My favourite episode of the classic comedy series Phoenix Nights was the one with the Family Fun Day to re-open the club. It included a botched kids play area in an improvised portable toilet, adults dressed up as characters and that bastion of British pub car parks, the bouncy castle – except this one featured an inflatable penis.
I liked it because, as with all good comedy, it had a root in truth. For the last five summers we’ve taken our holidays in England. And in between we’ve been on city breaks to London, Edinburgh and, best of all, Belfast.
Part of me wants to relate to you the utter rubbish we have been served up in the name of giving stuff for the kiddies to do. Children’s menu options are routinely made up of inedible mush, that staple of bad diet – the chicken nugget. Many museums feature lots of buttons to press so lights go on, art galleries have corners where you can draw, rather than inspiring the imagination. And lots of bouncy castles.
But luckily, blissfully and in timely fashion, the tourist industry in this country is getting its act together. Even though austere times have encouraged more people to take staycations – the other truth is that the degree of entrepreneurship in the tourism industry, forced or otherwise, is creating more experiences worth paying for. My kids have grown out of the East Lancashire Railway, but it was great while it lasted. Blissfully, we avoided it when they’ve had World War Two re-enactment weekends where the Nazis have turned up and learned to swerve the ghastly “Thomas weekends”. But we have stepped onto the footplate, tooted the horn and felt the fire from the engine. I’m sure there’s a health and safety directive that says we shouldn’t have, but it gets to the heart of what positive happy experiences are all about – jeopardy and danger and real people.
The Titanic Belfast visitor attraction is brilliant for this. It manages to span a huge range of touching points that the Titanic opens – starting with the history of the city itself, to the empire, trade, maritime engineering right through to emigration and social class when the exhibits got to the maiden voyage. Belfast is a city with a lot of energy and the Titantic may have been a tragedy 100 years ago, it’s an opportunity now.
The best site we have visited this year has been the Honister Slate Mine at the very top of Borrowdale in the North of the Lake District. Mark Weir re-opened the mine in 1997 and fought a constant battle with the National Park Authority until his death in a helicopter crash in March 2011. We were very honoured to be led around the mine by Mark’s mother. Her account of the life of slate miners through the centuries and of the Cumbrian terrain, really added to the experience, but so too did her passionate accounts of her son’s own tenacious and dogged struggle to make the attraction work, as well as his fights with authority. Mark Weir saw the potential for the site but knew it needed more than nostalgia to make it work. He wanted a zip wire and a via Ferrata (iron road), to give customers something else, something dangerous and exciting, but also something in keeping with the outdoor adventure appeal of the Lakes.
A few years ago I chaired a Cumbria Business panel which featured John Dunning, the owner of the Westmorland, which operates the Tebay Service station and the Rheged visitor attraction. He was scathing about how we do tourism in this country and urged radical thinking. I think he’s right, but I also think Rheged isn’t up to much either.
This was all in the forefront of my mind when I was campaigning to challenge the decision of the Science Museums Group to consider closing Manchester’s MOSI, The National Railway Museum in York, or the Media Museum in Bradford.
Our cities need to celebrate their life and their history in all of its forms. But they also desperately need to provide the opportunities to discuss, debate and question in these kinds of visitor attractions. It’s not enough to peer at things through glass cases. That’s why I think festivals have taken off as they have recently.
On top of this there’s a department at the University of Central Lancashire that studies and investigates the phenomena of Dark Tourism. I saw Philip Stone lecture on this and explain what it is that draws people to spend their holidays in Cambodia, to visit Auschwitz and Chernobyl? I dare say that the macabre in me got even more from Honister for having met the mother of a dead son who’s vision surrounded us.
At the risk of sounding heavy, I think there is a genuine reaching out going on. People don’t trust so many institutions they once relied upon and are looking deeper and deeper into what makes us tick, what life is about.
Maybe one day they’ll be a museum of Northern life which will feature artefacts from our dark past – witch burning and even the Phoenix Club fun day, but until then, we’ll support what we have and encourage them to be bolder and braver.