Field trip: Southport's sand, trams and lawnmowers

Flic Everett

The opening of The Atkinson sees the seaside resort move away from the kitsch to become a town with art on its side (we blame the French).

Southport. Best known for its genteel ladies of a certain age, crust-less afternoon teas on Lord Street, invisible sea – and for being where Hilda Ogden moved, to clean for a posh lady. But Britain’s seaside towns now have a stark choice – to evolve or to fade away- and Southport is choosing the former. Subtly and gradually, it’s changing from crumbling grandeur and kitsch amusements to an attractive town with a focus on the arts.

It might once have been a time-slip of Victorian pastimes and hanging baskets, but now, it’s the sort of place where we could happily spend a weekend – starting with The Atkinson. This determinedly innovative arts centre offers both visual and performing arts excellence, with a theatre, newly restored fine art and contemporary galleries, and a museum. This weekend, the Grade II-listed hosts a festival of Americana, with esoteric alt-country acts, including the legendary Peggy Seeger holding song-writing workshops. There are regular comedy club nights, indie film showings and kid’s theatre. Better yet, the Atkinson has its own deli and an artisan bakery, selling gourmet pies and slow-fermented loaves. So it’s possible to admire some art, take in a Pinter play, and enjoy a sourdough bloomer afterwards, whilst discussing the pregnant pauses.

Legend has it that the boulevards of central Paris were modelled on Southport. Sacre Bleu, Madame Ogden!

Just down the promenade, too, is the Waterfront Arts project. Opened in 2010, this edgily industrial space overlooks the beach and hosts contemporary fine art exhibitions. It all seems a long way from end-of-pier jollity, but Southport still offers a hefty dose of that too. “Britain’s longest overland pier”, is a listed structure, with its own tramline to carry visitors over a mile between Southport promenade and the pier head. It’s been refurbished at vast expense, and now backs onto the Ocean Plaza shopping centre; its modern café with “airport windows’ – how very Mad Men- overlooks the beach at the pier head. Along the way, there are exhibitions of local wildlife and the coast, and somehow more excitingly, a slew of traditional slot machines.

And if the fading amusements of Funland aren’t quite kitsch enough to be charming, Southport’s architecture redresses the balance. The glorious wedding-cake Art Deco of the Royal Birkdale Golf Club; the wonderful, cathedral-like fernery at the Botanic Gardens and the Belle Epoque colonnades of Lord Street are all worth a detour. Curiously, legend has it that the graceful boulevards of central Paris were modelled on Southport, after Napoleon spent two years in exile, staying on Lord Street, before returning to France and becoming president. Sacre Bleu, Madame Ogden!

Because of its grand and tree-lined streets, all snaking wrought iron balconies and carved gables, Southport rewards strolling (and more importantly, shopping). The refurbished Southport Market opened last year, in the old Edwardian market hall, and offers independent food, clothing, gifts and craft stores. For a grander experience, there’s the gleaming, historic Wayfarer shopping arcade, a relic from the days when chauffeurs carried piles of hat boxes at a respectful distance, and ladies had their gloves made to measure. It now houses high-end boutiques and chain stores, and a large statue of Red Rum. The Royal Arcade, on Lord Street is by contrast perfect for bargain hunting amongst the antiques and, rather oddly, a cowboy boot shop.

Southport’s restaurants still lean slightly towards the teacake and lilac rinse brigade, but some are more hipster than hip replacement; try the lovely Bistrot Verite, an authentic French restaurant with a seasonal, innovative menu that changes daily or the Warehouse. Don’t be alarmed by the fact that the latter is co-owned by Our Stevie Gerrard; it’s a sleek, airy space with crisp linen, a cool bar and great music. For good lunches, there’s the Conservatory, the smart bistro attached to the white-painted Royal Clifton hotel on the promenade.

No visit is complete, as they say, without a trip to the Lawnmower Museum. Yes, you read that right: this is a museum that showcases the world of vintage lawnmowing and all its turbulent history. “At the time people thought he was a lunatic and a madman to use such a contraption,” says the website of the mower’s visionary 1830 inventor, Edwin Beard Budding. “He tested the machine at night, so no one could see him.” Who can fail to love a man like that?

If Southport’s delights eventually pall, there is the 22 miles of the Sefton coastline itself; much of it sand dunes and woods. “Another Place,” the Anthony Gormley statues at Crosby beach, are a haunting and timeless piece of art, best viewed at sunset, and, more cheerfully, Formby also has its lovely red squirrel sanctuary for a swift Beatrix Potter hit. But back in Southport, the Atkinson’s latest show, Love Stories, does it for us. The first exhibition since its refurbishment, includes works by Tracy Emin, our own Len Grant (see image), and the dramatic Lilith by John Collier. And afterwards, you can take your pick between artisan bread and olives, or stripy seaside rock.

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