A couple of weeks ago, a conversation about our grandchildren’s class projects developed into an intergenerational reminiscence about Blackpool Tower.
The class had been given different geographical monuments to research: our grandson’s was Stonehenge and our grand-daughter’s was Blackpool Tower. Whilst we had no experience of the former, the memories of this seaside town and its iconic landmark flowed like uncorked vintage wine from its dusty bottle as my mum, husband and I stretched our minds back many decades, recalling incidents and accidents that had our daughter’s family laughing and shaking their heads while jotting down our slightly addled anecdotes and the somewhat rarer nuggets of useful information. (Sorry, that was rather a long sentence!)
You see, my family used to live near Blackpool and my husband’s family went there often for day trips, so to us it was just down the road. It was a Mecca for young people with its funfair, arcades, annual illuminations and of course the famous tower with its ballroom, aquarium, menagerie and circus. My brother also went to college there and I remember we all visited him in the depths of winter when I was very pregnant and spent most of the visit scouring the streets for a shop that sold the object of my craving, an Orange Maid ice lolly. No other kind would do, of course.
Some historical context
Inspired by the Eiffel Tower and opened in 1894, Blackpool Tower is 158m tall and reputed to be the 120th highest freestanding building in the world.
(Circus, left, Ballroom right. Images from the official Blackpool Tower site, link above).
The main attractions in the tower include its splendid circus ring (still in action today, but thankfully with no wild animals since 1990) and its magnificent opulent ballroom, designed by Victorian architect, Frank Matcham. This stately setting features in the BBC ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ programme when, halfway through each series, the show gets very excited with itself as it heads for the splendour of the sprung, woodblocked, 11msq ballroom. It’s a dancer’s dream and where the original ‘Come Dancing’ series of the 1970s was filmed. You can still attend daily tea dances there.
This wonderful ballroom has also witnessed less glamorous dancing as my mum testified, when she had us in stitches with her tales of going dancing at the tower on a Saturday after work with her friends.
Apparently, in the 1940s, a special train ran to Blackpool at about 5pm for ‘the couples’ and young people having a night out, dancing. She and her friends would catch the bus to the station, using the journey time to put in their metal curlers and do their make-up, then they would tie up their hair in a turban with a headscarf (like the factory workers in wartime). These curlers were kept in for the entire journey and when they arrived at the tower, they would head straight for the ladies cloakroom where the curlers were removed and they would primp and powder until glamorous enough to make an appearance on the dancefloor! She doesn’t remember what they did with their curlers while they danced. Any suggestions?
Mum remembers live dance-bands like Joe Loss and his Orchestra (I remember seeing them on tv and hearing them on the radio, a bit too old-fashioned for me even at that young age). In the interval, the now world-famous Wurlitzer organ would slowly ascend through the floor, with Reginald Dixon the renowned organist playing as it did so. He would play until the band was ready to resume. Reginald Dixon designed the tower’s second Wurlitzer and he played there for 40 years. You can still witness this phenomenon at the tea dances today.
Later, my mum and dad would go dancing together at the Tower Ballroom. She misses those days, they both loved ballroom dancing. The labels on the 78s we used to have were all marked as ‘foxtrot’ or ‘waltz’ and so on. In the late 1950’s I remember her teaching me to rock ‘n’ roll to Cliff Richard!!
When my husband reminisces, on the other hand, we steel ourselves for the latest in a long history of mishaps, usually involving lost teeth or broken bones, which more often than not occur when out with his older cousin and he should have known better. The grandsons in particular find these stories hilarious and get Grandad to repeat them to entertain their friends when he visits. My daughter and I wince at what they are absorbing by osmosis and storing away for their teen years when they will dredge them up in an effort to redirect admonition because ‘You laughed when Grandad did it!’
One of these stories involves a trip to Blackpool on the back of his cousin’s scooter at the ages of 16 & 17. You see, right there, it doesn’t get off to a promising start. From past experience, straight off the bat you know that any story with this combination of characters is not going to end well!
Along the way, they have a puncture. My husband falls off the back and breaks his arm. Unperturbed by this misadventure, they decide that, as they are more than halfway there, they would carry on. So, Cousin takes the wheel to a garage but can’t get it to inflate properly, they then decide to make use of the inner tube from the too-large spare wheel tied to the back of the vehicle!
Somehow they make it to Blackpool and have a jolly time – Husband sets great store by the fact that they won a tiny 2″ model of Blackpool Tower on the Pleasure Beach before throwing themselves about on the dodgems. With a broken arm. With torn jeans and blood running down his leg.
It is 24 hours before he thinks to go to see the nurse at work and she packs him off to Casualty to have it x-rayed! He was most upset that he had to miss his scooter test the following week because he had a cast on. I think we’ll leave that story there. (In fact, he complained and requested a rewrite because I didn’t give enough attention to the miniature model of the tower! He insists it was the highlight of the day.)
He did, however, contribute to the project by remembering the zoo which prodded Mum’s memory a bit more. She remembered those poor animals in cages: big cats, polar bears and so on. They lived in cages underneath the tower. Thankfully, no longer. She said the aquarium was wonderful, with beautiful small fish of all colours and some large evil-looking ones too! The aquarium was the first attraction in the tower since the first owner bought the existing aquarium and planned to build the tower around it.
Mum and I couldn’t remember whether we went to The Blackpool Tower Circus or not. I recall one visit to a circus as a child, but I think that might have been Billy Smart’s Circus in a proper circus tent on the local park. The memories are confused because the clowns at the Tower Circus included the famous Charlie Cairolli and Paul, whom I remember well, but I don’t know if I saw them live there or just remember them from television.
Then there was the time we went to see Blackpool Illuminations and the queue of traffic was so long I couldn’t put my foot on the floor of the Morris Minor because it was over-heating so badly! Our son had been keeping his much younger sister awake, chatting and singing and pointing out things of interest, until we finally reached the start of the brilliantly colourful spectacle along the Promenade. We turned round to see the wonder and delight on our daughter’s face, only to discover she was fast asleep after all.
I love occasions such as these, when we share family memories.
Family history is important because it acts as an anchor. It holds people together and prevents geographically distant family members drifting apart. My grandsons rarely see my mum, they have little interaction with her other than perhaps seeing her once in 18 months and receiving a birthday card. She is deaf and becoming increasingly forgetful and confused. She doesn’t use technology other than a basic tv and an even more basic landline phone. These stories help them see her as a person, to see that they are linked by more than a £10 note in a Christmas card. They help her feel involved in their lives when she knows that these titbits will be used in their schoolwork and she enjoyed making them laugh about her curlers on the bus.
I am aware of time passing and soak up as much as I can when we chat. Nowadays, though, it is often I who provide her with the memories as she confuses different events, times or personnel in the near past or present. But the distant past is mostly still there. She laughs at the time she outwitted her dad to go off with her friend to meet their boyfriends, only to find him waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs when she snuck back in. She loves to tell how she used to go to the pictures every week on a Friday after work and my dad would pretend that he was going there too so that he could go with her. They worked for the same company and his colleagues had bet him he would have no chance asking her out!
I write everything down and one day I will put it all together so my grandchildren can read the whole story and not have to pay a fortune to genealogy sites searching for information about their ancestors like I have!
Copyright: Chris McGowan