Bracing breezes and ballroom dancing for free at Christmas

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The Independent Online

Where else could you go ballroom dancing for free on Christmas day, buy seaside air in a can for 99p, arm wrestle with Popeye, and take a donkey ride along three miles of some of Britain's cleanest coastline? According to the locals Skegness is a king among towns.

Each year, three million visitors pour in from across Britain to taste the bracing breeze, visit the nation's first indoor theme park, peer at the seals in the animal hospital, eat fish and chips on the pier and have their fortunes read by Madame Petulengros.

Skegness is Britain's fifth largest holiday resort, and has a tourism industry worth pounds 200m. The town's 17,000 population balloons to between 80,000 and 120,000 in the summer when tourists flood into the 200 hotels and various caravan parks. Another 10,000 visitors spend Christmas in "Skeggy".

Ken Holland, the Mayor of Skegness, who was born in the town 70 years ago and was coxwain of the lifeboat for 20 years, insists its charms are irrefutable. "It's a lovely place with lovely people, and it's mostly family people who come," he said.

"We don't have the razzmatazz with scooter bikes and Hell's Angels. We used to have them, but not for years. There are not many better places than Skegness, and I've travelled all over the world."

There are two architects of modern Skegness. The first was the Earl of Scarborough who saw the town's potential as a seaside resort in the 1870s, with the dawn of cheap railway travel. The town's mascot is still the Jolly Fisherman, dressed in a purple woolly and Sou'wester used in British Rail adverts from 1908.

The second was Billy Butlin, who chose Skegness to launch his first holiday camp in 1936 with the motto: "A week's holiday for a week's pay." It is now called Funcoast World and attracts 9,000 visitors a week.

Even grey skies cannot dull "Skeggy". Fantasy Island, the pounds 25m indoor theme park, and a grand example of its commitment to coping with bad weather.

Visitors are regularly heard rumbling out the chorus of "Down at the Old Bull and Bush" in the warmth of the local variety hall, and Cinderella is the indoor entertainment for the winter season this year.

Among the most committed champions of Skegness is Bob Suich, head of tourism. "One of the reasons we're really upset by Viz is also the fact that Skegness has won all the awards for a clean coast this year," he said. "It's great, you get a family welcome, you get good food, you get everything you ever wanted."