On paper, Southport should be doing better: taking a leaf out of Lytham’s book and giving the town a focus on health and wellbeing could be one way to do it, writes Kevin Horton of K2 Architects.
My childhood, spent drifting between a smoggy Birmingham and sunny Southport gave me a very early sense of what attracted the Victorians to build Southport.
As much as we would like to think of health and wellbeing as a progressive and modern concept, it’s not a new idea. The Victorians built Southport for the sole purpose of enabling the dirty, unhealthy industrialised society of northern England, escape from itself and regenerate in a better place. Swimming in the sea and taking in the air were the Victorians version of a spa-weekend.
The attraction of a healthier, happier lifestyle encouraged wealthy industrialists to build grand hotels and mansions by the sea. In response, the town-council supported the building of sea bathing lakes, marine hospitals, fairgrounds, piers, music halls, theatres, picture houses and one of the grandest shopping street in England. In popular Victorian culture Lord Street was said to have inspired Napoleon III’s construction of his Parisian Boulevards. It’s hard to understand why it’s not a UNESCO heritage asset. Granted today the town has fallen on hard times, but if you look beyond the empty shop units, the town is brimming with possibility.
Today, like many seaside towns, for better or worse the positive Victorian legacy of Southport has not been fully understood by its modern custodians. I wouldn’t be surprised if the readers’ comments are littered with catch-all statements about the demise of Southport blamed on the rise of cheap airline travel, partisan local politics, poor infrastructure and ‘Retail park-on-Sea’ like regeneration projects. There is a certain degree of truth in all of these observations. But then you look at Lytham, just a stone’s throw across the Ribble estuary, faced with many of the same issues as Southport but is flourishing, so why?
I think the reason Lytham does so well, is that it knows what it is and has never deviated from its core business of leisure, health and wellbeing. Its council focuses on a built environment and active programme of events that support these aims. There hardly seems to be a weekend that passes where there isn’t something going on.
On paper, Southport should be doing better, and it can do better. It frustrates me the number of times some agency or another has tried to freshen up the ‘Classic Victorian Seaside Resort’ brand without asking themselves why. This concept is far too abstract to make sense of and makes me think of pensioners sipping tea, not a progressive city region suburb.
My view is that we should be focusing on why the town was built in the first place, play to its unique strengths and map our ideas around them. Today we have nearly a dozen golf courses, a competition-grade sailing lake, the flattest triathlon in the UK – great for PB’s I understand – stunning ornamental parks, and a beach that I run on every day and feel like that bloke who pops up in the aspirational Strava push-advert on my feed. I guess I just I used a modern application to support a tried and tested formula, and that’s exactly what Southport should do.