One of the first guests was the author Charles Dickens who stayed at the hotel while on tour doing readings from his books. Dickens was unwell, reporting a weakness and deadness all on the left side. However his visit to the "charming sea beach hotel," improved his health and he wrote to his sister that he had enjoyed a "delicious walk by the sea" and had an improved appetite. Hotel staff reporting seeing Dickens kicking his hat along the sand like a football.
Many other famous people have stayed at the hotel over the years, including Jayne Mansfield, the Beatles, Fred Astaire and one of my favourites - Gracie Fields! (I wrote my degree dissertation on the Rochdale-born actress and named Gracie Fairshaw after her! Apparantly Gracie is the only guest who has been allowed to bring takeaway fish and chips into the hotel - and she insisted on eating them straight out of the newspaper. Of course Gracie was born over a fish and chip shop, so it is a lovely story! .
We also saw the lovely Louis XVI room which used to be an exclusive restaurant with a three month waiting list for a table! The Lancastrian Suite with its minstral gallery was used for buffet style dining but is now used annually for a racing pigeon auction. The record price for a bird being an incredible £74,000!
The Palm Court restaurant has lovely sea views and was popular for people wanting afternoon tea, it features some eye-catching chandeliers that used to be in the Lancastrian Suite.
The highlight though was being able to see the remains of the original turkish baths! The Burmantoft tiles date from 1898 and were covered up in the 1950s. Now they are being painstakingly uncovered and restored by Blackpool Civic Trust volunteers so can visitors can appreciate how oppulent these rooms used to be. The designs include scallop shells and diving pikes - you can see images of the tiles and the hotel's rooms in the gallery.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They by Michael Trainor (2002) is the world's largest dance hall mirror ball. It is covered with 47,000 mirrors and reflects the light as it slowly turns. Look carefully and you might spot me in the photo left!
Other artworks you can see include:
Waterwings - Bruce Williams, 2001.
The Sound of the Wind Looks Like This - Stephen Hurrel, 2002.
Desire - Chris Knight, 2001.
Glam Rocks - Peter Freeman, 2001.
The High Tide Organ - John Gooding, 2002.
The Frankenstein Project - Tony Stallard, 2001.
The Swivelling Wind Shelters - Ian McChesney with Atelier One, 2004. They look like whale tails!
You can also see a new art project Painting the Town where ten new colours inspired by Blackpool and residents' stories and memories have been created by artist Laura Shevaun Green. The colours have been called Ghost Train, Bandstand, Ballroom, Arcade, North Pier, Herring Gull, Salisbury Yellow, Tangerine Coast, Lawson Green and Sea Snail. These colours can be used by the community and Blackpool businesses to revitalise the town.
You can view more photos of the artworks in my gallery.
Then it was time to hop onto a heritage tram for a trip down to the much newer Starr Gate depot.
This was a real contrast. New, clean and rather sterile, but still fascinating.
Guide Phil explained the complex systems of keeping up to 16 flexity trams on the go and showed us the tally board where the rota is updated regularly.
We saw the 'Stable block' which is where all the trams are stored undercover overnight (at Ribgy Road the canopy is not large enough to allow all the heritage trams to be sheltered from the elements.) Then onto the engineering hall where repairs take place. It was very different from the set up at Rigby Road (which had a Heath Robinson feel about it!) Here for example it takes three hours not three weeks to fix a flat!
Starr Gate felt very modern and ordered, but it certainly didn't have the character of the older depot.
In the afternoon I went on a tour of Layton Cemetery. The guide told us about a number of interesting residents of Blackpool who are buried in Layton including a number who moved to the resort for health reasons but often died shortly after. We saw the grave of John Bickerstaffe (Blackpool Tower founder) and William Holland (Manager of Winter Gardens.) Bill Holland was buried in one of a number of Victorian 'safe' graves designed to keep out grave robbers.
We were also shown the graves of Anthony Karmy (grave pictured) who had one of the earliest Blackpool souvenir kiosks on a pier and animal keeper Jim Walms whose friend's disappearance may have inspired the poem The Lion and Albert. Jim was also the inspiration for Blackpool Tower's 'Jungle Jims' play area which closed recently. We also saw the grave of Mr Burton the inventor of the 'Wagon Wheels' (1948) while the delicious aroma of biscuits from the nearby factory filled the air!
It was also particularly interesting to see the grave of Afro-American historian George Washington Williams who spoke out against slavery in the Congo in 1890. I first learned about Williams while researching my Journey to the Okapi Forest book. Williams only lived in Blackpool for three weeks for the sea-air before his death.
