I'm hopelessly lost in Blackpool, blundering around beneath the Tower, dodging the touts and the hot-dog sellers, looking for the remains of Blackpool Central. Once everyone would have known their way here. It was the largest and busiest seaside station in the world.
But all that's left today of the institution that was once synonymous with the jolly British holiday by the sea is a bleak block of gents' toilets surrounded by a vast car park.
The toilets were once urgently needed to relieve the pressure on bladders from all those crates of ale consumed aboard excursion trains without corridors. Now they are the coin-in-the-slot kind, where stingy local councils force you to jiggle for change to open the door.
The rest – all 14 platforms and a glorious chapter of social history – is buried beneath our feet. Here lie the fragments of a grand terminus that once funnelled tens of millions of holidaymakers directly on to the most celebrated stretch of promenade in Britain, just a "99" Flake's throw from the sea.
For 101 years Blackpool Central transformed a backward coastal hamlet into Europe's top tourism resort. The newly leisured masses of northern England poured through the ticket barriers straight on to the Golden Mile to myriad sensuous delights – the tang of sea spray on the air, the sugary whiff of candy floss and throat-catching aroma of salt and vinegar from a hundred fish'n'chip shops.
But when the last train ran in the autumn of 1964 and services were banished to the edge of town, it delivered a fatal blow to the essence of the British seaside holiday as we once knew it. Blackpool was the railways – and the railways were Blackpool – in the same way they defined every other seaside resort in the land, from Bournemouth to Bridlington and Skegness to Southsea. It was the end of an era.
A family holiday to the seaside was one of the greatest inventions of the Industrial Revolution. In the years before motorways and easyJet, trains were the only means to enjoy the pleasures of the seaside. They were mostly comfortable, and the journey was relatively stress-free (certainly compared with security-dominated anxieties at airports today).
Until the beginning of the 1960s, the annual journey to the seaside aboard a train was associated with pleasure, relaxation and the joy of sharing simple delights with your children in an era before iPads, smartphones and Twitter. It evoked warm memories, bringing huge reservoirs of goodwill to the idea of railway travel. As one historian wrote: "Surely it was always summer when we made our first railway journeys..."
Before the railways transformed them, seaside resorts tended to be haunts of the sick and the snobbish, with the Prince Regent savouring the waters at Brighton, and the Yorkshire gentry dipping their toes in the sea at Scarborough. But enter another great British invention – the seaside excursion train. Thomas Cook pioneered the idea in 1841, with a trip for 570 Temperance members, offering a one-shilling (5p) day excursion from Leicester to Loughborough with tea, cricket and sandwiches.
The new breed of train-bound holidaymakers brought with them their young children, changing the seaside holiday from an aristocratic pursuit into a family affair. By 1914 the people of almost every large manufacturing city (Coventry was the exception) could reach the seaside in under three hours. Tiny coastal hamlets everywhere dedicated themselves to pleasure.
Among the biggest money-spinners were the trains laid on for the unique "Wakes Week" holidays in industrial England, when most of the factories in a town would close at the same time. In the days before cheap package holidays, a week at the seaside was the height of aspiration for millions of factory workers and they saved for it all year from often-meagre wages.
Travel by railway to the seaside reached its peak in the 1950s, when stations around the country were thronged in school summer holidays with crowds surging along departure platforms: children with tin buckets and spades, strawberry jam and Marmite sandwiches, beach balls and cricket bats; parents staggering with brown leatherette suitcases.
When the platform announcement came and the tickets were clipped, there would be a rush along the platform to find the seats on the seaward side for the best views.
It's all very different now, when the relatively few passengers taking the train for a holiday in British seaside resorts often have to endure changes from the comfort of the main line on to ancient, wheezing diesel multiple units on secondary, forgotten lines. There's not much special about travel by train to the sea any longer – where it can be an uncomfortable marathon to get to Scarborough, Skegness, Great Yarmouth, Morecambe, Bridlington, Pwllheli or Whitby aboard uncomfortable trains on often meagre timetables.
Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, services to seaside towns such as Brighton, Southend, Bournemouth, Clacton and Southport these days are filled not with the bucket and spade classes, but with perspiring commuters on their way to and from the office – condemned to long commutes by soaring city house prices. Worse, many of our most charming and beautiful seaside lines are gone for ever. No more the coastal delights of Whitby to Scarborough; the toy train to Southwold; the rickety wooden causeway on the "Hayling Billy" line to Hayling Island; and Betjeman's favourite – the slow train through Fenland from Kings Lynn to Hunstanton – favoured by generations of the Royal Family on their way to Sandringham.
But perhaps a revival is on the way. The roads to St Ives in Cornwall are now so congested that people are reverting to the train in droves. Lucky that the St Ives Bay line – one of the most scenic in Europe – was reprieved from closure in the 1960s. It not only has an excellent service but is busier than ever. Book now while you can…
Michael Williams's new book 'The Trains Now Departed: Sixteen Excursions Into the Lost Delights of Britain's Railways', is published by Preface, a division of Penguin Random House, price £20 (randomhouse.co.uk)
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