In this instalment of In Her Place Stephanie Cottle takes us to Fairhaven, one of the oldest marine lakes in Britain.

Modern times are seemingly taking their toll on us, so let’s head back in time for a couple of minutes respite from 2020. Pull up a beach chair and we’ll begin.

It’s the 1890s and bustling Blackpool is benefiting enormously from the rapidly expanding working-class holiday market. Following the arrival of the passenger railway – which allows people to traverse the landscape at dizzying new speeds – families from across the UK are flocking to seaside resorts in search of sights that dazzle and distract them from the humdrum working days of back home. In true Victorian fashion Blackpool is playing host to a large number of unusual oddities and curious spectacles – a tower to puncture the clouds, a wheel that boasts views above the streets, a freshly built opera house, circus acts, dancing, acrobats and exotic plants from across the world.

Sitting peacefully a little further down the road to the south, lies a more gentile slip of coastline. A patch of land that Thomas Riley, a Fleetwood business has had his eye on. He has a vision to provide the Fylde coast with a little slice of ‘upmarket’ heaven. The dream is to create a marine lake, trapping the Irish sea by enclosing two small bays, providing Lytham and St Annes residents and visitors with a space to enjoy lush natural beauty. With it’s carefully considered gardens, a Pagoda- shaped boathouse, a clubhouse for golfing and a beautiful beach just a short walk away, he’s thought of a suitable name for his leisure lake – Fairhaven.

Fairhaven Estates Company planned to develop the stretch of land all the way to St Annes, however in 1896 nature pushed back. Perhaps in retaliation to it’s trapping, the sea swelled angrily multiple times and heavy flooding over the initial years of the project meant that the plans were scaled back. The site would instead cover a total of 19.5 hectares and over the course of 20 years the development progressed steadily.

In 1926 at a cost of £34,000 the lake and surrounding park were bought from the Fairhaven Estates Company and presented to the Corporation of Lytham St Annes by Lord Ashton of Lancaster, to show appreciation the area was renamed Ashton Marine Park.

To the north of the lake sits the sand dunes, rich with coastal wildlife. Visitors could spend their time searching through the lush sea grasses to catch glimpses of all manner of creatures. Westward lay the beach, which provided a perfect opportunity to roll up trousers and slop around in the dark wet sand. To the south, the lake met the marshlands, absolutely teeming with birds of all shapes and sizes. Of course you might prefer to spend the day within the boundaries of the park itself. Enjoy a stroll alongside the lake, test out your sea legs by hiring a boat or loll on the grass with a good book.

The cafe (originally built as the Clubhouse for Fairhaven Golf Club, which moved inland following heavy floods) provided refreshments to the public and encouraged folk to stay all day and enjoy what the site had to offer.

Photo Credit: Stephanie Cottle

The park proved popular and always had a variety of activities to keep vistors occupied – water skiing displays, tennis courts, bowling and hydroplane racing kept crowds, reaching 15,000 in number, coming to the area until the 1960s, by which time the original name of Fairhaven was back in use.

Perhaps due to the availability of more accessible holidays abroad, by 2002 the numbers of visitors were in decline. In this year however a new pleasure craft, the Jubilee, was launched and offered journeys across the waters.

After over a century, the sea walls had succumbed to the relentless waves who battled to free the trapped lake. The defences were in a poor condition and costly emergency repairs had to be carried out regularly to prevent a breach. The consequences of a breach would have been disastrous, flooding a now largely residential area and causing untold damage to the nearby school and infrastructure.

In 2017 it was announced that the lake would be redeveloped.

And so, we have arrived at the present day.

Don’t panic! 2020 has thankfully been good to Fairhaven (if not to the rest of us). In August this year the Fairhaven seawall has been strengthened with £22m of new revetments. The new stepped revetment begins at Church Scar and reaches up to the Spitfire memorial, it surrounds the lake and is built over the top of the original 1890s sea wall. This new defence system will protect the lake – now one of the oldest of its type in Britain – and surrounding areas, reducing the risk of erosion and flooding for the next 100 years.

The stepped seafront mimics Blackpool’s own promenade – a marvellous public space in which to relax and enjoy the coastal views. The resurfaced sea wall means that access to the beach is improved however there are a few niggling negotiations to overcome if you are using equipment such as prams and wheelchairs.

Photo credit: Fylde Council

It isn’t just the urban landscape that merits protection. Those marshes to the south of the lake that reach from Southport to the Fylde coast are classified as Ramsar, meaning that it is recognised intentionally as important. The Ribble Estuary is one of the most important sites for birdlife in Europe, a Special Protection Area and a site of Special Scientific Interest. An RSPB discovery centre now sits near the cafe beside the lake and provides information on upwards of 250,000 birds that call the wetlands their home.

Fairhaven, 130 years after its conception remains a wonderful place to visit.

This year saw modern life come to a screeching halt. Although Covid-19 had and continues to have an enormous impact on our lives, it has given us an opportunity to evaluate what we value from our public spaces. There have been monuments removed, no longer serving their intended purpose. Priority has been given to cycle lanes and cities pedestrianised. We have been given an opportunity to really reimagine what assets our local land has to offer. I’m so pleased that 2020 has seen the renewal of Fairhaven Lake, it looks as though we’ll need this little slice of heaven in future.

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  • Stephanie Cottle is currently a research student at UCLan working alongside the curatorial partnership In Certain Places. Her practice investigates place & the everyday experiences of the North West of England.

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