Overtourism is not a new problem. There have long been booming beach towns, high seasons and mass exodus.
Blackpool welcomed around 3,850,000 visitors in 1913, based on rail passenger statistics – a whopping 350 percent increase in 1873. In the 1930s, around seven million passed through the city every year, while two million went to Southport and a million each to Morecambe and Llandudno. Cockle and whelk prices soared; the lines for rock were legendary. But the resorts held on and everyone had a good time – because there was a system to manage the great mass of people looking for fun.
Starting in the mid-19th century, working-class northern coastal destinations encouraged Wakes Weeks, which designated a specific week of the year for a city or several cities to take a vacation. This meant that the number of visitors was staggered, which catered to railway companies, hoteliers and, in general, tourists – as people could travel with friends or family or at least expect to bump into them on the pier or beach.
Wake Weeks were an extension of the factory system. The railways became a conveyor belt to transport thousands of people from the inner cities to the beach. Places like Blackburn became ghost towns as mills emptied and engine rooms closed for cleaning and maintenance. Only a handful of key workers remained – street sweepers, train dispatchers, police, a butcher, a baker – and those who did not have the means to make the trip. Even the clergy joined the Weeks of Awakening race, though some members of the congregation found that seeing their local vicar with his pants rolled up and his feet bare led to a decrease in reverence.
Times for Wakes Weeks were published in local newspapers in Lancashire and Yorkshire. Typically, a large city or several smaller cities would receive a specific week. In 1921, according to the Rochdale Times, Lancashire’s list of annual holidays began with populous Bolton on June 25th and ended the week of October 1st with Crompton, Failsworth, Hollinwood, Lees, Middleton, Middleton Junction, Oldham, Royton, Shaw and Nascente.
The golden age of Wakes Weeks was 1850-1950, from the height of the railroad era to the emergence of the family car. But the schedules have lasted until modern times. A schedule for “Holidays in the Textile City” was printed in a local newspaper in 1978.
Fifty trains could leave Accrington or Burnley in a single day, but the rush was controlled and rolling stock could be borrowed from other lines at the beginning and end of a holiday week.
In his wonderful 1992 book, Watch Week, Mill Town Holiday MemoriesAuthor John Hudson interviewed dozens of people in their sixties, seventies, and eighties, the last generation to have memories of such holidays when they were the norm.
People fondly remember the race for the train; the struggle to get suitcases, strollers and small children on board; the cramped carriages filled with happy vacationers, while the Pennines were left behind and the sky grew bigger and bluer and the salty air came in along with the coal-scented steam.
Although the train was the main mode of transport, there were also charabancs (horse-drawn in the early days, motorized from 1900 onwards) as well as steam packages to the Isle of Man and, for a time, between Liverpool and North Wales.
The weekday watches did not complain about the dubious weather. They were too resilient and happy to waste time doing this. They were much more likely to sing ‘It’s Turned Out Nice Again’, a favorite of George Formby at the end of the pier: “When you call your girl, you start to be polite / Though it’s raining cats and dogs, you say it’s a lovely evening tonight.” Along with Reginald Dixon and Charlie Cairoli, Formby owes much of its success to the wide audience at Wakes Week.
People flocked to tea dances, theatrical and musical shows, cinema, light classical concerts, fairground rides and stalls, arcades and fish and chip shops. Many families went to the same boarding house year after year, where they were welcomed back as family members. All the classic British seaside activities were enjoyed, from donkey rides and beauty pageants, to boat trips on the sea or on the man-made lakes that have become a feature of so many tour ventures.
When Mass Observation researchers sent middle-class Oxford University student-researchers to Blackpool in 1937-8, they reported that 232 couples were kissing and hugging between 11:30 pm and midnight. But Wakes Week was not an orgy; they recorded only four cases of complete sexual intercourse, and one of them involved a member of their staff.
To get an idea of what Wakes Weeks meant to people in the 1920s and 1930s, just quote Peggy Hesketh, an employee at a Radcliffe leach plant north of Manchester, who said to Hudson: “’Looking forward to this? It was all us girls could think and talk about for weeks, especially since the five of us used to go together to Blackpool or Southport or Morecambe. We didn’t finish until Saturday and got more and more excited as we went through the ritual of sweeping and putting sheets over cloth bags for the week. It was special in so many ways that day, and especially after paid vacation arrived. [in 1938].”
These warm memories can make us nostalgic – but they can also make us think. There is no reason why a version of Wakes Week cannot be reintroduced. During the pandemic, inflated visitor numbers to resorts as diverse as Bournemouth, St Ives and Southend-on-Sea, as well as inland honeypots like the Lake District, Snowdonia and Dartmoor — led to traffic chaos, alcohol-related issues and litter. and noise and stress for locals. Last year, when the impact of Covid-19 was waning, the tourism recovery caused similar problems.
What we currently have in the UK is the opposite of a rational system. Bank holidays, school holidays at the same time and a general annual panic in July cause traffic jams, accommodation congestion and seasonal hyperinflation, all made worse by the overpromotion of the coast, the sun and a handful of middle-class enclaves at the expense of all other types of vacations and destinations.
There are many ways to organize a contemporary holiday season staggered – by city or district, by industry, by age – and we could make them apply not just to the seaside, but to all types of vacations, to alleviate the pressure of the countryside. and honeypot cities. A smart system can inspire us to experience new destinations too, including post-industrial cities and old wool and cotton towns. A 21st Century Awakening Week at the place where it all began. Oh, I like being by the canal!