To northerners of a certain age the word Wakes will always be associated with nostalgic recollections of a joyous, carefree childhood at the seaside. Long days of unremitting sunshine, acres of golden sand, forlorn donkeys, blaring amusement arcades and, above all, an overwhelming sense of freedom from the shackles imposed by dreary mill towns.
Such idyllic memories have, of course, been imperceptibly distilled, massaged and enhanced by time.
Nowadays when flights to the Costas, the Caribbean and even China are readily available it is a sobering exercise to recall the selection of ‘bracing, fun-filled delights’ available to and within the financial limitations of thousands of mill workers in the industrial north. Blackpool, ‘Playground of the North’ was the Mecca for thousands of devoted pilgrims. It seemed to offer an exhilarating blend of sophisticated style and saucy cesspit when the exotic alternative contenders were lined up: Morecambe, New Brighton, Rhyl, Llandudno. The holiday camps were still under construction.
My abiding memories of the Wakes stem from the late 1930s and early 40s when I was a child in Darwen, then a decaying cotton dominated town with a sprinkling of light industrial workshops. The week before Darwen Fair-as the holiday fortnight was known -was boom time for barbers and ladies’ hairdressers. There must have been an edict – probably framed by the National Hairdressers’ Federation – which stipulated ‘No male person shall enter the Playground of the North until he has been shorn.’ As a result in the days before the Wakes, chattering, patient queues formed beneath the red and white striped poles which adorned most barbers’ shops to obtain their passports. Ruthlessly sheared they would reassemble in their hundreds on Platform One on Saturday morning when the first holiday special was due.
Mill girls were styled for the holiday by a ladies’ hairdresser or a friend down the street. The wives of office managers, foremen, and shopkeepers were coiffed in a salon where they were served coffee in their curlers. Many, anxious to keep their newly styled hair immaculate for their first evening in Blackpool, turned up for the holiday special train still in curlers under a headsquare or scarf, a tradition faithfully preserved thirty years later in the early episodes of Coronation Street.
The station entrance was a flagged tenebrous cavern modelled on a mediaeval dungeon, a style still favoured by the designers of public conveniences in provincial towns in North Korea. A broken trolley served as a seat for any unfortunate passenger compelled to linger and endure the maelstrom of violent icy blasts that surged from the open platforms above. Today’s anorak brigade of railway enthusiasts, steeped in the ‘romance’ of the Age of Steam, would go deliriously daft with delight at the treasures to be viewed. Spluttering gas lamps, an enormous overhead water tank, three vending machines dispensing chocolate bars for two old pennies and the latest firefighting equipment in the shape of half a dozen red painted Victorian buckets containing sand with the initials LMS in black. Perfect for dealing with an inferno!
There were THREE waiting rooms. One was for First Class passengers- a rare migrant species- who could contemplate in the comfort of mildewed seats and survey an array of faded posters extolling the Wonders of Worthing, Sunny Rhyl and Beautiful Bognor, while sampling the allure and pervading odour of a neglected mausoleum. Third Class travellers – there was no Second Class on LMS-could relax in a grubby grotto where a yellow glow hissed disconcertingly from a gas lamp, the faint light enhancing the tawdry wall coverings and the ancient linoleum which covered the floor. The third waiting room was marked ‘Ladies Only.’ Outside was a six-foot wide metal plate proclaiming Anaemic Girls Need Virol- a brown glutinous concoction administered to children as a bedtime ‘treat’.
A week of adventure, fun, and undiluted bliss beckoned
I still smile wistfully remembering the elation as the excursion train chugged into view; the sensation of being swept along in a human tidal wave; the excitement of helping my dad with the portmanteau containing my bucket and spade for the sands; the impatient belch of the engine that sent a spiraling plume of dense smoke into the sky. It seemed exciting to get away from the drabness of Darwen to the alluring ambience of the Playground of the North.
Once aboard, a window seat was essential, preferably back to the engine. A notice above the window alerted passengers to the dangers of sticking out their heads. It read: Passengers are warned not to put their heads out of the window. Invariably it had been vandalised substituting ‘heads’ for ‘lads’. Every child had heard gruesome, totally fictitious, tales of people who had ignored the warning and been summarily decapitated by a passing express, and every compartment seemed to contain a large middle-aged man with a gingery moustache and a pipe taking his thick Harris Tweed jacket on its annual outing.
There appeared to be no serious attempt by the train driver to break the Mallard’s British Rail speed record. It took just over an hour to cover the 36 miles to Blackpool and as the final minutes ticked away the excitement mounted to fever pitch. The first glimpse of the Tower was greeted with the sort of jubilation the famished crew who sailed with Columbus must have experienced on spotting land after surviving everything the uncharted Atlantic had thrown at them.
Blackpool North station. Journey’s end. Stepping from the ‘Wakes Special’ and emerging in bright sunlight was an invigorating experience; Judy Garland taking her first tentative steps into the Land of Oz. A week of adventure, fun, and undiluted bliss beckoned. Romance, perhaps!
Now the stuff of dreams and childhood memories.
Images supplied by Eddy Rawlinson