“Don't clap too loudly, it's a very old building,” says, bitterly, the fading vaudeville comedian Archie Rice, played by Laurence Olivier, in The Entertainer, filmed in Morecambe’s Winter Gardens. The 1960 film – which testified to the beginning of the decline of Morecambe, popular into the 1950s for its beauty pageants – is a must-see before exploring this most English of seaside towns. But you should also catch some old sketches by comedy duo Morecambe and Wise, one of whom, John Bartholomew, changed his name in honour of his home-town.
It’s a symbol of Morecambe’s very slow revival that the Winter Gardens – a red-brick Victorian pavilion that once housed baths, a theatre (hosting plays but also circuses featuring live elephants) and a ballroom – has also undergone a snail’s-pace renovation. In many ways Morecambe is a ghost-town: it has lost both its piers and its pleasure beach, Frontierland, although approaching the main stretch of seafront from the south, you’ll still see, on Marine Road West, the spooky relics of the fairground.
Yet a few more steps bring you to a bulge in the seafront, where you’ll find the Midland Hotel, an iconic cruiser-liner-like Art Deco building rescued in 2008 after being allowed to rot in its amazing location for decades. Another remnant of Morecambe’s glory days (when the town was dubbed the ‘Brighton of the North’ and even the ‘Naples of the North), the hotel was once glamorous enough to attract the likes of Noel Coward, Wallace Simpson and Coco Chanel. Its reopening led to The Guardian declaring Morecambe the UK’s top coastal holiday destination – somewhat of a turnaround since 2003, when it was rated number 3 in the book Crap Towns: The 50 Worst Places to Live in the UK.
We chose to visit Morecambe for several reasons. My husband had lived there, in a B&B, while doing his MA at nearby Lancaster, and he was curious to learn that the town that had featured as the bleak backdrop to his first novel was being tipped as an up-and-coming resort. We also wanted somewhere within easy reach of our home in Manchester, as it was the first time we were leaving our two oldest sons with their grandparents while we took a ‘baby break’ with our youngest, knowing that the days when the latter was portable, slept a lot, and couldn’t run around and create havoc, were numbered.
Our room at the Midland was huge and stylish in a Pop Arty way, with walls that curved to follow the shape of the building and a bathroom so ingeniously designed that it took us a while to find the toilet. It felt slightly stark, as design hotels often can, but the sea views (not available in all rooms, so check when booking) were everything. From our bed you could see nothing but a seemingly infinite expanse of sparkling water to rival virtually any seascape in the world.
Venturing out, we spent a lazy afternoon slurping ice creams on the seafront, browsing in a secondhand bookshop (something we hardly ever get to do these days) and taking Zac for a romp on the pale sand. As I’d suspected it might, however, being by the seaside and seeing other kids playing in the sunshine made me wish we’d brought Ethan and Ripley along. On the other hand, it was good to be able to take our time over dinner – and breakfast the next morning – in the Midland’s light-flooded restaurant with its ocean views, and to sample the sybaritic delights of the spa.
What Morecambe offers, we discovered, is a rare taste of the real, unreconstructed British seaside (and that’s in spite of its missing piers). An oddball town with rundown cafés, eerily quiet boarding houses and a quirky outsize sculpture of Eric Morecambe inscribed with many of his catchphrases, it makes for an strange but compelling setting for the beautifully restored hotel.
We’ll definitely be back, but next time we’ll take all of the boys, and we’ll go for a knickerbocker glory at the promenade café Brucciani’s, a former milk bar retaining its ‘high-street Deco’ of wood, chrome, Formica, and etched glass and mirrors. Or we’ll buy a bag of fish and chips, some cockles in vinegar or some potted shrimps and sit on the seafront gazing out at the ocean on which Chanel is said to have landed her seaplane after flying up from Antibes. If it’s a clear day, you’ll understand why 1930s ads described Morecambe as ‘the Sunset Coast’.
Other Great Seaside Spots in North West England
Traditional seaside fun galore, including a kilometre-long pier complete with a tram and a traditional penny arcade, a model railway village, and the Southport Funfair (formerly Pleasureland).
A small town south of Southport, with a beach where the kids can hunt for the footprints of aurochs and humans dating from the Neolithic period and Bronze Age on eroded layers of mud and sediment. Parts of Formby's landscape of pine woods and sand dunes are nature reserves for the endangered red squirrel and natterjack toads.
A beach between Formby and Liverpool, unique for the fact that it's dotted by 100 cast-iron, life-size figures by the artist Antony Gormley, gazing eerily out to sea.
Discover more of our favourite UK family holidays and breaks.