Paris of the North or Southport of South?

Photo of Steve McKenna

STEVE McKENNA visits an English coastal resort town with a surprising French connection

The story goes that, in 1838, with France still reeling from the aftershocks of the 1789 revolution and the tumultuous Napoleonic era, a young prince under political exile in England fancied a break on the seaside.

Charles-Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of the Napoleon, swapped London for Southport, then a genteel bathing resort on England’s north-west coast — “the Queen of the Lancashire Riviera” as they call it, tongue in cheek, in these parts.

The prince is said to have taken lodgings off Lord Street, a broad, handsome, tree-lined stretch that had emerged in the 1820s, when the families of two local Lords of the Manor commissioned a new street that would have a well-to-do air and be fringed with developments not of “an industrial or offensive nature”.

This, remember, was during the industrial revolution, when smoke-billowing mills and factories were mushrooming in vast numbers, especially in the north of England. Lord Street, with its manicured side gardens and refined shops and houses, bucked the trend of conventional urban planning and so impressed apparently was the prince that a decade or so later, when he’d returned home to become French Emperor Napoleon III, he tasked the civil servant Baron Haussmann to transform Paris’ medieval cityscape into a modern metropolis graced with long, wide avenues like the Champs-Elysees.

No one really knows if Southport really did inspire the prince, but Lord Street can nevertheless stake a fair claim to being one of Europe’s first real boulevards. And despite no longer being in its Victorian pomp, strolling along Lord Street today, it still has a sense of grandeur that you wouldn’t necessarily expect in a northern English seaside town.

Wedged between two roundabouts, this flaneur-friendly street unfurls for 1.6km; one side is flanked by handsome old houses and civic buildings, shaded lawns with flowers, statues, fountains and war memorials; the other side is mainly lined with glass-and-iron covered walkways and arcades, hotels, banks, shops, department stores, al fresco cafes, boutiques and a few boarded-up businesses and empty units.

At various points of the year, temporary stalls stud the pavements, and today there are ones selling speciality cheeses and coffees, plus vendors serving crepes, noodles, burgers and Venezuelan arepas.

This being England, by the sea, the aroma of fried food is never far away whatever day you visit. Having said that, we enjoy a nice lunch in Bistrot Pierre, a smart, airy, hang-out at the corner of Lord Street and Nevill Street.

Dining on the likes of beef bourguignon and creme brulee, as tunes from a street musician playing his accordion drift through the bistro’s open front windows, as people wine and dine on the sunny terrace out front, you can almost kid yourself that you’re in France.

Southport has been dubbed “The Paris of the North”, but many locals insist the French capital should be known as the “Southport of the South”. Lord Street is a fine place to walk off your lunch and so, too, is the town’s 1.1km-long pier, which begins just north of Nevill Street, and is, after Southend’s in Essex, Britain’s longest seaside pier. Passing a statue of Queen Victoria, we step on to the pier near Silcock’s Funland — one of the town’s retro amusement arcades — and we hear a crooner belting out renditions of Elvis and Roy Orbison hits to a mix of pensioners and young families sat by the tearooms of King’s Gardens, the restored Victorian pleasure grounds that nestle below the pier.

Set around a large boating lake, the 7ha gardens are another charming place for a walk and have several diversions, including a model railway village. After bridging over the gardens, the pier finally reaches the coast. Back in the 1980s, when my parents would bring my siblings and I on summer day trips from Manchester, I recall playing soccer and cricket on Southport’s vast sweep of golden sand.

When the tide was out, it took an age for our little legs to reach the Irish Sea. Today, the tide is in — and the cold water doesn’t entice us for a swim, so Mum, Dad and I continue ambling, dodging the little pier train that rumbles past every now and then. At the end of the pier, a couple of fishermen are angling near the new pavilion, which is designed in contemporary style, with two sections; one with a smart cafe full of natural light, the other crammed with quirky Victorian and Edwardian arcade machines.

We relax outside, inhale the salty sea air and cast our eyes out to sea. Glancing south, we glimpse the silhouetted Welsh mountains of Snowdonia, in the distant north are the Cumbrian hills near the Lake District.

Also clearly visible is the sprawling seaside resort of Blackpool — 20km north as the gulls fly. Southport considers itself a quieter, “posher” alternative to boisterous Blackpool, but its Lancashire rival has its own French connection. Dominating the skyline is the Blackpool Tower, which was unveiled in 1894, modelled on the Eiffel Tower.

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