England: Postcards from the North

Seaside resorts such as Morecambe have enjoyed something of a revival in the past few years.

By Anthea Gerrie, January 29, 2009

Given that Morecambe has the ring of a seaside postcard about it, the image of a forlorn British resort that has seen better days, it is the last place you would expect millions to have been invested in a spectacular hotel aimed squarely at sophisticates.

Yet against all odds, the Midland, which once played host to the cream of British entertainers and socialites, has been restored from derelict shell to its former art deco splendour, and is pulling houses as full as those George Formby, Joe Loss and Alma Cogan once played to in the town’s Winter Gardens.

Not hard to see why; the building itself, originally commissioned as a railway hotel in 1932, is magnificent.

Many of the murals and reliefs by Eric Ravilious and Eric Gill were restored to full glory, with stylishly decorated rooms opening on to a glamorous curve of balcony loverlooking the bay and jetty.  These, plus an all-day bar and a great sea-view restaurant, make Morecambe once again a destination in its own right, and part of a food and culture-driven regeneration that is transforming the entire north-west coast.

You could put it down to the focus on nearby Liverpool, this year’s European City of Culture, which would be the natural starting point for an exploration of the Merseyside and Lancashire resorts.  

Formby Golf Resort and Spa: one of more than a dozen championship courses in the area

Formby Golf Resort and Spa: one of more than a dozen championship courses in the area

The city has finally acquired, in a brand-new Malmaison, the dockside boutique hotel it was crying out for, while the eponymous boutique hotel on Hope Street, in the heart of town, fields a multi-award-winning restaurant in the London Carriage Works.

And it is but a short creep up the coast by hire car to Morecambe Bay by way of elegant Formby and Southport.

There is much more to Morecambe itself, which exists within a charming 1950s timewarp, than just the Midland.  

The illuminations which were the town’s claim to fame years before Blackpool jumped on the bandwagon may be gone, but in their place is a splendid rebuilt prom with a statue of Eric Morecambe as its centre, and shadow lanterns which cast enchanting projections at the feet of evening strollers.  

Highly eclectic shopping punctuates a daytime promenade; silversmith Adele Bowker may not have a shop, but you can find her exquisite jewllery at the QSand arts centre, which shows the work of local artists, while Tony Vettese has one of the finest collections of second-hand books in the country at his Old Pier Bookshop.

Tony and his friend Philip Modica, a former fashion photographer who owns the charming Artisan Cafe a few doors down along the front, are great characters to chat with about the old and the new Morecambe — the latter is particularly known for his cakes.  

Sweet tooths are also catered for at Chill, a juice bar with a fine line in smoothies; Brucciani’s, where the same Italian family has been dispensing ice-cream for more than 70 years, and the Old Sweet Shop, a century-old nostalgiafest resident in the Winter Gardens, whose theatre is under renovation. 

Further along the prom there is an indoor antiques market fielding more than 100 stalls.  For the intrepid, the must-do activity in Morecambe is a walk across those so-wide but so-treacherous sands with Queen’s Guide Cedric Robinson, who has been leading the treks for 45 years.

Nostalgia and architecture buffs will also enjoy the Echoes of Art Deco guided tour which recalls the resort’s 1930s heyday.  

The pretty nearby coastal village of Heysham, which has a ruined chapel and rock-hewn Viking graves, and the elegant, historic riverside town of Lancaster are each only 10 minutes’ drive away and well worth a trip.

Those who enjoy the old-fashioned ambience of Morecambe will be positively wowed by somewhat more sophisticated Southport, the so-called Paris of the north.  The seafront still fields a working carousel and candyfloss stands, and while beach life is not much in evidence, walkers and beachcombers will love the wild surrounding dunes. However, many visitors come just to dine, or to shop in eclectic boutiques such as Coco which must have dressed many a Liverpool and Everton WAG.

Southport was first put on the foodie map by the Warehouse Brasserie, a serious, stylish restaurant with plenty of the fine fish for which the coast is famous and locally-grown samphire, asparagus and other produce.

Now the owner has fielded a brand-new boutique hotel, the Vincent, right on Southport’s famous Lord Street, whose shopkeepers must be muttering behind their wrought-iron colonnades about its bold modern lines.   

Elegant Lord Street, a wide Victorian boulevard packed with pavement cafes and punctuated with beautiful civic gardens, is another piece of Britain fossilised in an architectural time-warp; the Vincent, with its designer-clad doormen, will usher it with panache into the 21st century.

The rooms are lovely, and the V-Deli below serves spectacular breakfasts, as well as lunch, dinner and an afternoon tea starring a  chocolate fountain.

Formby, lying between the two resorts, has acquired a reputation as Britain’s “golf coast”.  Amidst more than a dozen championship courses including the Royal Birkdale, home of this year’s Open, lies the Formby Hall Golf Resort and Spa, where as well as a round on the greens,  high-class treatments are on offer at the new Phytomer spa.  

The guest rooms are spacious and comfortable, and while dinner left room for improvement, a great breakfast buffet starring an entire side of smoked salmon and a bevy of fresh fruit was worth getting up for.

Not to be missed just down the coast in Crosby is Another Place, Antony Gormley’s memorable installation of 100 cast-iron figures scattered along the shoreline facing the sea. Serious foodies who make it all the way to Morecambe will want to continue north around the bay to the genteel little town of Grange-over-Sands, which seems hardly to have changed at all.  

However, at the tiny village of Cartmel, just a mile inland, chef Simon Rogan is leading a Heston Blumenthal-type food revolution at L’Enclume, where guests enjoy many tiny tasting courses. Despite his Michelin star, Rogan is not too proud to cater separately for guests with special dietary requirements.

Stylish b&b is also on offer in the delightfully rustic premises, while a second Rogan restaurant down the road offers more conventionally-structured meals. Cartmel sits on the edge of the Lake District, permitting fell as well as coastal exploration, and one-way car hire makes it possible for southerners to start in Liverpool and end an odyssey through the north-west in Lancaster.  

However, it’s worth considering ending a trip with lunch at the new 2009 Good Food Guide Restaurant of the Year, Ramsons, an excellent Italian-style eatery in Ramsbottom, and dropping the car back in Wigan or Manchester instead.

Travel facts

Virgin Trains ( 08457 222333,https://www.buytickets.virgintrains.co.uk) offer “open jaw” single tickets to Liverpool, Lancaster and Wigan from about London – Liverpool from £13.00
Lancaster – London from £16.50
Wigan – London from £13.00

Rooms at the Midland Hotel (01524 424000, www.midlandmorecambe.co.uk ) from £109, at Malmaison Liverpool (0151 229 5000, www.malmaison-liverpool.com) from £79, at the Vincent(01704-534400, www.thevincenthotel.com) from £140, at Formby Hall(0704 875 699, www.formbyhallgolfresort.co.uk ) from £135,   L’Enclume(015395 36362, www.lenclume.co.uk) from £98 double.  More information at www.visitenglandsnorthwest.com.

Jewish North-west coast

Southport’s Jewish community dates back more than 100 years, and the resort has two synagogues, but there are no kosher restaurants in the area. Sister Maria Antoniazzi, a Morecambe-born nun, saved many Roman Jews during the Holocaust and is to have her name inscribed at Yad Vashem.

Last updated: 3:13pm, March 11 2009