Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Blackpool Part Two - Saturday

I didn’t tell you about our room with a view in the first part of this piece. From Room 102 on the first floor of the Ibis Styles Hotel you get an almost perfect view of the sea. Almost. For your own safety there is a clunking great panel covering a large chunk of the left hand side of the window, but there is still enough glass there to enable you to see a long way out to sea. It would be possible to see even more of it if this were not the beginning of March. Still, there is scope enough for gazing out at the sea, drinking tea and eating shortbread and, if you want to be really pretentious about it, putting on a very thoughtful, scheming facial expression in the manor of Nucky Thompson looking out over the Atlantic City boardwalk. Across the corridor the Ibis Styles also has a Room 101 but we skipped that. I’m not a particularly superstitious man but to go there would be just asking for trouble given our propensity for balls ups.

As I looked out on to the sea I saw two suspiciously person-shaped figures in the distance. They looked to be walking along and then sporadically bending down to pick something up. The distance between them never changed for a time and for those moments I thought I was seeing things, that they were just objects bobbing around in the sea to no effect. But then they walked back towards the prom, huddling together to no doubt discuss whatever they had been out there doing. They could have been cockle picking. Do they have cockle pickers in Blackpool? They certainly weren’t just out for a pleasant stroll along the sand and a wade into the sea at this time of year. It might have a prom and a hotel with a big glass window you can look out on to the sea from, but Blackpool is not Atlantic City.

I’ll tell you what Nucky Thompson wouldn’t put up with. The lack of hot food available at breakfast. Continental only. I shudder to think what Jeremy Clarkson would have done in these circumstances. Not being an arrogant Tory bore myself, I managed to resist the temptation to punch the receptionist and threaten him with a trip to the job centre. It was a bit much though. It wasn’t as if the room was cheap. The least they could offer you is a couple of fried eggs. Emma assured me that there was no option to book a room without breakfast online, which makes sense because she would not ordinarily book breakfast in a hotel. We’re Wetherspoons top early-morning customers when we are on our travels in the UK. Us and the old men who take their first sip of bitter at 8.30 in the morning. How do they do that? Hoovering up our underwhelming breakfast cereals, pieces of toast and croissants we resolve to go out and buy breakfast the next morning, even though we have already paid for it here.

We headed out towards Blackpool Tower. It was only five minutes from the hotel so we reckoned we could go up there, and then be out in plenty of time to have a stroll towards the football ground. Stopping at one or more pubs along the way. More on which later. You’re ahead of me if you have guessed by now that getting to the top of the tower was not exactly routine. Having bought tickets yesterday we ignored the queue of people buying them and immediately got lost. I spotted a small corridor with a reception sign pointing towards it. It led us to a girl who informed us that nobody would be going up to the top of the tower at the moment because it was too windy. It was very windy, but it hadn’t occurred to us that they would close the Tower Eye, as they call it. By the way did you know that the Rockefeller Center in New York sways in the wind? This was a thought that made Emma feel a bit queasy as I recall, in fact it still does. I remained sceptical. Surely you would feel a building swaying? Evidently not. It has to sway anyway for reasons that I don’t understand and which you have to be a science nerd to grasp. Or at least faintly interested.

There was an alternative to the Tower Eye. We’d also bought tickets yesterday to Illuminasia, an indoor lights exhibition located in the Winter Gardens. We were going to visit on the Sunday but events had conspired against us and so we’d have to change tack. If breakfast was underwhelming then Illuminasia was either closely related to underwhelming or it was its doppleganger. Illuminasia contains around eight rooms within which are various representations of landmarks, land and sea creatures and Chinese lanterns. Lots of Chinese lanterns. It was mostly assembled by Chinese workers using a gazillion bazillions tons of steel and oh….I don’t know….some old rope. The lanterns are accompanied by the story of a Chinese city which was about to come under threat from the evil Emperor (not Sir Alex Ferguson) but which staved off said threat by lighting up lanterns and setting off fireworks to give the impression that they had already been, to use the technical term, bombed to shit. Apparently it worked and now there are lots of lanterns in a moderately sized room in Blackpool to commemorate the fact.

