This is the story of Morecambe. Not the comedian originally called Eric Bartholomew but the seaside resort he came from and named himself after.
At the time he chose the name for his show business career, Eric must have thought it stood for glamour, excitement and popularity. If we were living back then, we would say, ‘He isn’t wrong, you know’ but times have changed. A once vibrant holiday destination is now, as I found when I went there last week, quite run down and where crowds thronged, there are now a handful of families.
This is a shame because Morecambe has a lot going for it. You can see why it was once a jewel in the North West’s crown. A beautiful bay facing the Lake District where sunsets glow red; a sandy beach; a promenade along which you can take a romantic walk; friendly welcoming people; an amazing hotel. I think I’ve remembered all the right things but not necessarily in the right order. Perhaps the hotel should come first.
The Midland Hotel is in many ways Morecambe’s biggest attraction. Holidaymakers looking for sandy beaches and romantic sunsets go elsewhere these days, a trend that began in the sixties when cheap airplane flights offered the British the chance to get out of that unpredictable weather and expose their short fat hairy legs to the hot sun of Spain and beyond.
The Midland, built in 1933 and a superb example of art deco architecture, has been lovingly refurbished so that when you stay there, as I did, you feel like you’ve returned to a golden age. The staff and facilities are excellent and the uninterrupted views of the bay unbeatable. It is a popular venue for weddings which is why I was there- not to get married, to attend my cousin’s wedding. No doubt people also use The Midland as a base for exploring the beautiful countryside. The one thing I doubt they do is spend much time in Morecambe.
What has happened at The Midland is reflected all along Morecambe sea front. Every effort has been made by the local authority to make it an attractive place to visit. The pier and promenade have been wonderfully restored and decorated with attractive sculptures of seabirds. Most famously and deservedly so, there’s a larger than life statue of Eric Morecambe, beautifully presented. You can pose with him pretty much how you want- they can’t touch you for it, because he’s such a big attraction.
That’s all on one side of the seafront road. But, cross that road and it’s a different story. From The Midland, in its splendid isolation as the only building next to the sea, you can’t see the join, but from everywhere else the fault line between between public investment and private initiative is clear. In Morecambe, private enterprise has not matched the efforts of the local authorities or followed in the footsteps of the Midland Hotel.
Driving slowly along the main seafront road, I noticed an ice cream parlour with no queue. I thought he won’t sell many ice creams. Going at that speed, I could take in the amusement arcades and fish and chip shops but hardly any big name shops. When my wife said,’What do you think of it so far?’, you can imagine the response I thought of. ‘You said that without moving your lips,’ she quipped. In fact, even when I explored the back streets, I couldn’t find many of the wine bars, pavement cafes and entertainment venues that are signs of a prospering town. At least there were some interesting independent shops.
Somehow the local authorities need to persuade businesses to open up there in order to attract visitors. No doubt they’d respond, ‘That’s easy for you to say.’ Despite all the efforts to make the seafront attractive, hard headed businesspeople won’t move in until there’s a market for them. So it’s chicken and egg. I pictured our own King Canute sitting in Morecambe Bay to prove that the decline is as unstoppable as the tide.
It’s easy to be pessimistic about the prospects of reviving the fortunes of a seaside resort like Morecambe but Bournemouth has shown that it can be done. Its arsenal of nightlife, shopping and entertainment keeps short stay visitors coming in droves. Mind you, it also has the advantage of being on the main train line. To get to Morecambe, whether by rail or road, you have to get through the challenge of Lancaster. There’s no answer to that lack of an easy route.
I realise I’ve made next to no reference to Morecambe’s most famous son. I think Eric’s own experience shows that times inevitably change but that it is possible to reinvent yourself. Morecambe and Wise’s initial efforts as a music hall act and then as a TV duo went flat but they kept trying until they got the formula right and went on to become Britain’s most popular comedy act. I hope Morecambe keeps trying until it succeeds. The town and its lovely hospitable people are a double act worth seeing.
This blog was written by Paul Lewis, owner of the marketing consultancy The Lewis Experience and online retailer Your Life Your Style, both based at Hampshire Workspace, and former Head of Marketing and Operations at The Mayflower Theatre. You can connect with him on Google+ and LinkedIn.