Is the tide about to turn for Southport?

This Lancashire resort has had £220m spent on it in the past decade. Charles Nevin finds out whether the money will attract a new generation of tourists

Tired of Tuscany? Prague palling? Caribbean carbon-consuming? All right, yes, this is one of those breezy pieces about the delights of the British resort. But this is not about just any resort. No: this is about Southport.

Southport? The one that's not Blackpool? Not fresh air and fun but fresh air and funereal, fuddy-duddy and dying slowly in time with its population of elderly retirees? The one where you can't see the sea, even if it has got that nice main street with the shops?

Reader! I sense you are not presently intimate with this part of the fabled Lancashire coast. For here at least, buoyed on the benevolent south-west wind, change is in the air and confidence is returning, as surely as the tide, which is reputed to break twice a day somewhere beyond the pier – and, usually when I'm there, beyond the horizon (a matter of continuing coastal aggregation and silting).

Hard hats abound along its famous thoroughfare, Lord Street. Hotels are opening in numbers matching their stars. Landmarks are being spruced-up, parks revived. Famous footballers saunter by on their way to Michelin lunches, where they mingle with the movers and marketers who are now busy promoting the old place as "England's Classic Resort".

And more: it is also capital of England's "Golf Coast", featuring seven championship courses, including, a drive and a few irons to the south, Royal Birkdale, venue for this year's Open – a top attraction, not least for new hotels such as The Vincent, a cleverly svelte boutique conversion of an old cinema on Lord Street, which will be letting its penthouse for just the £2,500 during the tournament in July.

In all, more than £200m has been invested in Southport over the past 10 years, providing, among much else, those twin totems of the modern British seaside, a watersports facility and a retail-leisure complex, housed in a series of functional buildings dubbed Shedland by the locally irreverent and ingrate. Now, too, plans have been announced for the replacement of the thrills and screams of the old funfair with a £45m Eden Project-style indoor-outdoor affair.

If you detect a slightly curmudgeonly undertow, thank you for your attention. Clearly, only a curmudgeon could regret the passing of the late 20th-century Southport, with its fraying gentility relieved by the odd dash of kiss-me-quickery. And I am, after all, the author of a work relishing the whimsically romantic aspects of Lancashire, including, of course, the enormous debt owed by Paris to Southport.

Of which, more very shortly; meanwhile join me in a stroll along the Prom, Prom, Prom (but not remotely beside the sea), and admire a postcard view of the flux. In front of us is the splendidly restored pier, next to the grand new bridge leading to Splash World (the flumed waterpark) and Ocean Plaza (the mixed opportunity).

To the right, the busy building of another hotel, with compulsory contemporary cool curves and glass, just along from the busy similar rebuilding of the Southport Theatre and Convention Centre. To the left, an old Victorian carousel, all gilt and knees-up, and, by it, a building pretending to be a marquee brazenly embossed with flags and twiddly bits, filled with pinging games machines and the odd intense figure hunched to attention. Something here, you feel, if you're a fellow whimsical melancholic of broad tastes, may have to give.

But Steve Christian, tourism marketing manager for Sefton Council, the local authority, is reassuring, curmudgeon-wise, and not just because he bought this one lunch at the Michelin-lauded brasserie, The Warehouse, owned by Paul Adams, the man opening the aforementioned boutique hotel on Lord Street.

Most importantly, Steve is also full of the connection with Paris, known here as The Southport of the South. Indeed: the Emperor Napoleon III stayed in Southport as a young man and was much impressed by the arresting elegance and fine broad sweep of Lord Street; so much so that when he came to power he gave Paris boulevards of similar style and grace, hence the Champs-Elysées.

Sorry? Come off it, mon vieux? Well, let me assure you that anyone in Southport will tell you the same; and, moreover, that, on the Champs-Elysées, quite a few Parisians, after studying a photograph of Lord Street produced by me for the purpose, thought it not altogether unlikely.

