Friday, 8 October 2010

A Weekend in Blackpool and the Cow of Shame

Raining Blackpool Tower
In Blackpool for the weekend? Is it throwing it down and have your plans to go to Stanley Park, the Zoo and to bury each other on the beach been deflated quicker than an inflatable doll straying into Iranian waters? Well this is a story of how we had a good time in Blackpool, in questionable weather, helped by the Cow of Shame.

It began on a rainy Friday morning as we woke up far too early, got dressed in pre-selected clothes and prepared to exit the door of the house. The taxi had arrived early and was ready to meander its way to Belfast City Airport with us in the back. Completely ready, and with a minute to spare, it was time to go. We were eager to get going and for once, just once, I wasn't in a mad rush as I went to put my bag on my back.

*insert panic*

On the plus side, half of my bag did stay attached by its straps to my back. Sadly, for my weekend luggage needs, the other half of the bag hit the floor. The zip holding it together had split and a frantic few minutes followed which, in retrospect, was very maybe a little too heavy in unintentional innuendo: phrases like "pull it like this" and "'you hold that end and tug it hard... no, harder!" We gave up.

There was only one bag of correct size and in easy reach to accommodate my garments and gadgets for the trip. That bag was Norngirl's small spare case (which she wasn't using as she'd used my spare case!) and from the walk to the taxi from the front door this became known as the "Cow of Shame":

Cow of Shame

Cow of shame in hand, we arrived at the automated check in and got our boarding passes.  We passed through to security and the cow of shame was living up to its new-found reputation, as I had to carry it into a small room to be swabbed and analysed. Once released out into the pastures again, we had made it to the café and, with cup of tea in hand, Norngirl found the weather forecast for us. It wasn't looking good. Our itinerary was about to be washed away. Compared to a previous visit when the new changes were still being made, I can vouch that the airport is running a lot smoother and is more comfortable than when it wasn't quite finished. The flight to Manchester and train ride sailed by and we found ourselves unloading our bags at the Bed and Breakfast and heading into town.

First things first and food and caffeine was on the menu. For me on the biggest island on the UK that means a Gregg's pasty and Bavarian slice - my guilty pleasure from my student days. Starbucks was the next port of call, not somewhere I really enjoy as I don't like the smell or taste of coffee but in our case 4 of our 5 strong party of 20 some-things want to head there for the Central Perk-like feel and drinks. In Starbucks we chose to head to the tourist information where we would draw up new plans.

The Blackpool tourist information centre is located by the town hall, up the street that leads on to the entrance of the North Pier. In there we were met by lots of leaflets and signs for local shows and attractions. The obvious attractions to partake of whilst it was wet included the tower, which we didn't know was £7 excluding the circus for the Friday (and jumped to £17 for an adult including the circus by Sunday!), so we ruled that out at the time for being too expensive for us, as we believed it to be around £14. The next options were to head to the Sea Life Centre, the Waxworks Museum, or to spend some time shopping/around the arcades and cafés on the piers. For that afternoon we chose to take up the offer in the Tourist Information place to buy Blackpool Sea Life Centre tickets for a little cheaper, though in retrospect had we known we were heading to it we would have bought them online where its cheaper still.

After a quick walk down the front in the rain, we made our way down to the Sea Life Centre. The sky and sea that we could glimpse over the construction works on the promenade merged into one big grey band, so it was nice to step into the bright entrance with a huge aquarium full of all kinds of tropical fish.

In the Centre, as you can imagine, there are lots of lifeforms that dwell in water. Lifeforms from around the globe in some funky tanks. I keep goldfish at home - well, just 1 goldfish (Dean) at the moment, for as you might have read on my twitter updates Sam is now sadly swimming in the 'seafterlife' - but because I realise how tricky it can be maintaining a simple tank, not even on public display, I'm always amazed by the tanks in Sea Life Centres and other aquariums. I love the shoreline tank with the buoy that acts as a wave machine and the big shark tank that you can walk through, watching the sharks glide over your head. The creatures of the deep are hypnotic in their movement and almost otherworldly at times and I really enjoyed my visit this time, as I always did when we went there when I was younger.

