As a kid growing up in the North of England, Blackpool was our closest seaside day out. Now, in Southwest France, it's Biarritz. Find out here a little more about what makes the two places unique and how they tell two very different stories.
Blackpool and its tower (top left); family on Blackpool prom many moons ago (top right); Biarritz lighthouse (middle left); Biarritz Grand Plage (middle right); Basque coast beyond Biarritz (bottom left); playing the 2p machines in Blackpool (bottom right)
England's answer to France's Eiffel Tower
Broken to Blue Flag
For as long as I can remember, as kids on New Year's Day we'd take a 50 minute family drive to the coast from Manchester to Blackpool. It was our local seaside spot and known to all Northerners. It was also a place known to my international students and always on their list of places to visit whilst studying in the North of England. As teachers and somehow guardians, our slight amusement at the thought of cameras out for pictures of drunken stag parties and donkey poo was perhaps unfair but our tips for tourist attractions would always come with a warning to perhaps leave before the late hours when pile-on fights and smashed bottles were known to take over the promenade bars. But despite this slightly dark side, Blackpool is undoubtedly a town full of history, it was the place to be seen in Victorian England, and has recently undergone a lot of regeneration, largely thanks to EU funding. Owing to EU regulations on beaches and water quality gone are the days of floating faeces in the dirty brown waters and step-stoning between polystyrene chip plates on the sand. Those of us who grew up in the eighties will remember the disgusting state of Blackpool beach, but it was all we had so we loved/ hated it all the same. In 2016 it was even awarded the prestigious internationally recognised Blue Flag, a guarantee for tourists that the beach and its waters "meet high standards of cleanliness and management, promote coastal environmental care, and have attained the higher guideline standard of water quality" (Lancashire Gov, 2019). It was really quite something of a transformation for the crumbling seaside town. Sadly, standards have recently slipped and they no longer hold this accolade but will reapply again in 2020. The EU has also poured £14 million into various projects to restore key landmarks such as the Winter Gardens, an historic entertainment venue dating back to 1878, and the iconic Blackpool Tower, famous for its glamorous ballroom and enduring circus; it is England's answer to France's Eiffel Tower.
In Victorian times, Blackpool beach would be full to bursting with ladies in frilly swimsuits, men in striped trousers, white handkerchiefs on heads and babies in classic prams, wheels stuck in sand. In 1885 one of the world's first electrical tramways was launched and it remains the only surviving original tramway in the UK and one of just three with double decker trams - the others are in Hong Kong and Alexandria, Egypt (Visit Blackpool, 2019). It was partly here that English seaside traditions surely began: cockles in cups; sticks of rock that rip your teeth out; fish and chips; a stroll along 'the prom' to 'blow away the cobwebs' (mostly freezing your face off 'til your eyes water so much you can't see and your skin tingles blue); extortionately priced 5 minute donkey rides on the beach; finding out your fortune from a palm reader hidden behind a red velvet curtain adorned with photos of when Ken Dodd visited her in 1982 and Princess Diana some years after (maybe, maybe not); buying a postcard you'd rarely write or send; and having fun on the funfair rides, reaching the top of the rollercoaster to, just for a moment before you drop, marvel at all the glory of the three piers stretching out into the sea and the grey (if you're lucky, blue) big sky above it all. These were all my memories of this seaside town and would be the memories I'd share with my students as we ventured onto the Pleasure Beach and snapped selfies along the promenade. Read more here about English seaside traditions.
