Merseyside may not be the first place that springs to mind when thinking about places for a traditional seaside break close to home, but in addition to the beaches at Crosby (home to the atmospheric Antony Gormley installation Another Place) and Formby (a place to spot rare red squirrels, natterjack toads and dinosaur footprints), this metropolitan county surrounding and including Liverpool contains a gem of a traditional seaside town in the form of Southport.
Southport is in fact a curious mixture of endearing seaside tack (funfair rides, games arcades and a waterpark) and elegance – Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte spent time here when in exile, and it’s said that broad, tree-lined Lord Street with its Victorian arcades inspired his redevelopment of much of the medieval centre of Paris when he eventually became Emperor.
Another architectural anomaly is Southport’s pleasure pier, Britain’s second-longest at more than 1km – it begins quite far inland and crosses a lake before reaching the beach, but even when it does, the sea itself is often just a sliver of silver on the horizon. We braved fierce winds roaring across an immensity of glistening sands dotted with tiny figures in the far distance and donkey-riding kids nearby to reach the end of the pier, where we were rewarded by the charming National Museum of Penny Slot Machines, many of them still functioning for those prepared to swap their loose change for a handful of pre-decimal coins.
After an hour of old-fashioned belly laughs playing and riding on various vintage contraptions, it was back along the pier by land train (there’s also a tram) in time for a mini-motorboat ride around Marine Lake, a busy spot also plied by pedal-boats, the Mississippi-style paddlesteamer Southport Belle, and speedboats. For lunch, it had to be our old favourite The Dolphin, a Southport institution near the Promenade, offering great fish and chips, roasts, pies, kids’ meals and knickerbocker glories in gratifyingly unpretentious surroundings.
We often visit Southport on a day-trip, but this time we made a night of it in the family-friendly, ocean-liner-like Ramada Plaza Southport, which offers views over Marine Lake, the pier and the seas from its light-filled rooms (which include family rooms with 2 double beds), access to a Victorian swimming baths across the road, and a decent waterside brasserie with a kids’ menu and a terrace.
We still haven’t exhausted Southport’s offerings, which include the Model Railway Villlage with miniature trains running through rural, village and town scenes typical of Lancashire (of which Southport used to be a part). But when we have, and if we’re feeling energetic, the resort is the starting point for the 346km Trans Pennine Trail linking the Irish Sea with the North Sea, via the Peak District and Yorkshire, for walkers, cyclists and horse-riders.
This time, we restricted ourselves to a jaunt just 17km east of Southport, to the Martin Mere Wetland Centre in Lancashire, with its waterfowl gardens, otter, flamingo and beaver talks, and nature trails. Taking to the water again, this time to enjoy one of the centre’s fantastic new Canoe Safaris, we couldn’t have felt further removed from the busy seaside that we’d just left behind as we glided through the reedbeds to the sound of birdsong and the plashing of our oars.
At the time of writing, the Ramada Jarvis was offering family packages including tickets to Martin Mere, or alternatively to the nearby themepark Camelot.