and fun with a wealth of fascinating stories which kept us all entertained. We found out so much – the Walt Disney connection, rumours of Hitler’s interest in Blackpool, the history, the cost and much more. I don’t think we have ever seen a better use of £8 with our ticket providing us with such a wonderful couple of hours.
So, did we manage to get any photos? Did we have to furtively sneak the cameras/phones out to try and capture all that we were seeing? In the tradition of saving the best until last, I am delighted to tell you that photography was encouraged and what a place to take your camera! Though at certain times of the year, especially when new designs are being built, some areas may have photographic limitations. I could have stayed there all day and still not had enough time to capture everything I could see. As the tour was relatively small and the building was so big you had space and time and opportunity after opportunity to take the most amazing photographs. I genuinely think without a doubt that this was the best photo afternoon I have ever had and by the look on the faces of all our fellow tour-ees (is that even a word?!) I think they would agree.
By now you can probably guess we cannot recommend this tour highly enough and the best part is there are four more this year (2019) for you to book on. Visit www.heritageblackpool.co.uk for all the details. You won’t be disappointed!
“Oh, there is a light that never goes out
There is a light that never goes out….”
There is a Light That Never Goes Out - The Smiths
Life and other