Blackpool and Brighton - divided by Brexit

By Jonny Dymond
BBC News

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Blackpool and Brighton, alike in so many ways, have parted company over Brexit.

In the media, Brexit still rules the waves. The BBC's Jonny Dymond has been to the seaside - to Brighton, which backed Remain, and Blackpool, which voted Leave. Armed with a bucket and spade, he sniffs the air and samples the atmosphere in the two resorts that cast rival votes.

Walk down the blustery seafront with your eyes closed. Be careful now, there are a lot of people about and some of them might have had a lager-shandy or two at some point in the day.

You can probably sense the piers stretching out into the choppy grey-blue sea, fortune-tellers, amusement arcades and fairground rides, all with the sea rushing in and out beneath - ornate Victorian ironwork holding the whole lot together.

Every few steps, you will get a whiff of that magic combination of hot fat and batter - doughnuts and fried fish, fat chips and sweet waffles, sugar and brown sauce.

There are the pleasure-squeals of kids, rollicking teenagers away for the first time by themselves, adults restraining their offspring, pensioners ambling along remembering days out from decades ago.

You are in Blackpool, up on England's north-west coast, built to entertain the industrial working class of the north of the country and also Scotland.

You are in Brighton, down on the south coast, a salty blast of fresh air for millions of Londoners streaming down on weekend trains.

For Brighton, it feels like the best of times.

Behind the seafront, in the Lanes and beyond, the city oozes prosperity.

There are fancy boutiques with smart shopfronts, swanky restaurants and achingly fashionable cafes with ever-so-ironic decorations.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Blackpool is a popular seaside resort

In Blackpool, the seafront hotels are full, beer is a price you can afford and bingo nights are in full swing.

But step away from the seafront and you can feel the energy slip away.

The town feels desperately tired. On one of the main streets, the colour has drained from the shopfronts, there are boarded-up shops, tired pubs, cheap cafes and papered-over windows.

Complaints from residents come quickly. There is not enough to do if you live there, the wrong kind of visitors now, too much drink and drugs. "It needs a power-hose or a bulldozer," somebody says.

There is still pride in the town and love for the people who live there. But this is a place that many would leave, or get their children away from, if they could.

Image caption,
Prosperity is in the air for people such as Kevin Newman, who runs the Brighton Business Walking and Talking Tour.

In Brighton, the talk is of the creative buzz, of industries other than tourism, of graduates lured back.

"We have," says one happy resident, "the most overqualified baristas in the country."

The sea air is, at times, thick with smug. Puncturing that is the referendum result.

In Brighton, referendum stories are of relationships falling apart under the strain of the "catastrophe", of people weeping in the streets, of having to apologise to foreign visitors, of the sky falling in and "the end of the world as we know it".

At a happiness workshop in a cafe-bar (there is quite a lot of this kind of thing in Brighton), the Brexit angst comes spilling out.

It is like a wake, with single-source Nicaraguan coffee substituting for glasses of Scotch whisky. "I feel really sad about it, because it effectively broke up my son's relationship with his girlfriend," says one member of the workshop.

"She started putting really stupid stuff on Facebook and had what would appear to be a minor nervous breakdown."

There's a fair amount in this sort of tone until Xen Calviou pipes up from the back of the room: "When I went outside, [on the day of the referendum result], everything was erupting, there were people crying on their mobile phones, people talking on their phones, 'What's going to happen?'

"Well, actually, everybody's been asking for change and, if this hadn't happened, we could have just been trolling along. But, actually, we are finding out who our friends are within our community and that's a good thing."

Image caption,
Some in Blackpool hope that Brexit will return the town to being one of the greatest holiday destinations on the planet

Up in Blackpool, they should have been punching the air in triumph at the result. There is no shortage of resentment towards the south of England here and the result was, for some at the very least, one in the eye for London.

Ian Atkinson, owner and manager of the Coronation Rock factory, doesn't go in for schadenfreude. He has customers down in Brighton and likes the place, but he's pleased that the vote went the way it did.

"I think already we've seen the exchange rate drop against the euro, probably 10 to 15%. Good for exports, therefore good for this business basically."

But on the seafront, there is the serious business of holidaymaking to be had.

Inside the Doric Hotel, stories are swapped and memories lovingly burnished over properly priced pints of mild and a glass of "something for the Mrs".

In the hotel's biggest function room, Liam Halewood calls out bingo numbers.

Scouser Liam loves his adopted home of Blackpool, the people who come here to play and the rituals of nights at the Doric.

"All the fours, 44," he chimes. "All the twos, it's them two little ducks, 22."

"Quack , quack," choruses his faithful audience.

It takes you back to a more communal time, when Blackpool was perhaps the greatest holiday destination on the planet.

A time that, if Liam has his way, will come again, helped, perhaps, by a referendum that could be a catalyst for something bigger and paradoxically, more local.

"We've had a big change," says Liam. "We're out of Europe, we need to embrace the change and get on with it.

"People have got to stop moaning now, the vote's been done."

Media caption,
Blackpool rock businessman Ian Atkinson is optimistic for his company post Brexit

"Blackpool is amazing, it's bright, it's vibrant and I feel that if the residents of Blackpool stopped moaning and looked after their own town it would be absolutely amazing once again."

It's a fine thought, that Brexit will arrest a town's long slide. Maybe it will.

But that's for the future and for people such as Liam to make happen.

Right now, there is the uncomfortable reality that two cities, so alike in so many ways, have parted company so fundamentally - and that it took an earthquake such as the referendum for many people to notice.

You can hear the full report on BBC Radio 4's Broadcasting House on iPlayer.