The Blackpool landlady who remembers the past while looking to the future
As stock in trade for end of the pier comedians goes, Blackpool landladies are right up there with mothers-in-law.
You know the image – head scarf and hair rollers, face like a wasp has stung it and a list of rules longer than the average telephone directory.
Now meet Shirley Hunt who, with her husband Sam, has owned and run the award-winning Cranstone Guesthouse in Alexandra Road, South Shore for the past 14 years.
“I’ve been interviewed as an ‘old Blackpool landlady’ on the radio,” laughs Shirley (she laughs a lot). “I said first I’m not that old and second, things have changed a lot. I mean we still do get the odd customer who’ll come and ask us what time do they have to be in at night and do they have to be out all day?
“And it’s not just the older people who ask, so somewhere along the line they must still be seeing it or reading it. I just tell them whatever time they want to be in –so long as they close the door!”
Born and bred in Salford, Shirley became a landlady almost by accident.
“I’d done various jobs over my career but the one I was in at the time was really stressful and I came off work feeling all run down and on the verge of having a nervous breakdown,” she admits. “Friends were looking at a place in Blackpool, they had a nursing home at the time, they came with Sam on a couple of Sundays while I was working and he came back after one trip and said ‘do you fancy a guesthouse in Blackpool?’”
“Not a chance, no way! A guesthouse? You mean I’ve got to smile and get up early and be nice to people? No, it’s not for me, all that ironing and doing the beds.
“And that’s how we came to have guesthouse in Blackpool. I still blame my friends – and they never came, they now live in Spain and have been there for the past 14 years.”
So they headed here in 2001 for a stress-free life?
“I worked for a mail order company,” she says. “I ran a call centre and had a team of 28 women to organise. It was very hard work which I don’t fear – obviously if I’ve run a guesthouse for 14 years – but it was very, very stressful.”
But not being a person to sit and watch the world go by, there’s more to Shirley than running the Cranstone.
She’s a director with StayBlackpool – one of those organisations everyone has heard of but fewer understand what it’s all about.
“There’s a clue in the name. We want people to stay in Blackpool. It’s a group of accredited properties in an organisation which in one form or another goes back years.”
Various groups combined ‘to help businesses get accredited’ courtesy of regular meetings and an annual open day.
She is also an Illuminations Ambassador with the increasingly-influential Friends of the Illuminations.
“That happened five years ago from a meeting we had at North Shore,” she says. “There was a fear – we’d read in the Gazette – that the Illuminations were in danger because parts of the North Shore ones were missing.
“ITV and the BBC were there, and we took a list of names and addresses.”
Having decided to form ‘a group’ from the 40 or 50 initial interested people, the next couple of meetings dwindled to a handful.
“But by then we were already involved me directly with the Illuminations Department. Six months down the line we were looking for Friends and started having open days at the Illuminations depot
Now one of the group’s annual highlights – and fund-raisers – is a Switch-Off Night Ball, this year held at the Hilton Hotel.
So is a guest house, Friends of the Illuminations and Stay Blackpool enough to be going on with?
“I keep saying I’m not getting involved with anything else but in the winter months I’m not one of those to sit back and do nothing. And it really did help me because my mum passed away in 2006 and I was heartbroken because she moved here with us. At first I wanted to sell up and move out because I thought I couldn’t be here without her.
“Then I decided I needed to throw myself into something so started going to a lot of events to do with hospitality, then just gradually got back into it.
“We took Cranstone off the market and then just carried on getting involved with tourism things and attending events where I could.
“Otherwise in the winter months and even in the early season when we’re not busy, I’d be climbing the walls. I’m not one of those who can just sit down. I tend to get involved, someone will ring me and suddenly I think ‘my goodness I can’t believe I’m going to this next week and I’m doing that next week’, and sometimes it’s hard because you can’t spread yourself out that much but I do try if people ask me to help then I’ll try to help them.”
So are these good times for accommodation providers?
“We’ve had better. Since we’ve been here we’ve seen the peaks and the troughs of it but I think we’re doing OK and Blackpool as a whole is doing OK, it’s coming back out of the recession. We’ve all had better days but I believe that Blackpool is on the up and I believe it will come back, but it’s a slightly different Blackpool to how people remember it.”
Her own memories were forged in those ‘traditional’ days.
“We used to check in and come back for dinner. A man came round to take your photographs in a little kaleidoscope thing. You had to be out all day. We’d sit on the beach all day with mum and dad and have jam sandwiches, come back for dinner at 1pm then back again for evening meal, so it was very regimented back in the day – but great fun, I can remember always loving Blackpool.”
There is still room for some tradition ,she feels.
“Big businesses are coming in but Kiss-Me-Quick hats still have a place. Some things can stay the same, some have got to move on.”
“Yes. There are fewer of us than there were some years ago but it still fits in that guesthouses are here. My heart sinks a little bit when another Holiday Inn or Travelodge comes along but then again I think, well it’s investment in the town, and I still feel that there’s probably enough guesthouses and B&Bs still around.”
Her heart also sinks when Blackpool comes in for adverse criticism.
“It really, really angers me. I mean alright Jeremy Clarkson isn’t from here but Coleen Nolan? I was quite disappointed in her comments. I was saddened by that and by anybody really who slates Blackpool because, let’s be honest, we’ve had the rough times, the likes of the 999 Emergency programme.
