Since Southport was designated a part of Merseyside in the metropolitan county reshuffle of the early 1970s, some residents have campaigned for the town’s return to Lancashire. Whatever the motivations and concerns of this cohort of postcode-worriers, any independent observer strolling along Lord Street (the town’s elegant central thoroughfare) might conclude that, rightfully, the place actually belongs in neither setting and is not really of the North West at all.
For this is, surely, a little bit of Paris transplanted several hundred miles north. On one side of a wide, tree-lined avenue, a Victorian glass-topped canopy extends out from an elegant parade of shops. On the other, gardens and water fountains stand before civic buildings and monuments of classical refinement. Lord Street? More like Le Boulevard de Notre Seigneur in the 31st arrondissement.
Actually, some proud Sandgrounders (as Southport natives are known) would have it that the architectural debt lies the other way round; according to these sources Napoleon Bonaparte III, who in exile apparently did lodge in the town in 1846, (at least according to the Tourist Guide), on returning to Paris charged Baron Haussmann with rebuilding the city in the image of Lord Street.
You may scoff. But really, well, why not? It’s an appealing idea and the elegant façade of the Scarisbrick Hotel (‘The Brick’) would not appear at all out of place on a stylish Parisian avenue.
For all the sophistication of its main drag and – at the risk of infuriating the natives of Blackpool and Morecambe – it being the classiest by far of the Lancashire seaside towns (with the possible exception of Lytham and St Annes, two places where one is able to find a comparable local hauteur), Southport remains an English seaside resort and not everyone comes to admire the architectural grandeur of Lord Street or browse the Victorian shopping arcades.
As, for example, the members of the Orange Order who traditionally arrive en masse on the evening of July 12 after a heavy thirst-inducing day’s marching. In an atmosphere usually less charged, on hot summer days the lines of sun-seekers and holidaymakers will be found making their way to the sea front from the town’s railway station. Two train lines terminate here – one from Liverpool and the other from Manchester via places like Wigan and Bolton – and to wander down the pier is to hear all the accents of the North West commingle in glorious cacophony.
They, the day-trippers, will most likely turn west off Lord Street and on to Nevill Street, immediately exchanging a world of Victorian grandeur and permanence for one of ephemeral pleasures, of live-for-today fun. Different kinds of arcades, the penny-slots and fruit machine sort, jangle noisily and the air is filled with scents of sweetness and fat, candyfloss and chips. Shops sell more varieties of rock, fudge and ice-cream than even the sweetest-toothed human could ever desire and, further on, defiantly anachronistic, as though somehow suspended in time from about 1974, there is a joke shop with its ancient tricks and funny masks, wigs and false moustaches.
Beyond this point the promenade beckons and, on its far side, a golden carousel and the kiddie-ride cornucopia of miniature fire engines, racing cars and double-decker buses that is Silcock’s Funland. Walk along the pier and eventually the beach is met below, stretching out there endlessly, perhaps to Ireland (the sea, as everybody knows, rarely being seen at Southport).
Though summers in the North West are not always characterised by endless Mediterranean days of heat and I have probably spent more days under rain than sun in Southport, yet, in memory it somehow never seems so.
One impression encapsulates my personal sense and history of the place. It is sometime in the early 1980s along the promenade, and a microphone echo, some DJ’s inane patter, crackles over the heads of the crowd, as all the youth of the north west gather together for the quasi-religious pilgrimage that is the Radio One Roadshow. Southport’s sea breeze carries a tang of hairspray, cheap perfume and warm skin and, high above, the sky goes on forever, eternally blue, the blue of knowing in this moment that you are alive and young.