Stephanie Cottle writes the first of her first bi-weekly columns that consider the forms, functions and possibilities of place.
Prior to moving to the area, when I thought of Blackpool my mind would cast back to childhood visits. I’d imagine the muted colours of the Irish Sea, the screech of sea birds and the sharp, delicious taste of salt in the air (and on chips). I suspect these are images that occur to many, especially those who like myself, grew up elsewhere in the North West. For us children of the non-coastal north, the suggestion, ‘Shall we go to Blackpool?’ meant an impromptu 45 minute adventure up the M55, on any weekend the sun gave us a hint that it would stick around for more than a few hours. I’m not sure that I have ever felt a more wholesome and encompassing fatigue than as a child, in the car on the way home to Wigan, bringing back Blackpool sand in my hair.
I’ve lived here seven years now and I still get a pang of excitement to get time at the seafront; spending evenings walking barefoot on the beach, skating on the deliciously smooth Comedy Carpet (if you have never experienced this on wheels you must, there is nothing more satisfying) or perching with the seagulls upon the stairs that cascade in down to greet the briny shore. The ways in which the promenade emphasises our connection to the land and sea is, in my opinion, a beautiful example of how the reconsideration of typical sea defences can dramatically impact the use of space. The regeneration of the promenade that started in 2002 and removed the previously imposing high sea walls has given Blackpool a more accessible seafront.
Of course, accessibility takes many forms and this place is still one where certain negotiations must be made. There are negotiations of steps and ramps, of times and tides and between those who live and work here and those who are here to visit. The absence of the latter throughout the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting lockdown led to a dramatic change on our seafront.
Following advice from the government not to travel by car to scenic spaces a vast number of individuals either purchased new or pulled cobweb-clad bicycles out of garages – myself included. Throughout the pandemic the bicycle has given me easy access to my localities. My relationship with the spaces I have come to know and love whilst living here has been renewed and flourished, as it likely has for many other residents of Blackpool and beyond. I cannot express how grateful I have been for my two wheels, my mobility and the vast open spaces Blackpool generously offers. It has been wonderful for locals to use the promenade so freely and frequently, especially as at this time of year it’s usually one of our most populated spaces.
But the reality is that open space is not a luxury all have been afforded throughout this difficult time. People living in areas with densely built up urban environments or those with accessibility requirements who would require a car to visit open spaces have made huge sacrifices in order to manage the coronavirus reproduction rate. For weeks there were no children peering from car windows in search of Blackpool Tower on the horizon, no watching the donuts dive from the machine and splash into the fryer, no emptying shoes of sand before getting in the car knowing full well you’ll never rid yourself of every grain. My visits here as a child were always so special; I mourn the loss of of these visits for other families this year.
As the lockdown restrictions eased in recent weeks Blackpool’s car parks have been filling up once again and the promenade has been receiving large numbers of visitors. Negotiations between residents and visitors begin again. Welcoming tourism back to Blackpool means the spaces have become difficult to traverse on a bike – there sometimes just isn’t the capacity to safely cycle, especially when there are small children excitedly using the space. The alternative used by some individuals at the moment has been to cycle along the tramlines whilst the trams themselves are not offering a service, but it’s dangerous and unsustainable. Weaving along the promenade attempting to avoid other people enjoying it can be a minefield but is preferable to being in the same user space as cars, buses and trams. Pedestrians might not agree and what was two weeks ago a wholesome activity is suddenly potentially antisocial.
As the town opens up again I wonder whether and how our infrastructure will adapt to accommodate our freshly found enthusiasm for cycling. I wonder how much possession residents will want to retain of their public space and if tourism in Blackpool will be impacted by our brave new post-Covid world.
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