Sea life I learned quite a few facts about fish and, unlike when I was a child, in body as well as mind, I'll probably remember it this time rather than forgetting what I heard by the time I saw the Pyrite (fools gold) in the gift shop. Actually, I say "fish", but watching an episode of QI later, it was said that most fish aren't that closely related to each other and so aren't really "fish" per say, so I should probably say I learned some new facts about sea life. Facts like the reason as to why Rays perform their inquisitive 'Oh Hai' waving is because the creature is intrigued and smelling the air. They pick up on the smells such as perfume or body odour of the people at the side of the tank.

Once we'd had enough underwater adventure we headed back to the B&B to prepare to head out. We were greeted by a surprise appearance from Norngirl's aunty who was staying with her fiancé in the same B&B. The clouds had stopped leaking and we walked to the Frankie and Bennys restaurant on Rigby Road, located a stone's throw from Bloomfield Road (home of Blackpool Football Club), which was looking a lot smarter than last time I was down that way about 10 years ago. The food was good but I couldn't eat it all.

Full up, we then wandered down to outside the main entrance of the Pleasure Beach, where there was a random Vegas-style fountain called 'Venus Reborn', which it turns out was opened just over 2 years ago by Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen.

Venus Reborn Fountain Blackpool

Venus Reborn Fountain Blackpool

It was a nice build-up to the rest of the lights. We didn't bother heading all the way down to Star Gate and, as we were shattered from the early morning start, we flung ourselves on a tram to Bispham and viewed the golden mile from the tramlines, occasionally being blinded by the famous boat and train illumination trams.

Blackpool Tram Back to the Future 3

Blackpool Illuminations Egyptian Mummy

Blackpool Illuminations bearAt Bispham tram station we made use of the toilets before walking back down past the big illuminations, many of which were the same as those I used to be wowed by the best part of 2 decades ago. The Road Safety Bears were still there but, due to recent soft-toys-in-fridge adverts, seemed rather more sinister... would you join their party?

My old favourite, the Mummy, was still there, as were the hickory-dickory-dock clock, Noddy, Alice in Wonderland scenes, the motorcycle jumper and the 4 seasons. In amongst some oldies though were several newer ones I'd not seen before such as the pirates, Haunted Blackpool, a giant Robbie Williams video advert, a temple and best of all a Tardis and Dalek.

Blackpool Illuminations Winter

Blackpool Illuminations Dr Who Tardis

With tired feet and eyes, we got another tram back to the B&B, ready to sleep off our fatigue ready for the Pleasure Beach on Saturday.

Seagulls and Central PierThankfully the rain held off on Saturday and in the morning we even had the joy of walking the prom from Central Pier to the Pleasure Beach in glorious sunshine.

As we did I called my dad to say hi. There was a huge queue to collect the wristbands that we'd bought online but when we arrived we had entered through the Casino building and were directed to a much shorter queue at the ticket office to the Globe. Within minutes we were excitedly passing through security gates and loitering in the queues for the rides.

Blackpool Pleasure Beach has changed a little since last I was there.  It's been a fair few years but then the log flume and american football style dodgems were still there, whereas now in their respective places are fountains and the rollercoaster Infusion. The Rollercoaster was also out of action, possibly due to the construction of Nickelodeon Land. The Turtlechase and Whip have also gone, which is quite a shame, especially the whip which was a really fun ride. But never fear: it turns out that the Whip and some other older rides from the Pleasure Beach, as well as rides from the now-closed Morecambe's Frontierland and Pleasureland Southport, have been donated to somewhere I have to go someday, if and when it reopens... Margate Dreamland.

