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Wakes Week

12 Feb

ud2hngysWakes Week

 

Early July 1963 and a sparrow alights upon the roof of a small terraced house that is home to my family but a slum to the bigwigs of Wigan Council. In 18 months time the sparrow, should it survive the smog from the billowing chimneys of both home and industry, will have no rooftops to visit in this part of town, every house will have been cut down by the council reaper.

Being a small boy such things caused no frowns upon me. I did get a little agitated when the paperboy was late delivering my comics to my granddads house and I admit maths gave me a headache at times, such as every time we had a maths lesson but today I had only one thing on my mind…we were going on holiday to Blackpool!

We walked it to the train station from our house in Wallgate with my dad carrying two cases. Tickets bought we joined the throng of people on the platform waiting for the Blackpool train. I just had time to visit the newspaper kiosk and clutching my pennies I eased myself through the masses and prepared myself for the big decision… Dandy Summer Special or Beano Summer Special? Beano, no Dandy, perhaps Beano then, or Dan… “Anthony hurry up the trains coming!” shouted my Mam. Beano it is and I hurried back to Mam, Dad and my two sisters.

The steam train, all smoke and noise, slowed alongside the platform and begrudgingly squealed to a halt, a mighty black dragon eager to move on. Compartment doors banged open and my sisters and I rushed on to save the seats for our parents. Cases safely stored in the overhead netting we set off on our journey. Ten minutes later my Mam got the butties out and I sat back to read my comic, this is the life!

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As we got closer to our destination my sisters and I scanned the skyline hoping to be the first to spot the black outline of the famous tower. And then it appeared, the man made monolith of mirth…

We disembarked at Central Station and joined the hosts of holidaymakers packed on the platform, shuffling their way slowly to the exits. Familiar faces lined up with us and I saw some friends from school, Dad his mates from work and Mam… well she knew everyone. A year later and this busy, perfectly good station would be flattened. I hope the Wigan sparrow didn’t come here for his holidays or he might develop a complex.

Outside the station, boys not much older than me waited with homemade trolleys to transport the cases to your lodging house for sixpence. Dad put the cases on one and off we marched like explorers going into an uncharted land. We checked into “Dunroamin” and the landlady Mrs Dunsmilin informed us of the house rules “Breakfast 7am till 8am, off the premises by 9am, no coming back before 4pm, evening meal 5pm till 6pm and the front door is locked at 11:30 pm” She peered down at me and my sisters, like a woman who had found something unpleasant on the sole of her shoe and added “And no running” No running? We’d have to be Stirling Moss to adhere to that timetable.

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Unpacked we set off for the beach with its golden sands…hang on where was the sand? Every space on the beach was taken with deckchairs, prams, tea huts, snack vans, ice cream vendors and the population of Mongolia. We managed to find a spot and settled down, Mam and Dad in the chairs and we kids digging into the sand with our tin spades and buckets. Dad even rolled his pants up a bit.

My sisters built a sandcastle and I dug a moat around it, now to fill it with water. I set off for the sea with my bucket, I knew it was out there somewhere but I couldn’t see it for deckchairs. I gingerly made my way through the canvas maze standing on feet, kids, castles, butties, lovelorn couples and mugs of tea. You could have tracked my progress by my apologetic “Sorry… Sorry… really sorry…” Finally I made it through to the beautiful blue… erm… brown sea.

I filled my bucket with water and turned to go back, but where was back? A sea of pink and white flesh faced me, with a few sports jackets thrown into the mix. I tried to retrace my steps but to no avail and people tend to stare aggressively back when you’re looking to see if they are in some way familiar in a “Did I stand on your corns earlier” fashion. Eventually my Dad turned up in his budgies (I acted like I didn’t know him, the state of that cossie) and I followed him back at a respectable distance.

Our evenings were spent in various places, we went to the pictures, a variety show, the Winter Gardens, up and down the prom with all its amusements, but for me the best place of all was inside the Blackpool Tower building.

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In there I could wander freely while the rest of the family sat watching the dancers in the ballroom and occasionally got up for a twirl themselves. I loved the building with its ornate tiling and grandeur, appreciating the atmosphere even though I was a child. They had a small zoo in the tower back then though the animals didn’t seem happy in such confined spaces and it was closed down eventually. I had come to see one animal in particular, the Black Panther.

I would sit on a stone bench opposite its cage for ages watching him go back and forth against the bars of his cramped home. I liked it best when we were more or less alone. Then I would stand against the safety rail and try to catch his eye but the panther just carried on with his endless walk to nowhere. I concentrated really hard trying to communicate by telepathy, the innocence of youth and the savage beauty of the beast not quite on the same wavelength. With a heavy heart I bid him a fond farewell and though I never saw the panther again I can still see him in my mind.

