Napoleon, Dan Dare and lots of books: discover a side to Southport that's way more than just excellent fish and chips
Southport is about a lot more than just the Royal Open Championship of golf, as we discover when we get off the train to find Memphis Pete serenading us with a bit of Elvis and Johnny Cash. “There’s good friendly people here,” he drawls, “You gotta brin’ the music to them.” No argument here.
All this culture makes us thirsty, so we swiftly sashay to Darcys Tea & Dining Rooms (52 Eastbank Street), a member of the Tea Guild. Other members of the guild include the Dorchester and the Ritz. This tea room is so highly rated, it’s even won awards, and its teapot stands and distinctly Edwardian décor are all original, whether sourced from the Internet or from car boot sales. The teas, needless to say, are utterly fantastic.
We wander down Lord Street and find out that Louis Napoleon III lived here, and fell in love with the place so much that later in his career he asked Georges Eugene Haussmann to rebuild Paris to resemble the wide boulevard. Betcha didn’t know that one!
Broadhurst Booksellers on Market Street (5-7) might well provide answers if you didn’t – it’s been in the town since 1920 and is the oldest independent bookshop in the country. There are several floors of books old and new to get stuck into and under the watchful gaze of Laurie Hardman we spend far too long browsing. The literary history of this seaside town is actually rather impressive, with Dan Dare creator Frank Hampson also having been a sometime resident.
Time for more books, and we find them in Wayfarers Shopping Arcade, a 110-year-old building in Lord Street, where three-time Grand National winner Red Rum – a local horse, trained on Southport beach – has a statue in bronze. Not life-size (unless he was about three feet tall, but it seems unlikely). Still after reading material? Try the odd/dotty/fab Parkinsons of Southport, which also stocks great and slightly bizarre things made of shells and all manner of curiosities.
Traditionally, Southport is a seaside town and amidst the swathes of excellent fish and chip shops we eat our fill before taking the electric tram down the UK’s oldest iron pier (it’s also the second longest). Three quarters of a mile long, the pier is very popular with tourists, not least because on a clear day there are views of both Cumbria and North Wales from the end. It’s misty when we visit, so unfortunately all we can view are a few seagulls flying about over the water, but we’ll let them off, as at the very end of said pier is a fantastic penny arcade full of machines that will only take pre-decimalisation 1d coins. Remember them? No, me neither.
Southport is a town with much to recommend it, and in these days of belt-tightening, more people are choosing to holiday in the UK rather than taking expensive flights abroad. And though that’s a slightly upsetting reason to rediscover what’s on our doorsteps, nonetheless it’s entirely worth it. Southport is a place where an antiquarian booksellers can find itself next to a cheap-plazzy joke shop, which is next to a Lawnmower Museum (106-115 Shakespeare Street). There are several excellent hotels to serve families and business visitors alike, and just out of town is the lovely Churchtown, well worth a visit for its cake shop and lovely sandstone buildings. It’s quiet, and great.
Arrive at the right time (July or early August) and Southport will be swathed in flowers – the town won North West In Bloom 2007 – as well as hosting jazz festivals, air shows and Southport Comedy Week.
And no need to don those plus fours and start hacking your way around the course, either.
Where to stay
The Vincent Hotel: an opulent-feeling four-star hotel, with a zinc and granite facade, that also houses an excellent restaurant. A new addition to Southport's excellent hotels, it's a favourite pre-golf haunt for more than one ex-professional footballer. Kenny Dalglish and Alan Hansen have both been spotted here recently. (98 Lord Street)
Scarisbrick Hotel: handily situated right in the middle of the wide boulevard that Napoleon was so enamoured of. The Scarisbrick hotel can also design a bespoke golf break for the budding hacker within. (Lord Street)
Best Western Royal Clifton: a traditional three-star hotel in a grand Victorian building that offers coastal views. Ask for a room overlooking the gardens and seafront for best (if not cheapest) results. (The Promenade)
Britannia Prince Of Wales Southport: the central location and relatively affordable rooms make this Victorian hotel worth a look. The gardens are lovely in the summer and it's within decent walking distance of Hesketh Park and the nearby Botanic Gardens, Martin Mere Wildfowl Trust, the beach and Southport Pier, the Queen's Jubilee Nature Trail and the beautiful Kings Gardens. Phew! Got all that? (Lord Street)