Back on track though and we were having a great time, being flung, spun, rolled, soaked and dried on as many rides in the park as we had time to queue for. As expected there were some quite full queues which meant a half hour wait for some of the most popular rides but that probably wasn't helped by the fact a few rides like the Pepsi Max Big One were out of action for the day due to repairs.

Valhalla was as awesome and wet as ever.  I still miss the big electricity bolt part that was part of the ride when it first opened, but apart from that the rest of the effects are largely still there, and are as fun as they were on the first ride. In order to stay partially dry the need to buy a waterproof poncho before boarding is almost a must, but that's part of the brilliant fun of that ride: everyone gets a soaking and everyone is equally thrown into the experience, no matter where you sit. As for the other rides, I really liked Infusion, which I went on for the first time, as I never got to Southport where it was known as the Traumatizer.

Infusion Blackpool Pleasure Beach

Big Dipper and InfusionI had also forgotten how much fun the Big Dipper was; it might be very old but the ride it gives never gets old.  I'd describe it as being as close to sledging on wheels as you can get. The Ice Blast, formerly the Playstation was, as ever, too short for the wait but a good starter.  I remember when we used to only ever go on that ride to get a peek over the construction barriers at the construction of Valhalla, which at the time was known as Project 2000. Some rides are timeless and the Derby Racer put a smile on our faces, as did the River Caves.

Whilst we were having a whale of a time, my dad called me.  His false pretence was shockingly bad but he then revealed that, since I'd spoken to him earlier, he'd taken a long drive from Yorkshire, so as we passed by the entrance on the monorail, we waved with glee. Off the ride we went to say a proper hello and got our hands stamped on the way out so we could come back in. We caught up for a few minutes but he had to be on his way to get home again and to beat the parking meter. Before he had chance to run away, I gave him a present, which was the photo I'd bought on the Big Dipper of me grinning at the camera with two thumbs up in the air in the cheesiest pose ever.  It just seemed so wrong but so right in the context, given I was also in the very back seat of the back carriage... incidentally the best place to be!

Random family gathering over, we headed back for more fun and frolics, which ended with a ride on Bling, a ride which proved a good way to end another fun theme park experience.  For those who read my blog often, you'll be happy to hear there were no cameraphobic, overzealous security guards whatsoever; this was a photo-friendly park where we didn't meet one grumpy member of staff, even when Valhalla needed a reboot. Kudos to the peeps at BPB - give them a raise!

Blackpool town centre lightsHappy but shattered, and with damp feet, we flumped into a taxi. In the B&B it was a shoe change or, for those unprepared, a pointing-the-hair-dryer-at-the-shoes moment. Hoping to see a show we were staying close to the North Shore that evening and the reputation of the town being taken over at night by Stag and Hen parties is not over-hyped.  It can be a bit much when people are unable to stand properly at 7.30pm but we made our way through the crowds to somewhere that served food. The town at night looks smart though, as it seems a fair bit of money has been thrown at trying to make the town centre a little more friendly, with these large metal sculpted lights and projector stands.

The choice of eatery ended up being a bit of a mistake, as we went to generic branch of a generic cheap bar which serves food on a Saturday night. The décor was nice but unfortunately there was no tea or coffee available; then, once ordered, it was found that one of the meals was out of stock; then two of us got our food but the other two meals didn't arrive until we'd finished ours (even eating very slowly) and a reminder was given to a member of staff.  They did get their food in the end. On the plus side it was cheap, I had a nice pint of Guinness and the steak and ale pie I nommed was rather nice.

Due to our timing heading to what is really a bar, it's somewhat understandable for the slip in service. However what we couldn't fathom was why three girls were setting back the feminist movement 10,000 years. Dressed as cave girls, they were off their heads on something and throwing themselves in ever-increasing desperation at groups of guys on stag parties and pub crawls.When a group of drunken men on a stag do are trying their best to totally ignore a scantily-clad woman, you can kinda get the picture of how bad and cringeworthy this display of no dignity truly was. After managing to hook an equally plastered guy or two, it was a flashmob cabaret that we didn't want to witness any longer and so made tracks.

