Re-Imagining Morecambe – by Mark Harrison

The gritty and often maligned seaside town of Morecambe stands on the brink of a new era as plans to transform it through ‘The Eden Project North’ are forging ahead.

To me, Morecambe is a fascinating subject to photograph due to its incongruous mix of stunning Lake District views, vast beaches, grand yet decaying architecture, dilapidated houses of multiple occupation, boarded up shops and salt-of-the-earth people – known locally as ‘sand grown ‘uns’.

This is no picture-perfect postcard town but it has a tainted beauty and rugged appeal that draw me back again and again. As someone who has worked in Morecambe, lives nearby and spends a lot of time there, I have a huge fondness for the town and have tried to capture images of the place as I see it.

A friendly no frills town, Morecambe has had many incarnations over the years with outside developers and dreamy entrepreneurs attempting to impose trendy and often outlandish visions onto the place like ill-fitting shoes.  Originally a fishing village and then a resort for well-heeled Edwardians and Victorians, the town enjoyed its heydays in the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s when tourists flocked from northern mill towns and further afield to pack the hotels, B&Bs, beaches, pubs, theatres, cinemas, music venues and dancehalls.

Sadly, as package holidays grew in popularity, Morecambe began to struggle as a resort and its decline was hastened in the ‘80s by local authorities using the former B&Bs and hotels as houses of multiple occupation for the most disadvantaged people in society. Unsurprisingly, poverty, drug dealing, deprivation, poor health and crime became endemic in parts of the town – especially in the once thriving and attractive West End.

Over the last 20 years there have been various attempts to regenerate Morecambe with some notable successes such as the redevelopment of the famous art deco Midland Hotel and the historic promenade with bird sculptures and a popular statue of comedian, Eric Morecambe. Having your photo taken with ‘Eric’ has become a must-do part of any visit to Morecambe.

Failed ventures such as Noel Edmonds’ disastrous ‘Blobbyland’ at Happy Mount Park in the ‘90s, The Dome Theatre and Bubbles outdoor swimming pool which only lasted a few years and an exciting programme of festivals which was dumped when funding got cut, were huge blows to Morecambe.

Now a number of visionaries from ‘The Eden Project’ in Cornwall have plans to “re-imagine” Morecambe as ‘Eden Project North’; “A seaside resort for the 21st Century inspiring wonder and a connection with the natural world”.

National newspapers have focused on the ‘Eden Project’ connection and have been trumpeting Morecambe as a property hot-spot where seaside bargains are to be had. In other once run-down English seaside towns such as Margate, Weymouth, Padstow, Bournemouth and Southwold, such praise has sent property prices skyrocketing, squeezing local people out and lining the pockets of developers.

Before any potential transformation takes place, I have felt compelled to capture images of the town as it is now. Images that are unadorned, raw, without filters and, hopefully, honest.

Ironically, the coronavirus pandemic of 2020-2021 has seen the town’s promenade and beaches busier than they have been for several years, with numerous people taking exercise, drinking ‘artisan’ coffee and escaping from their homes for a breath of fresh air. However, on days when the rain pours and the winds ravage Morecambe Bay, the town reverts to its quieter, less pretentious self.

Some of my images are of locations which once thrived but are now derelict. The former Frontierland site, which was once home to a funfair run by the family that owns Blackpool Pleasure Beach, looks like a deserted war-zone. The old Dome and Bubbles sites, which will be home to the Eden Project North if the development goes ahead, are similarly deserted save for the odd dog walker or child on a bike.

Just a few steps away from the seafront, many of the back streets of Morecambe tell a story of deprivation and lost hope; a result, many would say, of years of government cuts and lack of investment.

Perhaps more inspiring is the promenade which leads to vast skies and rock-lined beaches with tidal mudflats beyond. It was on these sands and mud-flats that 23 Chinese cockle pickers tragically drowned in 2004; victims of ‘gang masters’ and other unscrupulous individuals who disregarded all safety measures and sealed the doom of these poor people who had come to England to work and try to make a better life for their families. This terrible disaster is now etched on the minds of local people.

The common thread running throughout the history of Morecambe is the sea. The fishing industry is long gone from Morecambe Bay as are the huge numbers of tourists, however the pull of the sea remains strong. There are even a few individuals who still fish for the famous Morecambe Bay shrimps and cockles.

I have tried to capture the stark beauty of the sea, sky and coastline; the huge skies and beaches punctuated by an occasional person stopping to stare out to sea or roam by the water.

Another new development is the current trend for ‘wild swimming’ and one of the images shows some people braving the waters.

It remains to be seen if the ‘Eden Project North’ will come to fruition as many people hope. There would, no doubt, be benefits from an injection of jobs and tourism. In recent weeks the project has been touted as a possible way out of the pandemic as it could create “green” jobs and could boost the local economy.

My feeling is that Morecambe is a beautiful place and it has an interesting blend of the beauty and grittiness often found in traditional English seaside towns. If the Eden Project North does happen it may well bring some jobs and a trendy revamped seafront to the town.

However, if nothing is done to address the poverty and deprivation that can clearly be seen just one street back from the promenade, the project will only benefit those who visit the “immersive attraction” and not Morecambe’s own people.