My favourite place in the tower was the Aquarium. Down in the depths of the building and dimly lit, I walked amongst the denizens of the deep like a mini Captain Nemo. It was designed to resemble a series of caves with stalactites hanging down adding to the authenticity. In fact the aquarium had been there since 1875 and the tower was built around it. Little wonder I sensed the ghosts of the past at every turn. Some of the fish down here were as big as a Roman shield and unlike the panther they looked straight at me until I was forced to look away with a shudder. The statue of Neptune followed my progress through his kingdom with unblinking eyes…

Friday came around too quickly but with it came our last treat… a visit to the Pleasure Beach! It was our own version of Disneyland, colour, carnival and candy floss. It was one of the Seven Wonders of the World (If you take out the boring Hanging Gardens of Babylon)

With the setting sun came the illuminated lights of the rides and stalls. Primary colours pulsed around the Pleasure Beach, it was magical to a young boy that lived in a little terraced house in a place called Wigan…

Tony Topping

Voyage around Disneyland

10 Sep

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“Once it’s gone it’s gone” a familiar phrase but one which has a special resonance to those of us waving goodbye to middle age. Many places where I spent my youth have all but vanished; my junior school and my secondary school have both been razed to the ground.

Springfield Park is no more, the first two houses I lived in have gone and many, many other places have disappeared or changed beyond recognition. No trusts fought to save the places I cherished, they weren’t of any national merit but I loved them all the same.

I should by rights have been born American. As a boy I worshiped the country though the place I loved was out of the TV, films and comic books I read and maybe didn’t really exist in the real world. One of my idols, amongst many, was Walt Disney.

Every Walt Disney film that showed in Wigan in the 60’s was seen by me and I wasn’t alone. Queues formed the length of the street at the Ritz, Princes, County and Court cinemas. But one of the best things that Walt ever did was to build a theme park… Disneyland.

I couldn’t tell you how much I wanted to go to Disneyland as a kid but I might as well been asking my Mam & Dad for a trip to the moon and back. Mam was a cleaner and Dad worked in the cotton mills so we went to Butlins instead and we had to save all year for that. So we both grew older Disneyland and I and the yearning gradually subsided with age. I still wanted to go and even though a little of the child still remained in the man it would never be the same now.

I’m sorry Walt but you have to take a little of the blame for my eternal regret and my sulking at my parents inability to change Cleethorpes into California. You had to show snippets of the park at the pictures or in those Christmas Disney specials on telly just to tease children like me.

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And one ride in particular caught my eye and my imagination, the Submarine Ride…
The ride opened in the summer of 1959 and featured eight subs each one painted grey and built to resemble a nuclear sub of that time. The ride cost 2.5 million dollars and was inspired by US subs and the Disney film “20,000 Leagues under the Sea”
In fact US Naval officers attended the opening of the ride and were amongst the first to sail on the 52 foot long subs.

I recently found out that the subs didn’t actually dive beneath the water and were in fact boats with the bottom passenger half under water. I was slightly saddened to find this out but only slightly. As a child I would have let my fevered imagination do the work and to all intents and purposes we would have been diving in that crystal clear water.

Around 1400 people an hour were taken on an eight minute ride round the man made lagoon. The captain of the sub would give a running commentary over the intercom and “Weather warning!” would be accompanied by bubbles floating past the portholes.
Other announcements would include “Dive, dive, dive” “Take her down easy” “10 Fathoms Captain” and “All ahead full” Brilliant stuff!

The subs also went under a water fall and legend has it that some “sailors” would place a coin under the hatch of the pilots dome so that water would seep in all over him under the waterfall. Girls dressed as mermaids would sit on a little island for four hours at a time sunning themselves. They even swam out to the subs though in later years many claimed the diesel in the water gave them health problems.

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One elderly couple asked one of the crew how long the “voyage” lasted and he quipped “two days” He was as surprised as anyone when they turned up later that day with an overnight bag!

One of the strangest incidents in the rides history occurred on Pearl Harbour Day 1974. One submarine crashed into another sinking it in four feet of water. All the passengers had to stand on their seats until they were rescued. All 38 tourists were Japanese…

So what if the submarines were really boats, I still wanted to go on them and see the mermaids swim. Sadly this is one of many dreams that will remain unfulfilled.
The ride closed forever on September 8th 1998 the news of its passing only reaching me this year.

Some things have to be left behind though and I’ll bid thee farewell little submarines, you filled my mind with wonder once upon a time and I’m eternally grateful to you and of course to Walt.

Tony Topping

Stop Press, it’s now been revamped as the Finding Nemo Submarine ride! Get those cases packed Mrs T I’m on my way!