Our destination was Funny Girls, a drag act cabaret show but sadly when we got there it was standing room only and, after the last two days we'd had, we needed seats so had to give up on that idea. Instead we stocked up on munchies and made a beeline back to our rooms. Kitted out with pyjamas and snacks we chatted and watched TV; Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow came on and, by a twist of fate, it was in Blackpool.  The first comedian wasn't great but the next couple were brilliant and even guessed Norngirl's choice of coat for the trip and aptly mocked my Yorkshire roots. With shows like that who needs to go out anyway?!

Puddle on the tram tracks
Sunday came around far too soon and we woke up to a downpour. We did venture out but darted between amusement arcades, shops and coffee shops, like sea life lower down the food chain scouring for the cover of a rock.

In the end we found ourselves on Central Pier where Norngirl won a soft toy on one of the cuddly toy claw games - maybe I'm just naive but I later found the secret to their inner workings online and the secret is that you're better off buying the things. The fact is that its not a game of skill but a predetermined game of chance involving a counter and to beat it you'd need to stand around all day doing something as fun as counting colours of cars in a not so imaginative maths class and where is the fun in that?

After the sneakiness of the arcades we then went on the Waltzers where three of us in a car spun around every last second of the ride after it had got up to speed; the guy didn't even have to touch us as the Gs were mounting. Still spinning, we swayed our way down the pier and I bought the thing that, while perhaps not as synonymous with Blackpool than a stick of rock, is longer lasting (though that is debatable)... a fridge magnet with a tower and a tram on it.

On the end of Central Pier is a café-sort-of-bar-sort-of-entertainment venue and we sat down in there, looking out of the window at the scene pictured at the start of this post. The brew we had there gave us a little pick-me-up and we spent the rest of the day around the town, in the shops and guzzling tea and coffee like the OAPs in training that we are.

Blackpool sea front

My hunt for a cheap George Formby CDs returned empty; they had the Greatest Hits, which I'll proudly admit to owning, but the others I found were almost double the price you can buy them brand new on the Internet, so alas, I gave up on a bit of 'With my Little Stick of Blackpool Rock' and 'The Blackpool Bell was a Getaway Train', *sigh*

The sun did appear for a quick farewell before we left the 'Vegas of the North' and Norngirl and I had yet another cup of tea in a café on Coronation Street before heading back to wait with our bags for the taxi to the train station.

Blackpool Tower was soon disappearing behind the tree-lined verges of the railway line and I slipped into a chilli fudge coma, before getting sick of the stuff, and we arrived once again at Manchester Airport. From the airport train station, Terminal 3 is a 5-10 minute walk away, so as we traversed the signposted walkways, lifts and undercover footpaths, there was plenty of time for more shaming as the Cow of Shame was grazing again.

We reached check-in but the self-service terminals gave us a ticket asking us to go to the lady at the desk, so we did. Once all the details and formalities were out of the way she asked to see our hand luggage. I gingerly raised the Cow of Shame into plain sight. All I heard was 'Shame' and 'Cow of Shame' The lady asked if I'd had it since I was a child.  Thankfully Norngirl told the truth but an evil glint in her eye seemed to be heading towards a 'Yes' for a moment there. The lady gave me the due and understandable 'Cow of Shame!' and that was the shaming low complete.

We made our way to yet another coffee shop and got a bite to eat before a speedy flight back to Belfast. Though tired, once back in our rented house I really felt like going on another trip or at least travelling again; sadly, work loomed instead.

Blackpool turned out to be great fun, even if the weather wasn't the best the whole time we were there, and if anyone is heading to the Pleasure Beach anytime soon, please make room in your suitcase for me... I'd even ride there in a Cow of Shame!

Blackpool Beach

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