...that oh-so-satisfactory sound of the clink of coins in the collection point
Of course, a trip to Blackpool today cannot be complete without the obligatory visit to the arcade, usually Coral Island with the big parrot on top and pirate ride inside. No other games will be played except for the 2p machines where you will inevitably lose at least a fiver but for those few moments when you watch the metal move and push the coins off the edge to hear that oh-so-satisfactory sound of the clink of coins in the collection point at the bottom of the machine and you know that you've won, it is so worth it. Wait for the perfect moment, coin poised at the slot, and go, roll down, first ledge, will it push those much needed few pieces off to muster up some might to shove the mass over the edge and into your waiting hands? Nope - it's gone down the side again. Back to the change machine to fill the plastic pot again and try with new hope. Gambling is addictive kids - remember to give the kids a limit - unless you're with Nanna and Grandad AKA Purse and Wallet then go for it, kids - shove the coins in, do a full arcade 2 penny crawl and try them all - and don't forget to check the silver slots along the way for those magical moments when you find a 2p that dropped of its own accord, a diamond just waiting for you to find it and restore it to its rightful place - nope, not your pocket, but in the machine with the rest of its mates - very few actually make it out beyond the arcade doors. On our recent trip to Biarritz, my 6 year old daughter had us walk every street looking for a 2p machine but alas, we did not find it. Of course it would be centimes in any case, but Biarritz does not seem the place where many hold pennies in their pockets. The glitzy casino that frames the shore there is certainly not for kids in scruffy tracksuits falling over themselves to win not just a few pennies but also the pink plastic flamingo keyring glittering just at the edge of the pile. No, Biarritz is a completely different story.
As we strolled the streets of glitz-filled Biarritz at the start of this new year 2020, Phill and I asked ourselves the same question - where are the homeless people? France, like England, is a capitalist country with its own share of inequality, though perhaps not yet quite as pronounced as in Great Britain. Unfortunately, it is now an expectation in our broken-by-capitalism so often no-longer-quite-communities that the streets of any major tourist town or city will be filled with those who've fallen on unfortunate times (or been squeezed out of the impenetrable system as it is in the UK). But in Biarritz, we saw nobody sitting on cold stone steps apart from a few chattering children chewing on churros - the Spanish and the Basque influence is of course all around this French holiday haven. Perhaps they had been pushed away from the main tourist stomping grounds? You certainly wouldn't find them adorning the designer shop doors where a pair of loafers could quite easily set a gentleman back €550, not to mention the lacy lingerie boutiques and the artists' oil paintings with hefty price tags. Art is still a big thing in Biarritz and brightly painted paintings hang in windows along the streets, dazzling onlookers with crystal blue waves, colourful contemporary surfboards standing in a row, and the famous stripy beach huts ('cabines de plage' in French) of the Grand Plage. Biarritz is undoubtedly a place with money. Palm trees frame traditional Basque house patios, and black ornate railings wrap around juliet balconies of beautifully well-kept pavilions. Teenagers' walking is done on wheels - either on scooters or on skateboards. The sea (which of course is not the sea but in fact the ocean, but for we Englanders will always be the sea because saying the ocean feels weird and somehow American) is scattered with surfers. Lying there in wait, bobbing up and down like basking sharks dotting the wave line, they cooly and collectively await the perfect wave. Like sharks with time to flitter for the perfect bite, the surfers are in no hurry, they emanate coolness, a Californianesque class of coolness.
Le musée de la mer
Biarritz's answer to Blackpool Tower is probably the "Phare de Biarritz" (the lighthouse). Built in 1834, it sits proudly 73m above the sea, oh OK, ocean surface overlooking Hainsart Cape. Around the coastal road on the tip pointing out opposite the lighthouse, after the Grand Plage, you can find Biarritz's beautiful aquarium, a building that is sadly perhaps quite aptly called "Le musée de la mer" (the museum of the sea). The aquarium allows you to marvel at the creatures of the Mediterranean, punctuated by a viewing of the seals who can be seen lazing around in their little enclosure, even snoring their heads off as one was doing on our visit. Then, it is on to the treasures of the tropics ending with the obligatory tunnel of sharks and stingrays soaring through the water over your heads. Perhaps it is with the news of the fires raging in Australia and the Amazon and the sea creatures washing up on oil-soaked shores with bellies full of our plastic waste that led me and Phill this time to appreciate the aquarium in a way perhaps we haven't before. It is definitely sad to see the sea creatures butted up against the glass eyeing you with looks of 'please let me out' similar to those locked in zoo pens too small for any living being - but that is an argument for another time. Strolling around the imprisoning but also protecting tanks were all the planet's incredible creations, so many of which are now close to extinction. The walls next to the whale and dolphin display told the story of the evolution of man's methods for the capturing and killing of the oceans' greatest mammals and fish. It was a sad and terrifying tale to be sure - one developed and grown beyond sustainable levels in the pursuit of pieces of paper to pay the bills and/ or buy more stuff. After reading about the demise of turtles brought about by them being trapped in endless fishing nets, or through pollution and the continual degradation and destruction of their natural habitats, I looked at the sad eyes of the turtle that brushed up to the glass to stare straight at us and said my silent sorry. All this death is so unnecessary. My daughter Stefanie dragged us out of our daze by demanding we leave and search for 2p machines (listen carefully to the sea video and you will hear her!) but as we left the aquarium I thought how sadly accurate the name of it was - the museum of the sea - holding so many beautiful beings that not long from now could become relics of an unappreciated and much abused past available to be seen only in museums, the houses of history. That said, if you are in Biarritz, with or without kids, the aquarium should be on your list.
