Irma Thomas

An A-Z Journey Around Britain

42 Southport

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Louis Napoleon Bonaparte lived in Southport between 1846 and 1848. After his Merseyside exile he returned to France to become Emperor. In Lancashire–Where Women Die Of Love the author Charles Nevin claims that Lord Street was the inspiration for the boulevards of Paris. As the French influence in Louisiana is obvious, perhaps Southport can be described as New Orleans with a lot less jazz. Many years ago I thought about buying a flat on Lord Street. If I had known about the presence and fate of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, I would have paid the deposit.

Southport is seventeen miles from Liverpool. I live halfway between the city and the town. From where I live to Southport there is a line of sand dunes.  Most of it is now maintained as a nature reserve. The locals of Southport are called ‘sandgrounders’.

My parents thought Southport posh. The people of Southport think the same when they stare up the coast at the visible Blackpool Tower. Foreign travel meant that Southport lost previous middle class appeal. Southport lacks the hedonistic edge of Blackpool but now the two resorts are both dependent on brief visits from working class tourists. In season the mood in the town is more vibrant than in the past.

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Vikings dominated the early history of Southport. The Vikings did enough for the settlement of Otermigle to be recorded in the Domesday Book as consisting of 50 huts and 200 people. Sounds as if it was quite refined, even then.

Southport has a disproportionate share of the affluent and the elderly in its population. 10,000 of its 90,000 population are over 70 years old. The affluence ensures that Southport does not have a Labour MP.  But the town, despite local protests, is described as part of Merseyside, albeit its extreme tip, and the Tory candidate finished almost 7000 votes behind the Liberal Democrat MP.

The Tories console themselves by playing golf. Not sure what they do with all the sand but Birkdale Golf Club hosts the Open Championship. When not playing golf, the locals may struggle to find excitement. New Orleans had jazzman Louis Armstrong and it still has rhythm and blues great Irma Thomas. Southport has a lawnmower museum, although it is the only one in the UK. Apart from lawnmowers there is a theatre that offers nostalgic therapy or seaside novocaine.

Each year the Air Show boosts tourism, and so does the Orange Day Parade. The town has suffered serious vandalism during the latter. It may mean a stiff neck, and jet engines are noisy, but the locals prefer the Air Show.

Southport became a resort and something more than a Viking legacy after local innkeeper William Sutton built a bathhouse in 1792. The inn kept by Sutton still exists. It is called the Hesketh Arms and serves decent food and cask ales. Both the pub and the tasteful and impressive Wayfarers Arcade should be visited. I do not need to be intoxicated, though, to walk Lord Street and imagine Louis Napoleon Bonaparte sipping cognac near the flat I almost bought, a potential Emperor musing about what he could do to match the exploits of his famous uncle.

Next week, an Elvis impersonator and fish and chips, Staithes

Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. His 11,000 mile journey around Brazil is described in Innocent Mosquitoes. His latest book and compilation of horror stories is called Nightmares Ahead. Published by Red Rattle Books and praised by critics, it is available here.

If you want to read more about his travels click here.

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An A-Z Journey Around Britain

12 Colne, Lancashire

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Dickens understood that authentic smiles distinguish the sinister from the sincere and the flawed from the steadfast. Tory Chancellor, George Osborne, is devious rather than upright. In his budget he gave a grant of £580,000 to Colne to refurbish the local theatre. Osborne is generous to Tory constituencies. Colne has a hippie reputation and is sneered at elsewhere in East Lancashire but shares the same Tory MP. The theatre was known as the Municipal Hall but is now called the Muni. The Osborne largesse may be coincidental but it feels like Northern history is being rewritten.

Colne Municipal Hall was, and the Muni is, the main venue in the annual Colne Rhythm and Blues Festival. Although the Festival has been voted the best Blues Festival in Europe, the more famous blues performers have appeared outside the Festival. Apart from regular visits to the Festival, I have also seen, in Colne, Bobby Bland, Irma Thomas, Albert King, Corey Harris and others.   In the decent Italian restaurant, Carlos, I sat at a table next to Otis Clay. I observed a great soul singer relax in a Lancashire mill town.

Located in the valleys of East Lancashire, the town is close to good hill walking. In Central Mexico volcanoes can be seen from every city. Boulesworth Hill does not compare but Colne was the first Lancashire town to win Walkers Are Welcome status. Wycoller Hall is one of the highlights on the nearby 45 mile Pendle Way. Wycoller was the model for Fearndean Manor in the essential Jane Eyre. The Brontes lived just across the border in the picturesque Yorkshire village of Haworth. The ruin of their home is also a feature of a fine walk.

In the 70s, Colne was listed in a guide to alternative Britain. Despite the interest of George Osborne, the hippie influence remains. Most shoppers who visit the town are interested in the factory outlet, Boundary Mill, but there is no shortage of New Age shops and incense and crystal balls. A tourist guide describes Jim’s Vegetarian as hippie and bohemian. It has a fine wood burning stove. Chronic Daze is devoted to ‘smoking and tobacco paraphernalia’, which must have made the police suspicious. But in January 2015 there was only one arrest for a drug offence in Colne, so Mr Daze must be an innocent tobacconist. Kelly Marie, the local medium and ‘psychic messenger’, avoids ambiguity. She provides an ‘angelic welcome’ to all.

Unemployment in East Lancashire is below the UK average. The term Enterprise Zone is often oxymoronic but the East Lancashire Enterprise Estate has attracted 27 businesses. In 1891 there were 31 cotton mills in Colne and a population of 26,000. By 1971 and just before the hippies arrived, the population had fallen to 19,000. It is the same today.

Wallace Hartley was the bandleader on the Titanic. Born in Colne, he would have known the gritstone of the Pennines. Hartley inspires because his band continued to play when facing certain death. In the classic film about the Titanic disaster, A Night To Remember, Hartley lost his gritty Lancashire accent and became a Cockney. Ah, well.

Next week, the town that built a Rolls Royce for Elvis, Crewe

Howard Jackson has had three books published by Red Rattle Books. His 11,000 mile journey around Brazil is described in Innocent Mosquitoes. His next book is a compilation of horror stories and is called Nightmares Ahead. It will be available in Spring 2015.

If you want to read more about his travels click here.