Shop in style on broad boulevards of...Lancashire

Costa Rica

Southport, NW England’s quieter alternative to Blackpool, is back to the top of its game, as one of the classic seaside resorts. I was amazed by a grand old pier in renewed Victorian pomp, a spacious street fit for an emperor, sunlit glass-roof arcades, and the best asparagus around. I found beavers and red squirrels, Britain’s noisiest toad. And more golf courses than I could swing a club at.

Lord it over

Outside Paris, you won’t find many grander mile-long boulevards, fringed with covered walkways to keep the rain off pampered shoppers, and elegant civic gardens. Lord Street is an outstanding example of Victorian town planning. I liked the Victorian and C20th paintings in the wonderful little (and free) Atkinson Art Gallery. And the original shopping arcades. Best is Wayfarers Arcade, with its mahogany staircases and glass roof – it was bathed in sunshine on my visit. The rambling second-hand bookshop Kernaghan Books was a delight. ( Prince Louis Napoleon lived here. Later, as Emperor of France, he asked Haussman to design broad boulevards for Paris. Coincidence?

Pier precious.

There’s a happy ending to the story of one of the original “pleasure piers”, opened in 1860. The council almost tore it down in the 1990s. But after a £7 million restoration, it reopened in 2002 – at almost a mile, the second longest pier in Britain. A purpose built tram waited temptingly at the town end. But I  took the bracing walk instead, on the wooden slatted deck, far out over the wide shimmering sands. Pioneer aviators landed here in the early days of flying. (Southport Air Show, September.)  My end of the pier rewards included original penny slot machines (”What the Butler Saw” was so innocent). And a good Lancashire cup of tea.  

Beavers return

Beavers were released in Scotland in 2009, back in the wild after 500 years. But they were in England first, in an enclosure at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust’s reserve at Martin Mere, just N of Southport.  Twiggy and Woody (stars of BBC’s Autumnwatch) have their first baby, Wizzy. Also in 2009 it opened the latest attraction, an enclosure of Asian otters. WWT is diversifying into mammals, but its rare waterbirds of the world are still on noisy and multicoloured display. A record number of 88 avocets, migrants from the Mediterranean, are back. Admission costs less if you didn’t come by car. Walk from Burscough Bridge Station, a mile away.

Sea show

Three rare species feature on the coast S of Southport. (The Southport to Liverpool train, and the 21 mile Sefton Coastal Path to Seaforth, connects all these places.) Easily spotted is “Another Place” - 100 identical cast-iron, life-size figures of himself by sculptor Antony Gormley over two miles of foreshore at Crosby. These eery figures, fixed in the sand, stare into the Irish Sea. Closer to Southport is one of the largest areas of unspoilt dunes in Europe. The National Trust reserve at Formby is safe haven for some of the few remaining red squirrels in England. Britain’s noisiest toad, the natterjack, thrives in Ainsdale Sand Dunes reserve

Room with a view

From the balcony of my room in the new Ramada hotel I took in one of the widest views in coastal Britain. To the north I saw Blackpool Tower, far over the curving bay. In the south, the mountains of Wales. The hotel points like the gleaming white prow of a 1930s liner towards Marine Lake, a wide slab of aquatic leisure. Star attraction is the Southport Belle, a Mississippi-style paddle steamer. Another big civic statement is the new Marine Way Bridge, high over the water, linking the town centre to the seafront Ocean Plaza (a retail and leisure complex). This light and airy hotel, well placed for the seven courses of England's “Golf Coast”, suits the weekend leisure market the resort is courting.

Salute the shoots

Formby asparagus, grown on the local free draining sandy soil, was once good enough to be served on the Titanic. Now, after years of decline, there is Lottery funding to support local growers, who include the National Trust. They were serving Warm Asparagus and Blackstick Blue Cheese Salad, with Brioche Croutons at the Warehouse Brasserie on my visit. It is part of chef Darren Smith’s homage to local ingredients. This converted warehouse holds a clutch of awards for its menu, ranging from Roast Pork and Crispy Black Pudding, and Fleetwood Cod and Parsley Fishcakes to Tuna Sashimi with Wasabi. Its fish is all from sustainable fisheries.

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