Would you dare to look down on Blackpool?
Christopher Hirst marvels at the 'Skywalk' freshly installed at the top of the Tower
Friday 02 September 2011
The queue for Blackpool Tower, which reopened yesterday after a 10-month refurbishment, stretched for a mile along the resort's raucous sea front. Among the attractions at the re-named Tower Eye is a "glass Skywalk" providing "a spectacular, never-seen-before bird's eye view of the promenade and coastline".
The Tower warns, however, that this experience is only "for those who are brave enough". I'm not sure that this doughty cadre of thrill-seekers would include me. When I ascended the tower as a small child half a century ago, I kept my eyes tight shut.
Now I am happy to enjoy the spectacle of the tower from below. Opened on 18 May 1894, it can be seen for many miles along Lancashire's pancake-flat coast. Like many other follies, it is startling and slightly scary even at ground level. Can that sky-scraping Victorian pinnacle of 2,600 tons of iron and steel really be safe? It is not terribly reassuring to learn from the Wikipedia entry that "the cast steel and iron are distributed in such a way that if [the tower] ever did collapse it would fall in the sea".
John Bickerstaffe, mayor of Blackpool, conceived a desire for a tower after visiting the Great Paris Exhibition of 1889, which boasted the new Eiffel Tower. Though Blackpool's version is less than half the height of Gustav Eiffel's edifice. When completed, Blackpool Tower was the tallest building in Britain. It remains a looming symbol for our most distinctive resort. Some may regard it as more bulky than elegant but it is appropriate for the no-holds-barred, too-much-is-not-enough appeal of Blackpool.
The Tower's steel arches, now exposed for the first time, contain an experience described as "Blackpool's first 4D cinema". This extra dimension turns out to be "sensory effects such as wind, rain and sunshine" that enhance a film about the making of the Tower. The cinema was traditionally a refuge from Blackpool's bracing climate, but it seems that rain will now pursue viewers indoors.
In case the refurbishment sounds too tasteful, another new attraction is the Blackpool Tower Dungeon, described as "a fun walk through some of the North-west's most horrible history". Fortunately, the Tower Ballroom, another Bickerstaffe commission, offers more pleasant memories. Stars ranging from Duke Ellington to Laurel and Hardy performed here. Its Mighty Wurlitzer, once played by the legendary Reginald Dixon, still provides daily entertainment. Lucinda Lampton describes the ballroom as "a giantess's gilded boudoir"; an appropriately seductive enclave to be found beneath the town's proudly thrusting symbol. No wonder that many northerners were once said to have birthdays nine months on from a parental break in Blackpool.
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