Seaside postcard: Blackpool Britain's most popular seaside resort isn't quite as popular as it once was. Gone are the days when Lancashire milltowns decamped to the Golden Mile for Wakes Week, and long past is the time when millions of Britons preferred the Irish Sea coast to the Med. But I'd never been to Blackpool before, so I thought it was about time I found out what I've been missing. The seafront swarmed with hens and stags, the town was crawling with festival-goingpunk rockers, and the sun shone all weekend (until it was time to catch the train home). For a couple of days at least, Blackpool rocked.
The Golden Mile: One thing you soon learn on visiting Blackpool is how long it is. Far longer than Brighton, much longer than Great Yarmouth, more like ten Weston Super-Mares all bolted together. You'll be at one end of the town (say the Tower) wanting to get to the other (say the Pleasure Beach), and you'll sigh as you realise just how far away it is. You could get a bus, or more enjoyably atram, if your feet aren't up to the journey. There are horse-drawn landaus, at a price, if you fancy clopping your way from pierhead to pierhead, or perhaps a mobility scooter is the way to go. But more enjoyable to walk, at least the first few times, until the whole thing starts to become more of a regular ordeal. The northern end of the Golden Mile is all about beer, food and entertainment. Some bars advertise themselves as hen-friendly, others prefer to aim for the thick-waisted family audience. Smiley reps hang around near the Central Pier trying to flog wristbands to weekend trippers, while one amusement arcade attempts to lure punters inside with a 10p cuppa. Further south the Mile turns to hotels and guest houses - the mere tip of an accommodation iceberg stretching back for several streets behind. This being August, the town's famous illuminations are already hanging across the street awaiting the big switch-on next month. They run in themed chunks - Hawaiian girls here, mermaids there, even some Tardises and a big gold dalek. Alan Carr's turning them on, which probably gives you a fairly good clue as to whether the event's worth attending or not. And the lights run not just for a golden mile but for a glittering six, because Blackpool really is very long indeed.
The Tower: There's a lot more to Blackpool Tower than just the Tower. They don't sell tickets for a quick ride to the top and back oh no, you have to negotiate your way through the entire complex, at £12 a time, before you find the 6th floor lift. First the ground floor aquarium, which is the oldest part of the complex and quite frankly looks it. Far more impressive is the legendary Tower Ballroom, home to many a Come Dancing final, which fair takes the breath away as you first step inside. It's a huge space with ornate ceiling and scalloped balconies, below which clusters of tables are arranged around a central dancefloor. The on-stage organist holds court, announcing each rumba and quickstep to entice the surrounding couples up for a twirl. They don't need much of an excuse. Up they come to display their talents, gliding as a simultaneous whole before slipping back to their tables for a welcome cup of tea and slice of cake. For many, this is retirement heaven.
For other visitors, there's still a motley sequence of additional rooms to trawl through. The Jurassic Walk, for example, where a selection of unconvincing animatronic dinosaurs growl at passers by along a dimly-lit back passage. Then there's the Charlie Cairoli exhibition, in memory of the Tower Circus's most famous clown (does the the present incumbent, Mooky, have his own CBBC show? I think not). There's a restaurant with all the least appealing features of a provincial department store cafeteria, as well as a seaview terrace (currently with a really dreadful sea view while the promenade is dug up and the town's flood defences strengthened). And finally there's the lift, running once every five minutes, to crank you up through the rusty metal frame to the observation platforms above. There are four elevated storeys to explore - linked by ancient spiral staircase - three of them open to the elements with only a metal mesh for protection. I was most fortunate with the weather, enjoying fine viewsacrossBlackpool to the Lake District and Liverpool, but not quite as far as the Isle of Man.
The Piers: Blackpool's the only seaside resort in Britain with three piers. The South Pier used to be the posh one, but the burnt-out Royal Pavilion has been replaced by a white knuckle ride and the Regal Theatre is now an amusement arcade. Central Pier is a cast iron affair with a Ferris Wheel at the centre and a funfair at the end. But the oldest, and most elegant, is the North Pier which dates back to the summer of 1863. Still the perfect spot for a leisurely promenade, there's a theatre and carousel at the far end and a mass ofrusting legs underneath.
The Beach: Once you've seen Blackpool's sandy beach, you'll wonder why you ever put up with Brighton's pebbly foreshore. Miles of golden sand, stretching so far down to the sea at low tide that there'd be plenty of room for everyone even if everyone turned up. But the tide's not out forever. It creeps in surprisingly fast, gradually rising up the beach until the Irish Sea is beating against the sea wall and newly-installed stepped terrace. Desperate children might find one last tiny patch of sand to defend, but overtopping is inevitable and that's the entire beach vanished for a couple of hours. I'm sure those are the hours that proprietors along the Golden Mile enjoy the most.