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24 thoughts on “Re-Imagining Morecambe – by Mark Harrison”

  1. It’s not just Morecambe that could do with a revival. The other major resorts on this coast, Southport and Blackpool show plenty of signs of decay. However, Morecambe is the most in need of help. I am sceptical about the chances of the Eden project being built when so many others have failed. However I will be happy if it is successful as it may prove to be a catalyst for investment in the other resorts on this coast if investors see that a good return on money invested in developments gets a good return.

  2. Mark, I’ve really enjoyed this photo story! I particularly like the ambiguity due to the lack of titles, and the fact that there is no mention of a camera, lens or film. The last photo of “Eric” waving at the birds put a big smile on my face. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Excellent article (and photos). I am an ex-pat myself and agree with your sentiments. Morecambe is renowned for the double-edged view – beautiful one way…..

    It has been left to languish for so long. All attempts to improve seem to have gone the journey. Let’s hope the new Eden works.

  4. I did like this piece, has made me think, Torquay is much the same way on the high street. Anyway I would love to know the film and camera you have used as Im always on the look out for new things to try. Thank You . Kind Regards Andy B

    1. mark harrison

      I loved my visit to Torquay. Cameras used Leica MP 35mm lens, Nikon FM2N 50mm lens, Voightlander Bessa R 35mm lens, Olympus Mjuii and a Canon EOS 300 with a 28-105MM kit lens. Film stock, Ilford HP5, XP2.

  5. Castelli Daniel

    This was a delightful read! Your affection for the area is evident in the pics. You didn’t do a hatchet job, kicking a town when it’s down. Honest, straightforward work. I can see the attraction and the promise of new times. A good, long term project.
    My wife & I are planning to return to the UK as soon as we can and we want to poke around some of these costal towns. Hopefully next year!

    1. mark harrison

      Thankyou for your kind comments. I spent my days off visiting coastal towns. I highly recommend it.

  6. Louis A. Sousa

    This was a great story well accentuated by the black and white photographs. In New England U.S. there are very few places on the coast that are not gentrified. Because of this, access to the coast can be limited. Last year, a protester was arrested for being on a beach near a private sea-side home because he was allegedly walking north of the mean high water line of the ocean, even though was standing in seaweed to show he was acting permissibly. On another note, this town reminds me of neighboring Warren RI. It is a quirky town full of artists and ne’er do wells with a working waterfront (rare in small towns here). In the local cafe, stickers are sold with the saying “Keep Warren Weird”. I could not agree more.

    1. Castelli Daniel

      Hi Louis,
      I know your area! You’re correct on all points…the artists/craftspeople/local business owners stabilize an area, then the $$$ people ‘discover’ your patch, move in and force others out.

  7. Great photos! Nothing like decay photographed in B&W. One can only hope that the improvements take hold.

  8. Excellent read backed up with excellent photos. Living in Kent (I see the Margate connection) I don’t get the opportunity to explore the NW these days. My brother worked on the Lancs/Cumbria border about 20 years ago, and visiting him there we did manage to pop into Morcambe. I have great memories of great savaloy n chips!

  9. Very interesting post Mark with great photos. Hastings on the South Coast has a similar history of gradual deterioration and social deprivation, although it is gradually picking itself up, helped by the relative proximity of London and the wealthy South East. Still, it has one or two areas that have until very recently looked not that different from Morecambe. So there is hope for the town.

  10. Thank you, Mark! Some very strong work! It seems that Mr. Sousa (above) and I were former neighbours in R.I., with the same experience of gentrification. I, too, lived on the coast and watched one town after another suffer the kiss of death which tourism always seems to bring; I’m now in New Mexico and watching the same process in my new home. In no way do I wish to romanticize the experience of poverty in Morecambe or anywhere else, but it does seem that it’s a real community and not a seaside theme park, which likely will be the inevitable result of the gentrification process. Real communities become traffic-clogged party towns that are unaffordable for the former residents, should they even wish to continue living there.
    I’m not sure what the solution is. Locally owned business and agriculture may be a partial solution. Residents banding together to enact strict zoning for the protection of established neighborhoods can help. But so often, the folks living in poverty are so demoralized by the daily struggle that they lack the energy and time needed to organize against the onslaught. And the appeal of the high price that can be fetched for a home that might have been in the family for generations is understandably difficult to resist.
    I suppose this is what they mean by “the march of progress”…

  11. Love the photos, they are just my cup of tea…dark and brooding. They make me want to go to Morecambe. I. I sited a few years ago to buy a car, but left quickly to visit Leighton Moss. I will have to rectify that this year. Thanks for the post 🙂

  12. Richard Moore

    Loved the photos. A great fan of the faded gentility of the British seaside – especially that of the northwest. I live near San Francisco now but had many childhood holidays in North Wales and along the Lancashire coasts. So a veteran of Rhyl , Llandudno, Colwyn Bay and Anglesey. As a young kid from Liverpool we knew New Brighton, Seaforth, Southport and other points north all too well. When I visit the the UK they still have an attraction but most have hit on bad times with the glory days unlikely to return. Lots to photograph with some bitter sweet nostalgia part of the deal.

    1. mark harrison

      Llandudno is a place i often visit and hasn’t changed much over the years. The goats are still there.

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