For fourteen days – the first two full weeks of July – shops and factories across town closed for business, and the masses trooped to the seaside for a fortnight away from work: Wakes Weeks. The tradition in Wigan began as a single week before being upped to two in the early 1970s, and though it’s since petered out, the shores of Blackpool, Southport and Rhyl will always conjure up good memories for Wigan’s baby boomers.
Coaches would congregate on Market Square to pick up their passengers, with neighbours often travelling together to enjoy standard seaside fare. From traditional donkey rides on the sand to penny slots and bingo games, the seaside holiday was a chance to relax and unwind from the everyday stresses of mill and factory work. Many Wiganers will remember the quintessentially British ‘Jugs of Tea for the Sands’ sign – a surer reminder than the Tower that you’d arrived in Blackpool! And it meant what it said: you never had to be afraid of running out of hot tea; you just had to fill your flasks to take onto the beach with you.
If you were lucky, you might be heading off to stay in one of the popular holiday camps at your resort of choice. The ever-popular Pontins – whose Blackpool site closed its doors for good in 2009 – and Butlins – with sites in Skegness and Pwllheli in Wales – attracted keen holidaymakers throughout the last century, hosting the classically bizarre ‘knobbly knees’ and ‘bonny babies’ contests. Some resorts even set up cardboard cut-outs of the slim, much-coveted Marilyn Monroe figure to see if women were slim enough to fit inside – more than a bit risqué today.
The chalets of Pontins and Butlins would be packed to bursting, with Bluecoats and Redcoats doing their best to stay on top of jam-packed entertainment schedules. Usually centred around an iconic boating lake, chalets were arranged in a Panopticon-like structure (make of that what you will) where ‘a rainy day simply produces more striking evidence of how well a summer holiday programme can function indoors!’. Or so declares the Southport Pontins brochure in 1972, anyway.
And if that programme proved disappointing, not to worry. There was always plenty to do outside of the camps too. Blackpool was prolific for hosting comedy performances from the likes of Ken Dodd and Jimmy Clitheroe (A.K.A. The Clitheroe Kid) as well as musical guests like Cilla Black and The Beatles. Couples could head to the Winter Gardens or Tower Ballroom for an intimate waltz, while any superstitious folk could get their fortunes read along the Golden Mile. That’s without mentioning the iconic Blackpool Tower Circus and menagerie!
Southport had its own fair share of memories, of course. Peter Pan’s Pool & Playground opened to the public in 1930, on the site where Ocean Plaza stands today. Boasting tall slides, flying aeroplanes, a Helter Skelter and a model railway, the playground was a great base for families wanting to keep the kids entertained – children from the Platt Bridge Legion would clamber aboard Wigan double decker buses to make the trip, and enjoy boiled ham and chips before heading home in the evening. The playground also afforded the opportunity to visit the nearby boating lake for a trip on the steamer or rowboats, and was ideal for a trip to Southport’s very own lido – perhaps a tad colder than the popular paddling pool over at Rhyl!
Peter Pan’s Playground eventually changed its name to Happiland in the early 1970s ahead of its closure and demolition in 1989.
Of course, if you were hankering for something a bit more thrilling, the larger amusement parks offered a bit more bang for your buck. Both Blackpool Pleasure Beach and Southport Pleasureland were operated by the same company, and in their heyday both offered a mix of classic British rides. A fan favourite, the humble funhouse probably wouldn’t win any health and safety awards nowadays, but many an hour could be whiled away on the Social Mixer – dubbed the ‘wheel of death’ – which would fling riders out to the sides as they struggled to remain centred! Blackpool’s funhouse burned down in 1991 and was replaced by white-knuckle water ride Valhalla.
In the late 1970’s holidaymakers tastes moved on to package holidays in sunnier and warmer climes just a short few hours away by plane. Wakes Weeks have today faded into almost complete obscurity, although some areas of Wigan managing to cling onto the tradition until the early 2000s.
No matter where we spend our jollies this year, we’ll always have the memories of spending Wakes Weeks at Lancashire’s seaside resorts in their heyday.