Of slightly more interest were the landmarks. Models of Tower Bridge, the leaning tower of Pisa (amusingly referred to by one small boy doing the rounds as just ‘pizza’), the Sphynx and the Statue Of Liberty are diverting enough, but we could have well done without the laser show which some poor girl has to rock up on to the stage and perform every 15 minutes or so. Her bizarre green wig is clearly designed to glow in the dark but frankly made her look like a transvestite with very poor taste in head-dress. Her dance moves were meant to give the impression that she was moulding and shaping the lasered lights in spectacular style but actually indicated that she was filling time until the summer begins again and she can go and sod off to be a redcoat in Minehead. If none of this nauseates you quite enough there is an accompanying quiz to complete as you go around the rooms to view the exhibition. I say quiz, it looks like a £2 Lotto scratchcard with multiple choice answers to taxing questions, the gist of which is basically ‘can you count?’. I suspect this might be aimed at a younger audience rather than a grumpy biff approaching 40.

Within a merciful amount of time we were on our way down to the football ground. This was the reason we were here, after all. Well, it is the reason we picked this particular weekend. Blackpool FC, currently languishing at the very bottom of the Championship, were hosting Emma’s Sheffield Wednesday. Sheffield Wednesday could very well be a term meaning mediocrity in a foreign language, but I always enjoy going to see their games. Just for the experience. I’m priced out of going to Liverpool who, in any case, probably operate a similarly scandalous policy to Manchester United and Everton when it comes to disabled fans. Basically they tell you which games you can go to because they haven’t got enough space to accommodate you. Only two or three Premier League grounds have stadia which meet the minimum requirement for the amount of wheelchair accessible seating which is a bloody scandal. Liverpool are not one of those who comply. Why would they? It’s expensive and they have got Kolo Toure’s wages to pay. Blackpool, on the other hand, is a club which is relatively easy to visit as an away fan. Probably because they are not very good.

After around 20 minutes ambling up the prom towards Blackpool’s Bloomfield Road ground pointing out potential chippy stops for the way back to the hotel, we happened upon a pub which we thought might be a nice spot for a pre-game beverage. The Lifeboat Inn is situated just off the promenade, a fact which had already attracted several Sheffield Wednesday fans. You can spot Wednesday fans a mile off. Well, you can if you are aware that Wednesday play in blue and white vertical stripes. What I was not aware of was a sign on the door which read;


Ignoring this completely and focusing only on whether the pub would have wheelchair access and a spare seat for Emma, I crashed through the door. If you hadn’t seen the sign you could be forgiven for thinking it was all on one level. The step was very small. I thought about this as my front wheels went over it, dug into the carpet and lifted the back end of my chair inexorably up into the air. It was one of those moments which I am sure all wheelchair users have experienced when they know they are going to fall out of their chair but they don’t really have an awful lot of input into the question of how to stop themselves. It being such a small drop I knew I wasn’t going to hurt myself as I put my hands out to break my fall. But I also knew that the embarrassment was going to be considerable. That’s quite something to have to contemplate for the one or two seconds it takes to hit the deck. In a flash I was on my hands and knees, my ankles in their traditional fall-out-of-wheelchair position, trapped inside my footplate. After much wriggling and trying to avoid eye contact with the girl sat directly opposite the front door who must have been quite startled by the man literally falling through the door, I managed to free my ankles from my chair. Half of Blackpool rushed to pick me up which, as fellow wheelchair users will also know, is the absolute slowest way for anyone who has recently fallen out of their chair to get back into it. Politely declining all offers of help and continuing to avoid eye contact with anyone, I clambered back into my chair.

We left.

Further up the promenade there is a pub called The Manchester. It sounded very much like the Wednesday fans had taken residence already as we passed it. You don’t hear ‘Hi-ho Sheffield Wednesday’ in The Manchester on a normal day, I wouldn’t have thought. Yet the front of the pub was not accessible and so we were directed to the side door and advised to go up in the lift to the family room. This meant missing out on the loutish sing-song behaviour of the Wednesday fans first hand (although we could still hear them from upstairs) but after falling into The Lifeboat I was prepared to settle for less. We sat at a table and drank soft drinks, partly because of last night’s exploits and partly because by this time there was only going to be time for one, and I don’t really do one. At least it was reasonably quiet and there was no problem getting served. Getting to the toilet was a little more problematic, principally because a young boy was getting an absolute scolding from his mother for failing to notify her of the fact that he needed a wee. Across the room was a young man wearing a Saints jumper. We get everywhere. I doubt very much whether he was here to see Sheffield Wednesday.

