Southport: A right royal time by the sea ... nearly
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A trip to the seaside usually means just that - you're beside the sea. But when you go to the delightful, archetypical British resort of Southport, there are no guarantees of getting your toes wet.
You can often be by the seaside here and not even see the sea part of it unless you've studied the tide tables, because the legendary Southport sands are awesome, stretching far into the distance and firm enough to support cars and even planes on occasion.
You can often spot the breakers away in the distance, along with Blackpool Tower and the Pleasure Beach 'Big One' rollercoaster on the far side of the Ribble estuary, with the mountains of North Wales in the other direction.
I know to my cost how big the beach is when the tide has retreated from an earlier visit when my daughters were pre-teens, with a lasting vision of my wife desperately trying to keep a boob tube in place while legging it for what seemed like miles in pursuit of an escaped beach ball in a playful, gusting breeze. It certainly kept the girls (and me) amused, while we tried to keep up and tried equally desperately to keep straight faces for fear of incurring the wrath of a not-too-amused Dorothy.
Stretching across the beach, as if reaching out for the elusive water, is the second longest pier in the country, long enough to merit its own tram to reach the end of it - where paddle steamers used to moor up in its Victorian heyday - or you can enjoy the ozone with a leg-stretching trek and keep fit into the bargain. When we were there recently, the tide was actually IN, fanned by a nippy, onshore wind that kept the clouds scudding over and was, well, let's say bracing, to say the least.
But the sun did appear, in an effort to encourage us to go out and about, and it was a treat to stride out along the timber-decked pier. It seemed just as long as it used to, with memories of childhood rides on its (then) special little train, chugging along as if trying to reach all the way across the Irish Sea to the Isle of Man and beyond. No train these days, but the rails are still there for the gleaming modern tram which glides effortlessly back and forth at regular intervals. It makes light work of the trip and is also airy and accessible for prams and wheelchairs if the walk is too daunting or the weather closes in while you're almost literally out on a limb. Could be handy, too, if you're an angler and need to lug a heavy catch back to dry land - but when I was there, that prospect looked a little distant for the lone hopeful soul in search of 'flatties', although he was confident of taking enough home for tea.
No worries about not having anything on the table for us, for our needs were going to be looked after just a short distance along the 'prom' from the historic pier at the landmark Best Western Royal Clifton Hotel and Spa. Head chef Gavin Brown makes a point of buying tip-top seasonal produce from local farms and suppliers wherever possible - with riches to choose from on Lancashire's coastal plain - and this is reflected in a varied, cosmopolitan menu, mixing traditional, dependable fare for traditional, dependable visitors, along with more adventurous dishes, with a choice of the Pavilion restaurant or more relaxed Conservatory bar and bistro. There's no point in being 'trendy' just for the sake of it and elbowing out popular favourites, so there are still prawn cocktails or melon starters, plus fish and chips, steaks and roasts - for the good reason that people want them. But there are also more modern treats like pan-fried scallops on Bury black pudding, a superb take on pork three ways and paupiette of chicken breast stuffed with Austrian smoked cheese.
The shops on Southport's famous Lord Street have got to be high on any agenda and the Royal Clifton makes a great nearby oasis for a spot of afternoon tea in the Chatsworth lounge as a break from the retail therapy/torture just a short walk away. It's also a great temptation to follow that up with a spot of indulgence in the hotel's refurbished health club and spa, with all manner of pampering packages available. But maybe stick with the walking theme for just a while longer and take a stroll along to King's Gardens, just over the road from the hotel and adjacent to the prom ... and a great excuse to sit down and park up the feet while you admire the glorious Victorian cast iron shelters. The design of these original shelters was inspired by the work of architect-engineer Thomas Mawson back in 1906 and experts at a company called Lost Art have painstakingly restored them to their former glory and returned them to their original colour scheme through paint analysis.
Many gems like this have been lost in our seaside towns, but Southport is determined to keep the best of the old, while still looking to the future.
The resort was always a class act to counter the brash and breezy side of the other North West coast resorts like Blackpool and its posh competition nearer the Lakes at Morecambe - and that still applies.
Couple it with the nearness of all-happening Liverpool and the quiet delights of the National Trust's Formby dunes with their red squirrels (and natterjack toads) and you have an up-market destination that fully deserves to be on your sat-nav.
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