Cemetery tours can be booked on request by contacting www.laytonfriends.org/
Gracie Fairshaw and The Mysterious Guest, my Blackpool children's book, was inspired by discovering that in 1935, Audrey Mosson a 15-year-old girl was asked to do the Illuminations Switch-on. Audrey, who had been crowned the Railway Queen, was the second 'star' asked to press the button.
I have had the great pleasure of seeing the Illuminations many times and have been up close to the Switch-on button, but I had never been to the actual Switch-on ceremony. So I was delighted when I won wristbands for this year's show. Unlike rainy 1935, the weather was warm and dry although I'd wrapped up just in case!
In 1935 the Illuminations Switch-on took place in front of Blackpool Town Hall. More recently the spectacular has taken place on the Tower Headland where the comedy carpet is. Security was high and a large area bordered off in front of the Tower for the event. There were tents selling drinks and food as well as mechandise.
The entertainment lasts for hours nowadays and includes performances by pop stars and dance acts. This year the Illuminations were turned on by classical singer Alfie Boe who is from Fleetwood. The countdown was so exciting, then when Alfie pressed the button a huge cloud of confetti burst and the lights illuminated including the Tower. Moments later fireworks shot out from the top of the Tower. It was brilliant! The town was bustling with families. Isn't it fantastic that this tradition continues to be so popular!
After lots of editing and feedback I have now completed my Blackpool set upper middle grade novel, Gracie Fairshaw and The Mysterious Guest.
I am now working on a new Blackpool book currently titled Trouble at the Tower. This has meant several more trips to Blackpool, including the local history centre where I have been using the microfilm readers to look at the Blackpool Gazette. I haven't done that in a very long time!
My sequel sees my main character becoming a local newspaper journalist - which is the job I used to have a long time ago! It's been a real trip down memory lane thinking back to my days as a reporter.
Of course I couldn't write a book set in the Tower without making a few trips there myself. I have been to the top of the Tower, ventured into the dungeon where the aquarium used to be, and watched the circus. I was also lucky to be able to join a tour of the Tower with the Blackpool Civic Trust. I was able to step into the circus ring and venture below where the animals used to be kept as well as seeing where the roof gardens used to be. It really is the most incredible building and is so inspiring.
I have very recently completed the first draft of a new children's book inspired by the discovery of the okapi at the beginning of the 20th century. Liberty and the Unicorn Trap is my fourth historical novel for children aged 10+. As part of the research I have been on an Okapi and Red River Hog experience at the Wild Place Project in Bristol. I got to meet Kibibi a female okapi, her calf, Ruby who was born in May, Lodja another female who is heavily pregant and Kivu a four year old male who was less shy than the females. I fed the okapi and the zookeeper kindly answered all my questions. I also fed two cheeky red river hog brothers who chased each other round. The okapi is related to the giraffe and has a long blue tongue like their relative. The stripes on their hind is individual to each okapi. I had a brilliant day at the Wild Place Project and would highly recommend a visit to see these endangered animals.
Here are two articles I have written for Words & Pictures. The first is about how my North West group celebrated 20 years of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) in the British Isles. The second is a reflection on winning the Margaret Carey Scholarship last year and why I would encourage members of SCBWI to apply this year.
Last month, as one of the winners writers, I was invited to attend the launch of the Undiscovered Voices competition anthology. I was then invited to write an article sharing what my experience of the party had been for the SCBWI BI online magazine Words & Pictures. Here is what I wrote. Thanks to Candy Gourlay for the use of her photograph left.
I am thrilled to be able to tell you that I have been chosen as a winner in the SCBWI BI Undiscovered Voices competition. I would like to thank SCBWI BI especially the UV team and sponsors Working Partners Ltd for organising a fabulous opportunity for writers and illustrators to be noticed. The winning opening chapters from the 12 winning writers and the winning 9 illustrations are available in the UV2016 anthology. You can download a copy for free or buy a printed book for £5.99 here.
I am delighted to tell you I have been longlisted in the SCBWI BI Undiscovered Voices 2016 competition.This competition is for unpublished and unagented children's books writers and illustrators living in the EU. The shortlist will be announced in January 2016.
I am chuffed to announce that I have been awarded the Margaret Carey Scholarship 2015 for fiction. This scholarship is awarded by the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators British Isles. The news was announced on the SCBWI WI online magazine Words & Pictures. The award is made in memory of children's writer and illustrator Margaret Carey (pictured). The award is judged on a combination of writing merit and need.
The first few lines of a book are often said to be the most important. SCBWI BI's Words & Pictures online magazine now run an Opening Lines challenge. I decided to send in the beginning of my The Girl Who Cried Owl book in for some feedback. Find out what agent Shelley Instone thought of my submission (no3) here.