All this ... and eight donuts for a quid? Get me to Skeggy

The Lincolnshire resort is going all Shoreditch with a new arts festival. It's just one of the local council's plans to pull in more tourists, says Nick Coleman
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The Independent Travel

There isn't a cloud in the sky. This is not good news. In fact, the only cloud to be seen is the one I'm reclining on, which is made of concrete. It "floats", with a brother and sister cloud, on the upper deck of a wooden stockade on the beach at Anderby Creek, near Skegness in Lincolnshire – not only the north-eastern seaboard's first Cloud Bar, but the first and only Cloud Bar in the world.

What is a cloud bar? And what is it for? Well, here's how you use it.

You mount a stairway to the observation deck, about 10 feet above dune level, where you are regaled with scientific information about clouds, provided by the Cloud Appreciation Society. So, in that sense, the Cloud Bar is a work of propaganda. "Clouds are the great actors in the theatre of the skies" says an inscription, not so scientifically. And then you deposit yourself in a supine position on a concrete nimbus and give yourself over to the contemplation of stratocumulus castellanus and altostratus translucidus, with the aid of a small cluster of angled mirrors on stalks in a copse in one corner of the rampart. So, in that sense, the Cloud Bar is a little bit church, a little bit art installation, a great big bit tourist attraction.

But sadly today there is not a cloud in the sky. The only blot on the landscape is a fuming parish councillor, who is pointing out to my companions at the foot of the stairs that further work needs to be done on the stockade to deal with certain urgent health and safety issues.

"I have rung Michael Trainor's office several times with this," he says, indicating a screw which is poking out of a stave at a height which might snag the hat brim of a passing basketball player, "but I have not thus far been dignified with a reply."

My companions point out that Michael Trainor, an artist, was responsible for the concept and design of the Cloud Bar, but not its construction and so, perhaps, there are more useful numbers to call – and that they'll look into it once they get back to the office. But the parish councillor has already launched into his second complaint, which is hard to understand but has to do with the relationship between the duckboard walkway leading to the Cloud Bar and the verges which surround it. Something is rotten in the state of East Lindsey.

That is not my impression though. Everything seems pretty dandy to me. My three companions are from East Lindsey District Council (at 700 square miles the largest in the country). It's in their interest to paint a joyous picture of their vast, flat, bracing region and I can see no reason to doubt their enthusiasm: Skegness and Mablethorpe have a lot to look forward to.

This is a big summer on the Lincolnshire coast. None larger, as the 5,000 attendees at the recent "Pleasuredome Reunion" rave at the Fantasy Island theme park might observe.

A considerable effort is being made to make Skegness the centre of all our dreams. For a start, I was greeted off the train by a man in a giant polystyrene head, whom I was assured was not a local nutter but a mascot – "Jolly", the Jolly Fisherman, who pranced so bracingly across Skeggy's sands in John Hassall's famous LNER railway poster of the 1920s. I was then escorted by the three council members down the High Street to a coffee shop, where the strategy for 2009-2010 was unfolded before my goggling mind like an Ordnance Survey map of a pullulating future.

This summer Skeggy plays host to not one but two festivals. The usual SO ("Skegness Organises") festival, funded by the Arts Council, will have been and gone by the time you read this. That's the summerly Skeggy knees-up which entertains holidaymakers from the Midlands and North, what the council likes to call "the traditional visitor" with comedians, music, fireworks, more comedians, a parade and circus stuff going off all over the place in Tower Gardens and on the beach.

However, these are but as handmaidens to the bright establishments of the Skegness Foreshore: the skate park; the gardens; the snooker hall; the bowling greens; the putting green; the pitch and putt; the Jolly Roger Crazy Golf; the funfair; the swimming pools; the boating lake; the Fairy Dell paddling pool; two band stands; three discos; the 10-pin bowling alley which extends into the pier; the Kiddies Corner; the model village; the Embassy theatre centre; more gardens; Natureland; the Jolly Fisherman statuary; and, Skegness's premier listed building, the Clock Tower (the other one is the 1930s Ship Inn) – all of which are in their turn mere sideshows for the town's big, big star: the beach. Crikey, what a beach. It's enormous and yellow.

I am being walked along that part of the promenade known rather magnificently as North Bracing and we've reached the junction with South Bracing close to the lifeboat station. We pause by a cluster of small beachside cafés and ice-cream kiosks. You can choose from 56 different flavours displayed on a laminated photocard the size of a pool table. But the serious competition is in the doughnut trade. Cop this: you can get an ice cream and two scoops of hot chocolate dip plus four doughnuts for £2.50. Not bad value, that. But it gets better. A few yards further on, loitering on the near side of a zebra crossing is a giant 3D plastic doughnut standing four feet high to announce that you can get six doughnuts for a pound if you follow the direction of the doughnut's pointing finger. I am still reeling from this news when I reach the other side of the crossing where there is an even bigger doughnut, five feet tall and shinier than the first one. "EIGHT DONUTS FOR £1!" it screams, if a doughnut can be said to scream.

The style with which a resort goes about its business tells you much about its nature. Being a southerner, I am better used to Southend, which offers the same sort of trading environment but with a hard Essex glint, where Skeggy has a warm northern twinkle. In Southend you feel that it's every whelk seller for himself and there's no such thing as society, let alone local government. Skegness has a more orderly, communal, governed vibe: everyone's in this together and we've all read the by-laws. My companions and I stroll on. I learn about preparations for the summer, including the introduction of a team of "Beach Rangers", who will go around "whipping up the excitement on the beach".

East Lindsey is what you might call a front-foot Council. They feel that they have to be. Skegness had a dreadful 2007, when extensive land floods were met on the Grand Parade by two huge fires in separate commercial properties. The repairs are still going on. Yet in some ways the most interesting work being done – evidently schemed partly in response to the onset of recession – is the play being made for new customers, those who don't simply conform to the stereotype of the "traditional visitor".

Something good did happen in 2007, though. The town, and its close neighbour, Mablethorpe, made the news with their Bathing Beauties: eight arty beach hut creations located on the prom north of Anderby Creek – the upshot of an international design competition, another Michael Trainor idea. They are nothing if not attention-grabbing, the Beauties. There's one in the shape of a giant gin and a tonic, and another stripey marquee-style one which houses a camera obscura. I only get to see "Jabba the Hut" from a distance, which is perhaps for the best. Even from 150 yards there is no disguising its organic quality.

But the biggest play for the non-traditional visitor comes in unexpected form – yet another festival. North Seas 2009 is an ultra-arty theatre/dance/ music/performance event which knits assorted Nordic port cities – Helsingor and Helsingborg in Denmark and Sweden respectively, Copenhagen, Göteborg and Tromso – in the name of "reinventing the European Project" along art-tastic lines. You can now add Skegness to that list, the home of the original, and still thriving, Butlins; the bracing shore which aerated Alfred Lord Tennyson's poetic lung; the only resort in the country with concrete clouds.

From this Saturday, Skegness will unveil "10 days of performances and installations" plus a seminar on "Arts and Urban Reinvention", all of it in conjunction with the annual Festival of Bathing Beauties at Mablethorpe. Now you can get eight doughnuts for a pound and, at no extra cost, experience "Suitcases", which entails the deposition of a giant suitcase "containing 1,000 objects which tell the story of Bulgaria's communist past". There will also be a performance piece from Sweden involving video, text and music entitled "Glorious Death".

It's getting like Shoreditch out there.

Compact Facts

Further information: Lincolnshire Tourism (visit lincolnshire.com)

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