After decades in the doldrums, Morecambe once again has a seafront that lives up to its exhilarating setting and famously fabulous sunsets
In Morecambe they like to say they have the best sunsets in the world. You might think that’s just local pride talking – but I’ve seen the sun set from the coral sands of Fiji, in the deserts of Jordan and the snows of Arctic Finland, and I think there’s something in it. There’s a wonderful reflective foreground: shifting waves when the tide’s in, a maze of channels and sandbanks when it’s out; there’s a maritime climate, so there are usually a few clouds to mix up the colours; and above all there’s the skyline of the Lakeland fells across the bay, a near 180-degree sweep. The peaks are high enough to make an arresting silhouette, but not so high that they block out the sky. If you were designing a landscape for the benefit of sunset-watchers, this is what you’d come up with. And with four miles (six kilometres) of promenade to gaze from, there’s plenty of elbow-room, too.
Trouble was, not all that long ago, those sunsets, and some great bird-watching, were just about the only reason to come to Morecambe. Long gone were the days when special trains brought thousands of holiday-makers from the Yorkshire mill-towns. Morecambe, and places like it, were left high and dry by cheap flights and package holidays. The last nail in Morecambe’s coffin seemed to have been hammered home one night when fire ripped through the Central Pier, leaving a sad skeleton for the gulls to perch on. And the centrepiece of the prom, the once-gleaming Midland Hotel, stood derelict, crumbling slowly in the sea breezes as successive buyers promised a new dawn and then failed to deliver.
Something had to be done and – eventually – it was. Realising the futility of attempting to compete with the Costas, the city fathers decided Morecambe had to reinvent itself. As an outward expression of this, they hatched an imaginative plan to revitalise the seafront. Known as the TERN Project, it involved a still-growing series of public art works, themed around the bay’s magnificent bird-life. Not just sculptures but games and mazes and tongue-twisters adorn the prom and the Stone Jetty (where once trains were loaded with shrimp to be expressed to gourmets in Manchester and London).
Pride of place now goes to Graham Ibbeson’s lively life-size statue of Eric Morecambe, for many years Britain’s best-loved entertainer. There couldn’t be a more fitting subject; born a Bartholomew, Eric took his stage name from his home-town. He was also a keen bird-watcher, which is why the statue carries a pair of binoculars.
If Eric and the TERN Project were a vital part of Morecambe’s renaissance, it could still have fizzled out if nothing had been done with the Midland Hotel. This curvilinear white building stands so conspicuously on the prom that its protracted decay was all too obvious; a tragic and seemingly terminal fate for an edifice that had been hailed as a triumph of the Art Deco style. It wasn’t until 2003, four years after Eric was unveiled by the Queen, that a viable plan for the Midland Hotel was finally established through the Urban Splash group, a developer specialising in the regeneration of historic properties. From structural repairs to painstaking redecoration, it took five years but in 2008 the Midland reopened.
The restoration, hailed by English Heritage as exemplary, shows how comfortably 21st-century chic can sit alongside 1930s Modernism. The original architect, Oliver Hill, and craftsmen like the great Eric Gill, might be startled by aspects of the new Midland, but I don’t think they’d be disappointed. From the new suites on the top storey to the dining room with its vast sweeps of glass, the Midland is flooded with views of the bay and its walls are once again white, except when one of those legendary sunsets tints them gold or red.
In that dining room you can enjoy saltmarsh lamb from the fringes of the bay, shrimp from its waters and cockles gathered from the sands – but spare a thought for the 20 or so cockle-pickers who drowned in 2004. Most were Chinese, victims of unscrupulous gangmasters as well as the implacable tides of the bay. New regulations have been put in place since then to try and ensure there's no repeat of the tragedy.
Morecambe Bay is certainly beautiful but it can also turn deadly. The tides reshape the sands and channels shift to a rhythm of their own.
Yet you can experience the sands in safety: a cross-bay walk led by the Queen’s Guide to the Sands, Cedric Robinson, is an unforgettable experience. Old shoes or no shoes are recommended, as the walk takes you through several channels; the largest, the River Kent, may be knee-deep or even hip-deep on shorter people. There’s always a tractor and trailer available for those who tire or can’t face the wade. I’ve done this walk five times now, and it has been different every time.
Today most walks start from Arnside, further up the coast, but occasional crossings begin at Hest Bank, just beyond the northern end of Morecambe’s epic promenade. There are many reminders of the days when the bay was a regular, if hazardous, route for travellers, at the 16th-century Hest Bank Hotel. Here, no doubt, many a traveller boosted their resolve before the crossing or celebrated their safe passage. The beer’s still good and there’s plenty of local produce on the menu.
There are local trains and buses from nearby Lancaster, which has direct trains from London, Glasgow, and Manchester (city and airport).
Where to eat
The Midland, Crown and Hest Bank hotels all have good restaurants. Also worth trying are Atkinson's Fish and Chips (restaurant and takeaway; a seaside tradition) and Artisan Delicatessen & Cafe (great local produce and friendly service).