Snoring seal at the aquarium (listen carefully for my daughter asking to go to the 2p machines)
It definitely isn't Biarritz but it's our Blackpool and it will forever hold a place in every Northerner's heart.
It must have a lot to do with the climate as well but the coastal towns of the continent just don't seem to compare to the often litter-filled ghost-towns of the UK. Some of the paintwork in Biarritz is quite literally golden. Blackpool in comparison has eight of the ten most deprived areas in England (The English Indices of Deprivation 2015), and the deprivation is evident the second you step back from the done-up promenade into the paint-peeling run-down B&Bs housing those facing the harshest of society's outcasting, and a severe lack of government investment. The European Union also stepped in here with The More Positive Together programme attempting to help individuals improve their employability and get them back into the labour market through various counselling and training schemes. However, looking around at the people huddled by the bins in Blackpool doesn't really fly the flags for shouting the scheme has been in any way a success. So, as Brits fully conditioned by the expectation of seeing northern seaside resorts long forgotten by central governments, eroded by decades of neglect and a dumping ground for all those humans who the rulers decided are not worth worrying about, we were confused by the lack of homeless people in Biarritz. Don't believe me about the sad situation of Blackpool, then look at the life expectancy of those living there compared to other parts of the country, it is much lower (Boseley, 2018) - there is a good article by the Financial Times here which sums up the situation: "Blackpool exports healthy skilled people and imports the unskilled, the unemployed and the unwell. As people overlooked by the modern economy wash up in a place that has also been left behind, the result is a quietly unfolding health crisis" (O'Connor, 2017). In a recent trip to Blackpool with my German friend (Blackpool was on her bucket list for places to visit in England), we both knowingly smiled at each other at the end of the new Blackpool Tower Eye 4D experience that takes you on a tour around the town through the eyes of a very well dressed middle-class family of four complete with mum with flowery, flowy-out skirt and sandy blonde, blue-eyed white shirt son. As the experience came to an end, I looked at her and the same thoughts were on our lips: "Have you ever seen anyone that looks like that in Blackpool?" Not really. In Biarritz maybe, but not in Blackpool. And yet, some of the biggest hearted people I've met in my life have come from that seaside town and though I might cringe when my students say they want to go there, I feel proud pacing the chewing gum-covered pavements of the promenade and explaining the quirky English traditions we live out there in all their terrible yet tremendous tackiness and general lack of taste. It definitely isn't Biarritz but it's our Blackpool and it will forever hold a place in every Northerner's heart. Long live the age-old game as you reach the outer limits and your mum shouts: "A quid for anyone who spots the tower first!" - cue frantically pointing at every pylon for miles around. Our kids might live in France and they might only be 4 and 6 but already a trip to the coast for them means fish and chips and 2p machines - Northern souls forever!
Boseley, S. October, 2018. Early death rate in deprived Blackpool 'twice that of the most affluent areas'. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/oct/25/early-death-rate-in-deprived-blackpool-twice-that-of-the-most-affluent-areas
English Indices of Deprivation. 2015. Available at: https://democracy.blackpool.gov.uk/documents/s10400/Appendix%2010a%20Blackpool%20Deprivation%20Report.pdf
Lancashire gov, November 2019. Bathing water quality summary. Available at: https://www.lancashire.gov.uk/lancashire-insight/environment/bathing-water-quality/
O'Connor, S. November, 2017. Left behind: can anyone save the towns the economy forgot? Financial Times. Available at: https://www.ft.com/blackpool
Visit Blackpool. 2019. Trams through the ages. Available at: https://www.visitblackpool.com/find-out-why/trams-through-the-ages-(1)/