We found the ground just by following the crowd. We’d been before on our last visit but we couldn’t remember the way. On that occasion I had my photo taken with the statue of Stan Mortenson. We’d wanted to buy tickets for the football then, for a game against Hull City, but it had been moved from the Saturday to the Monday by the game’s governing body, Sky Sports. Outside the ground this time there was a loud protest against the Blackpool chairman Karl Oyston. Oyston has presided over a string of disasters over the last few years since the club spent the 2010/11 season in the Premier League. Two weeks before this campaign began they only had eight registered first team players. Then manager Jose Riga performed relative miracles to get a full team out on to the pitch for their season opener with Nottingham Forest in August but couldn’t mould them into a winning side. He was predictably sacked, since when Lee Clark has struggled similarly which, as far as this group of fans chanting for Oyston’s removal are concerned, is primarily down to a lack of investment and broken promises from the chairman. Blackpool are rock bottom of the Championship and are almost certain to be relegated to the third tier at the end of the season. It is all a far cry from Charlie Adam's set-pieces and the Premier League.

Hindering Blackpool further is the state of their pitch. It’s like a farmer’s field. It cuts up horrifically and from our position just behind the advertising boardings at ground level we spend a lot of time avoiding chunks of turf that have been dislodged by sliding players. It’s a sideline view for away fans at Bloomfield Road. My Blackpool supporting friend had warned me that it was grim and, though it wasn’t exactly palatial, I was pleasantly surprised at how bearable it was. My friend has obviously never been to Knowsley Road in January. Chief turf-flinging culprit is Wednesday’s Jeremy Helan. He’s normally a winger but today he is doing a passable impersonation of the worst left-back in league football. It’s not so much that he is easy to get past. It’s more that when he wins or receives the ball he treats it like a hand grenade and smacks it as far and as aimlessly down the field as possible. To be honest the entire 90 minutes is a masterclass in head tennis and over-hit crosses. Wednesday striker Atdhei Nuhiu is in familiarly hilarious form, falling over with prolific regularity, smashing one chance straight into the legs of Blackpool goalkeeper Eliot Parish and missing the target with another from a free header. In the end the game is won by Lewis McGuguan’s inswinging free-kick from the Wednesday left, which Parish cannot decide what to do with as he waits for someone to get a touch. He ends up doing nothing as nobody gets a touch and it nestles in the far corner.

As we leave the ground the Oyston protestors have decided not to renew hostilities with the chairman and all is quiet. Apart from the murmurings of the fans as they amble away discussing one of the least eventful games of football in living memory. Like many other Wednesday fans we call in at a chippy on the way back to the hotel. I don’t normally eat fish from chippies but decide to give it a go. Fish and chips seems like exactly the sort of thing you should eat after you have been to the football. It’s quite nice as chippies go, with table service included. You don’t get table service in my local chippy. You get to shout your order at them from the bottom of the six foot step they have actually inserted since a refurbishment. DDA. Here in Blackpool the bloke serving us ruins it slightly by getting tetchy when I remind him that I ordered bread and butter. I genuinely thought he had forgotten because he brought our food over and then asked us to remind him what drinks we had ordered. So I mentioned the bread and butter and he told me, helpfully because I couldn’t see this for myself, that he only has one pair of hands.

We go out late Saturday night. Unlike last night there is no rugby league to get to the pub for and we are unlikely to get chucked out early on a Saturday night in Blackpool so there is plenty of time. We start at Yates, where the same girl comes over three times and offers us Jagerbombs. We decline every time, but are reminded of Bob Willis’ withering assessment of Gary Balance’s drunken antics in a Nottingham nightspot. His emphasis was very much on the word ‘Jagerbomb’ as if he had never heard of it before and was at a loss to understand why anybody would want such a thing. Similar to how I regard anything from the Fast And Furious franchise. Or Jeremy Clarkson.

From there it was on to The Layton Rakes, another Wetherspoons pub naturally enough. It’s much quieter than Yates’ with not a Jagerbomb or an England cricketer in sight. Although there is the odd roudy hen party to contend with. There is apparently a roof top bar but it is a little chilly to try it out tonight. For those of you who read this column for access information the toilets are upstairs but there is a lift. When I used it I was surprised also to see that there is another bar area on the upper floor, one which was even quieter and more Jagerbomb-free than the one on the ground level. If you want to get served quickly this is for you. Had I known I probably would have suggested we sit there to save me getting in and out of the lift whenever the need arose, but you live and learn.

As we made our way back to the hotel the weather had improved, with very little wind. Perhaps we would get to go to the top of Blackpool Tower on Sunday.

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