So angry in fact she became involved in the Media Group, which monitors who will and won’t be permitted to film in the resort.
“I go to all the Media Group meetings now which has been a good thing to try and stop the negativity. The 999 programme we feel should never have happened. Since then the negativity has been reduced.
“We hit the headlines because we are at the top of a lot of lists where we shouldn’t be, and where we should be top we aren’t.
“You read another one and think ‘oh goodness,’ it’s just ridiculous that we get slated for the bad things yet we need to be shouting more about the good things that are happening in Blackpool.
“The events that we put on in this town are amazing. The likes of Strictly Come Dancing, you can’t buy that. We can offer such quality venues. It’s not the bad statistics we should focus on – there’s lots and lots of reasons why people come back and support the town.”
Surprisingly she has nothing against stag and hen parties – though doesn’t take them herself because her venue’s trade was established as family and couples when they took over.
“They are becoming less and less but the money they bring in is phenomenal.”
She’s grateful for online booking sites though. Where once all you know about a place was the Vacancy/No Vacancies sign in the window now you can taste and try before you buy.
“They are bringing in new business,” Says Shirley. “This year I’ve had lots and lots of guests who have never been to Blackpool before but have booked online.
“It’s lovely that I then get the chance to promote the town as an ambassador. It’s been great that they’ve loved it and booked for next year to come back because there was still so much for them to do.”
But does South Shore get a fair crack of the whip?
“It gets slated all the time as the most deprived area but I invite anyone to come down here and see how all the businesses are trying to survive and thrive. I live on a lovely street, we all try and stick together, I don’t feel we are any different to central and north to be honest.
“I cried the morning we didn’t get the super casino because that would have been absolutely fab for the whole of Blackpool. We desperately need a conference centre and I would love nothing more than for one to be built down here, maybe down by the airport, it would be lovely to have one in South Shore.
“If it really was My Blackpool that would be top of my agenda to bring one here. Why haven’t we already got one? Because when we didn’t get the casino licence we lost the chance. There was no plan B. It was a really, really sad day for Blackpool. I cried and cried.”
An outdoor arena would be good too, she thinks.
“I went to the Rod Stewart and Neil Diamond concerts at the football ground and they were both good. What about an arena at the airport and its enterprise zone? What they could do on there could be phenomenal – an arena, conference centre for a start.”
She’s optimistic about the future though.
“Things are moving in the right direction. My business is OK, I wouldn’t say I was struggling, we could always have more but we do OK, I’ll never be a millionaire.
“People are coming back.
“When we came there were 17 million visitors a year, but it dropped down to like nine million and now it’s going back up again.
“But the days have gone of people staying for the week or two weeks. I blame work commitments to a degree. “Bank Holidays were bank holidays, everything shut, well that’s all changed. We do get some people who stay for a week but not two, it’s Monday to Friday or long weekends.
“We need to capture the day trippers into staying over.
“Look at what we’ve got – the fireworks, the air display, the Illuminations – all free events, but they spend when they are here. Everything needs promoting – we do our best.
“We are seasonal here but so fortunate in having the extra eight or nine weeks the Illuminations give us. I’ve been to other resorts and by the first week in September everything shuts. We close after the Lights but if the resort was still busy and if the Illuminations were on through to January we’d stay open.”
When her sister and grand-daughters come to stay she loves nothing more than playing tourist and ambassador.
“I love going to the zoo with them and the circus. It’s sad that more of us don’t get the chance to be a tourist for a day very often.
“I love Blackpool – it’s in me now. I wasn’t born here but I’m passionate about what I do. I love meeting people.
“During my time as an Illuminations ambassador I’ve absolutely loved it because I’ve met so many nice people that I wouldn’t have ever met. It’s been amazing, and there are so many amazing people in this town.”
So if she didn’t live here would she come to visit?
“Of course I would. I keep thinking if I ever sell up and move away would I come back to Blackpool – yes I would because I’ve met so my nice people now, and it’s not like Blackpool is the only place with problems is it?”
So is changing its working class image the right thing to do?
“I don’t think it will ever lose it. I firmly believe in giving quality accreditation but you don’t have to be four star.
“Once you step outdoors it’s the same experience whether you are staying four or five star. You might have a nicer bed, nicer pillow, nicer surroundings but there are still lots who don’t want to stay in a big hotel, they want the personal touch.
“They say to me ‘we see you, you talk to us, you’re always around to advise us, you don’t get that in a big hotel’ and I feel happy with that.”
She’s happy with her voluntary work: “I don’t always agree with the things that the council does. But we have to have a council. I could scream at times but I wouldn’t ever want to be a councillor or a politician.”
She loves the shows – particularly most of the major musicals and wishes Miss Saigon would come.
“Too many people take what we’ve got for granted. I can go months without going down the promenade. Because we’ve got so much available on our doorsteps you don’t take advantage of it which is a shame because we’ve got so much to offer. I can still remember my own excitement when my dad drove here and I still see that with some of the kids that come. They check in and are running around like idiots. It makes me remember being like that. After 24 hours they’re absolutely shattered because they’ve done so much.
“So the excitement is still there especially from people who have never been before.
“You’re still going to get some who don’t like Blackpool for one reason or another but I think on the whole my customers and guests that come here return – and the kids can’t wait to come back.”
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