Eh bien. If you're still not sure, says Steve, come and see for yourself. Don't worry, he's not snobby, as is only proper in a resort which got its start from Wigan miners taking the only mini-break available to them 200 years ago. Steve talks just as enthusiastically about more coach visitors as he does about further upmarket attendees for the golf, conferences and annual events such as May's Food and Drink Festival, the Air Show, and the famous Flower Show.

Steve is so inclusive his brochure boasts that Albert Pierrepoint, the executioner, lived here. (Even so, he'll be hanged if he wants stag and hen parties, as they put everybody else off.)

You could see Southport not so much as classic as the future. Undisposed to compete with Blackpool for the fortnightly bucket-and-spaders, it has long had a policy of diverse attractions which it now has the investment to exploit.

Conferring, shopping, eating, golfing, gaming, whatever-weather entertainment: all are increasingly available all year to satisfy the mini-breakers and attract the numbers discovering that Liverpool, with its incomparable architecture and vivacity, can take the breath away for the right reasons, especially in its year as European Capital of Culture. (The town has always been wary of the Scouse connection, and joining inner-city Bootle in the new Sefton has caused much spluttering; less so now that it has received £8.5m of EU investment thanks to the Merseyside connection.)

Once again, only a curmudgeon would point out that, despite the undeniable attractions, it's a little difficult to see the sea in all this, even figuratively. The mighty foreshore has allowed easy accommodation of the new facilities, and has helped preserve la gloire that is Lord Street; but the Ozone Quotient is a touch low when compared with coved and quayed rivals. And without that and the brash and the flash and the engagingly eccentric essential to the truly Classic English Resort, you might as well be in a Center Parc, or Loughborough.

Thankfully, the people I met in Southport seemed to agree with me – from the Southport Party, doughty defenders of the town's integrity and traditions, who have taken seats on the Council before and will resolutely do so again should the People call, to Paul Adams of the Warehouse and the Vincent, who, finely attuned to the town's ethos, also believes that cool can be comfy (and cheaper than the Penthouse). I see, too, that the funfair replacement mentions an artificial beach and shore, a nice touch of the local wit that created Southport from nothing in the first place.

Fears further allayed by Jordan's recent well-received visit, I turned to the other aspects of the Classic English Etc and visited Southport's world-famous British Lawnmower Museum, exhibitor of machines once owned by, inter alios, Brian May and the late Diana, Princess of Wales (Nicholas Parsons donated his secateurs).

What a fine museum it is! My purpose, though, was to persuade its proprietor, Mr Brian Radam, who is also a leading lawnmower racer, to run races on the beach, sadly under-employed since Sir Henry Segrave was setting land speed records on it in the 1920s. But I could see that something was troubling Mr Radam, who is a purist. It was the beach. "It's sand," he said.

Ah, well. Taking another promenade, I began to work on the French connection. Beach boule? A race between Southport and Parisian waiters? A shrugging contest? Lost in such thoughts, I at first failed to notice that the sea had, prodigally, arrived. Voila: Southport's tide is truly turning (although HM Coastguard says it comes right up surprisingly often: ie about once a fortnight).

There was only one place to be: Southport Pier, the oldest iron pier in the country, almost, for obvious reasons, the longest, once graced by Formby, Fields and any number of daring divers, on this day being admired by Catalin, 23, and Carmen, 20, from Romania (young and cosmopolitan), studying in Southport, who had rushed down when they heard the sea was in.

I tried to persuade them that the end of the pier would be ideal for getting married: they're thinking about it. Older readers should know that there's a little train to take you the 3,650 feet. Or you could try all the new stuff. And Mr Radam and his lawnmowers. This is just one comment from the Visitor's Book: "The Diana mower was a particular delight. I can now die happy." Ah, Southport!

Further reading: 'Lancashire, Where Women Die of Love', by Charles Nevin, published by Mainstream, £7.99

Further browsing: Southport Tourist Information Centre, 112 Lord Street (01704 533 333; www.visitsouthport.com)

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