An energy-sapping heat haze drains the life out of Morecambe Bay. Even the joyful statue of Eric Morecambe caught in his famous skipping pose looks too washed out to bring anyone sunshine. There’s nothing for it but to hasten my pace along the prom and create my own breeze as I head north.
Morecambe has a chequered history of dubious town planning, including a Mr Blobby-theme park that flopped before it opened. Twenty years ago, before the refurbishment of the Midland Hotel added a much-needed dash of art deco glamour, it inspired the first Crap Towns book.
But, as the tide ebbs and the muggy weather burns off, Morecambe’s natural qualities are quietly revealed. Flocks of oystercatchers, gulls and turnstones alight to pick at the soft sands. The greenery on the opposite shore appears and, beyond, the steep slopes of the Cumbrian fells.
At Hest Bank, just below where the Arnside and Silverdale area of outstanding natural beauty meets the sea, the RSPB runs a small reserve, an offshoot of the much larger Leighton Moss reedbed farther north. Here, ducks, geese, curlews and dunlins peck at the ridges and pools newly formed in the salt marshes and sandflats. Beneath are the cockles and shrimps of local culinary fame.
It’s a cue to turn back for lunch – that and the fact that this precarious shore can turn what looks like short walk on a map into an inland tramp along A roads. At low tide you can choose to hike over the bay; a Queen’s Guide to the Sands is still employed to steer people safely across. For this essential service, he’s paid a princely £15 a year. Charities hire the guide and the general public can join in crossings through summer.
Morecambe’s front is a hotchpotch of good and bad ideas. The prom itself is fine, but the buildings range from handsome redbrick to dour sandstone to a hideous highrise crying out for a wrecking ball. But there’s good news from the Winter Gardens, which has the town’s one truly glorious facade. After dubious demolitions and false starts aplenty, restoration of the Grade II-listed theatre is now under way, with a cultural regeneration expert – Sheffield University’s Prof Vanessa Toulmin, who was raised in a funfair family that operated the Winter Gardens, in charge of the preservation trust.
“It’s a pre-eminent example of an entertainment complex, not only of Morecambe or the seaside, but of the UK,” she says. “The Winter Gardens was never a music hall theatre. It was known as the Albert Hall of the north. It hosted the likes of the Hallé and Edward Elgar. When Elgar was asked what was the future of classical music, he replied: “It’s not London; it’s somewhere farther north”.
“Last year we used the enforced closures to get a lot of work done. We have a vision of the Winter Gardens as a major music venue with a capacity of 2,500, hosting all kinds of concerts by top-notch acts, along the lines of London’s Alexandra Palace.”
Toulmin believes the terracotta-and-brick palace can play a pivotal role in restoring Morecambe’s former grandeur. “It’s a very different kind of person who goes to Morecambe than to Blackpool; I love them both but people came here, to the ‘Naples of the North’, for the heritage, the walks, the views and the environment. That’s what the Eden Project is hoping to build on.”
She is referring, of course, to the Cornwall-based environmental charity’s plan to develop Eden Project North, a £125m eco-attraction, on a seafront site previously occupied by the Bubbles swimming pool and Dome theatre. Plans are due to be submitted this summer and, if approved – and if government co-funding is forthcoming – ground could be broken next year.
Given the natural wonders at hand – Morecambe Bay, the Trough of Bowland, the Lakes – Eden Project North would have plenty of inspiration for filling its domes with local flora.
Economic value aside, the scheme is already having a positive impact locally. Around town I spotted the logo on school signage. In 2019, Lancaster and Morecambe College signed a 25-year deal with Eden Project North to deliver a Morecambe Bay curriculum for students. In March this year, it was announced that Lancaster University would become a stakeholder.
It’s all a bit worthy and serious for a seaside resort, but then Morecambe was never really a “Kiss Me Quick” place.
At the end of a terraced row on Sandylands Promenade, there is a new mural by the Glasgow-based all-women street art foursome Cobolt Collective. It celebrates the Wakes Week tradition of workers coming to the town for respite and recreation – but this artwork does so using art-deco fonts, nostalgic allusions and images of skaters and divers. That’s Morecambe’s shtick: retro, refined, somewhat romantic.
I pick up a bag of fish and chips from the excellent Atkinsons in Albert Road. The sun is high and the sky clear by the time I get back to the spot where Eric is saluting the white-haired selfie-snappers, his binocs dangling around his neck. The silly half of the legendary duo was a keen birder: a hide at Leighton Moss is named after him.