The seafront here in Morecambe has seen better days. Although it’s early in the spring season, a kiosk selling ice cream, sweets and treats is doing fair business even though grey clouds gather to the west over the Irish sea.
Around the corner of the bay, a leisurely 40-minute stroll down the promenade and its concrete seats and skate-park furniture, past the jetty with its concrete fish and shell casts, is Heysham, where one local pub is cryptically called The Nuclear Arms by locals in honour of the power generation station that supplies electricity for this portion of Lancashire and more.
And to the north, about 30 km away, is Barrow-in-Furness, a port where the Royal Navy’s nuclear submarines are built and a town whose deaths from drug overdoses rank it as one of the worst per capita in England and Wales.
There’s no shortage of flats for sale in the former seafront hotels that have been converted after the tourists stopped coming to Morecambe as they did before.
Alex, 77, a retired printer and a widower, has found recent joy in a new Labrador that enjoys splashing in the tides that lap up to the promenade.
“It can be a bit bleak in the winter,” he tells Weekend Review. “As soon as the sun shines, it’s a great place to live and there’s nowhere like it.”
He moved north from London more than 20 years ago after the plant shut down, ran a tea shop in Heysham village for several years, and knows more than a thing or two about the seasonality of tourism here.
“You make your money here for six months of the year,” he says. “The rest of the time you’re holding on until the spring season comes. If it’s a good summer, you’ll do well. If it’s rainy, watch out.”
Like many seaside towns up and down the coasts of Britain, Morecambe’s heyday came in the two decades immediately after the Second World War.
“It used to be a place where families came for two weeks,” recalls Lynn, 67. She and her former husband ran a seafront hotel which attracted repeat customers for the same weeks every year.
“We had 14 double bedrooms and did bed, breakfast and evening meals for £9 (Dh43) a day in high season,” she says. “But we just couldn’t compete when Spain opened up and people could fly to the Costa Del Sol for £79 for a week’s package holiday. That killed Morecambe.”
And the vagaries of the weather during a typical British summer didn’t help either. “If they went to Spain, they knew they would get sunshine,” Lynn says. “Here, it could rain for their whole two weeks.”
It’s not as if Morecambe hasn’t tried.
Back in 1994, Blobbyland was supposed to be the tourism development on the seafront that would breathe new life into the town. Noel Edmunds, a former celebrity DJ on the BBC who used Mr Blobby as a cartoon personality on one of his television specials, was seen as the public face of the theme park.
Blobbyland closed down after 13 weeks.
The Eden Project in Cornwall is about the connection with plants. This is about the connection with this wonderful environment in Morecambe bay.
“No one knows what happened with all that money,” Alex complains. “It was a shambles.”
Just off the seafront promenade once stood Frontierland, a plastic and papier-maché Wild West theme park. It was demolished five years ago to make way for a spanking brand new retail and leisure development.
Nothing has happened since that £17 million development project was announced.
That whole Blobbyland experience, along with the death of Frontierland, are two main reasons why locals are not holding their breaths now, adopting a wait-and-see attitude to the next big idea being pitched for the town of 35,000.
If the Eden Project ever sees the light of day, Morecambe will be home to a spanking new domed complex that will turn it into the jewel of the Lancashire coast — no, the northeast of England.
“They want to build in on the Bubbles [swimming pool] site,” Alex says. “We’ve heard it all before. [About] £100 million now. Sorry if I sound a bit sceptical, but it’ll probably turn out like Blobbyland.”
A good 500 km away as the crow flies to the south and west from the shifting sands of Morecambe Bay is the Eden Project — an ambitious environmental and biospehere project that has transformed a reclaimed china clay pit into one of southwest England’s premier tourism and research projects.
Before the Eden Project came along two decades ago, the clay pit was a huge scar on the local landscape, gouged out and exhausted over 160 years of open pit mining — and used at one stage as the surface of the alien planet of Margrathea in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
Located just outside the towns of St Austell and St Blazey in Cornwall, the Eden Project attracts more than a million visitors a year. It’s part entertainment complex, part biosphere reserve, dominated by a series of biodomes — huge hexagonal structures that contain tropical and Mediterranean plants and insect species living in carefully-controlled climates.
Now, the Eden Project is offering hope that maybe Morecambe might get its swagger back.
The Eden Project wants to expand and is planning to open a version of its Cornish tourist attraction on the seafront in the Lancashire seaside resort.
The environmental centre — which also boasts the UK’s longest and fastest zip line — attracts more than 1 million visitors a year. It said it was looking for funding for the project after carrying out a feasibility study. It is understood the Morecambe project would cost about £100 million to launch, half of which would be government funding, with the remainder provided by private investors and philanthropists.
Simon Bellamy, the head of Eden Project International, said its vision was to “reimagine what the 21st-century seaside resort could look like” and that it would be different from the Cornish site. It wants to globalise its eco-friendly mission and plans at least one Eden on every continent except Antarctica.
“The Eden Project in Cornwall is about the connection with plants,” Bellamy said. “This is about the connection with this wonderful environment in Morecambe bay.”
The feasibility study suggests Morecambe’s Eden will be smaller than its Cornish sister, capable of hosting 750,000 visitors a year, paying between £20 and £27 a ticket — with discounts for locals. It will tell the story of “how we as people can benefit from the bay but also how much care we need to lavish on it in order to keep its ecosystem going,” says Jolyon Brewis, the architect.
It will be based around the biggest mussel shell, the “pavilion of wonder”, said Harland. “Within there you will have experiences that you will recognise from Eden — not a rainforest but certainly plants and places to eat and see art and kinetic sculptures. Then we want to bring the bay to life in some way, by a series of experiences which may have augmented the virtual reality experiences. Another element will be science-based. The final element is going to be the health and well-being aspect.”
“People used to be prescribed a trip to Morecambe for their health,” said Brewis. “What would that look like now? How great would it be if people came to this place because they wanted a great day out but if it was really good for them and ultimately the planet too?”
He talks of building a “21st-century version of a lido” and there could be treatments on offer.
Yet for all the hubris, Eden North can only happen if the government pledges at least £40 million of the build cost, acknowledges Dave Harland, Eden’s chief executive.
So far, the government in London has paid £100,000 — money spent on that feasibility study, adding to £1 million given collectively by Lancaster University, Lancashire county council, Lancaster city council and the Local Enterprise Partnership.
The other half will come from private and philanthropic funds as well as crowdfunding, Harland said.
“We are confident. We have got momentum now. We need to keep going and keep the pressure on. Clearly, at the moment conversations in government are a little hamstrung, but there is an end coming to that, one way or the other, and we are going to have a project that is shovel-ready,” he said.
So far, the Cornwall project has resulted in a £2 billion investment into the region’s economy.
“If the project does actually happen and Morecambe can get even a fraction of that, I might have to look at opening up the tearooms again,” Alex says with a chuckle. “But I’m can’t wait too long.”
Sure, it all sounds very exciting, but Lynn is not holding her breadth right now either. She has a far more pressing issue. The council toilets on the seafront are closed and were supposed to be open at the weekend.
Over the winter months, the payment machines were broken into and removed, leaving the council short of the funds to be able to open them up as planned.
“If the council can’t get the toilets open on time, how are we supposed to believe that the Eden Project will happen?” she wonders, excusing herself in a rush.
–With inputs from agencies
Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe.