BEYOND the glass doors, in the foyer of St Peter’s, Blackpool, preparations for the weekly drop-in are under way. Advisers from the local council are due to arrive to talk through questions about benefits. Universal Credit is being rolled out, and there are concerns about how people will cope with this new responsibility. By three o’clock, bread, peppers, and an unexpectedly large quantity of mushrooms will have been packed into plastic bags. But, first, there is an invitation, and a commission.
“God wants to send us out, too,” the Revd Phil Maddock explains. A former national adviser for ministry among deaf and disabled people, he is now retired but helps out at St Peter’s, leading worship and preaching on a harvest with few workers: “To tell others in our part of the world, South Shore, that we have discovered somebody who loves us, and can give us all the things that we need if we trust him.”
Next week, there will be an opportunity to be anointed with oil, the Vicar of St Peter’s, the Revd Tracy Charnock, says. Baptism and confirmation are also possibilities. “I know there are people in dire need. We come together equal before Christ, and Christ blesses us, and gives us something in our hearts that gives us the strength to go on.”
We sing “I the Lord of sea and sky”, with its promise of dark made bright, and a vow to hold God’s people in our hearts.
MADELEINE DAVIESWalk to church: Lytham Road, where St Peter’s is found
CALCULATIONS by the Church Urban Fund show that St Peter’s is the most deprived parish in the C of E: 41 per cent of working-age people live in poverty, as do 61 per cent of children. The national averages are 12 and 19. Life expectancy for men is 68 — 11 years below the average, and 25 below that in one London parish. Forty-one per cent of people have no qualifications.
Walk along Lytham Road to St Peter’s, and you pass ghostly reminders of its heyday: empty shops with faded fronts advertise babywear, tours, and Blackpool rock. There are two “quid bakeries”, some betting shops, and frequent invitations to exchange what you have for cash, from cars to vacuum cleaners. Still open for business is the Escape Rooms (“Find clues, solve logic puzzles, and break codes to gain your freedom”). “To Let” signs abound.
Mr Maddock’s wife, Celia, remembers South Shore as “a very nice area”. Her mother came to Bond Street — renamed to emulate its London counterpart — for the shopping. Four children in her family were brought up here. “Now, I think you would feel very nervous about letting children out in the evening.” The area can be regenerated, she thinks, “but it would have to be different. We can’t take it back to how it was.”
She confesses to being “completely out of my comfort zone” at the drop-in, where a friendly police community support officer keeps a watchful eye. “But these people are just so lovely, and the way they support each other and look after each other is incredible. . . It is thrilling to see the Lord working in all our lives.”
A free lunch, followed by informal worship and Bible study, has been running for several Fridays now. Topics of conversation over tea include difficult neighbours, family conflict, and foster parents. One in 65 children in Blackpool is in care: the highest proportion in England. Tracy is talking to Susie, promising to help her fill in a form she is struggling with. The conversation turns to Christmas. Susie moved here from London, alone, and had no family in the area. Last year, she asked if she could take her meal home with her, anxious to promise that she would return the plate.
“The key to it is to build up a relationship of trust,” Tracy explains, later. “That’s the key to people being open to faith, and to learning about Jesus. Something that we celebrate here is that sense of Christian hope, because people in this area often feel hopeless: they are not connected with family; they don’t have many friends; they are struggling financially; and they are asking questions about life. And here, at St Peter’s, we can ask those questions, and we can put it in a Christian context, and give them that Christian message of hope that things can improve, because that’s God’s plan.”
If everyone who came on a Friday came on the same day, that would be 20 extra people at St Peter’s, she says. “We are actually a growing church.”
MADELEINE DAVIES“A relationship of trust”: the Revd Tracy Charnock, the Vicar of St Peter’s, and Holy Trinity, Blackpool
ST PETER’s was originally an iron “mission church”, one of several built around Holy Trinity, South Shore. Several of the roads around it are named after people who built Holy Trinity, and Tracy reports that there is still “great respect for the Church and faith” locally, which she attributes, in part, to the fact that it is responsible for a great deal of food provision in the area.
Tacked to a window of St Peter’s is a list of the sustenance available seven days a week from local churches: vouchers at St Cuthbert’s; a soup kitchen at the Baptist Tabernacle; parcels at Sacred Heart. Figures from the Church Urban Fund show that the Food Partnership Network is feeding more than 1000 people a week.
A booklet telling the history of Holy Trinity, established in 1836, describes the South Shore of the early 1880s as “a sweep of uneven sand hills and rough grass”. The first Vicar, the Revd J. Ford Simmons, told a friend that he was “being sent into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil”, but later described it as ten of the best years of his life.
By the end of the 19th century, it was one of the largest parishes in the northern province, and, in 1954, the Bishop confirmed 114 people in the parish, which had an attendance of almost 12,000. Blackpool, the world’s first mass-market seaside resort, was attracting 17 million people a year at this time.
Joe Turpin, aged 92, has been at Holy Trinity for 88 years. His first memory is of the “Rose Queen” leading the procession through the parish to the Pleasure Beach, where the children would perform at the Indian Lounge (now the Blackpool Arena). His mother ran a boarding house that became home to 50 evacuees from Manchester during the Second World War. ALAMYThe first mass-market seaside resort: an LMS Railway poster
A few years ago, with a congregation in decline and a building heavily in need of repair, there was talk of Holy Trinity closing. “It was breaking my heart,” he recalls. “I could have wept.” Instead, grants were secured, and the church was remodelled; pews were replaced with chairs; and a kitchen and lavatory were installed. Now, it’s the thought of Tracy — also Vicar of Holy Trinity — ever leaving that worries him.
Tracy’s predecessor, Canon Dick Cartmell, remembers “enormous” local outcry at rumours of closure. “People said ‘Please don’t take our church away’ — basically, because everything else has been taken away.”
Today, the eucharist is led by the Revd Anne Beverley. Against glowering skies kept at bay by stained-glass windows depicting the New Jerusalem, she reads from the lectionary: a bleak passage from Joel that speaks of “a day of darkness and gloom” (”Put on sackcloth, you priests, and mourn; wail, you who minister before the altar”). Yet God “starts and ends with love” she reminds us, and that love envelops those who sleep outside as well as the 20 or so who have gathered for the sacrament.
Over tea after the service, Joe’s niece, Eleanor, describes how the boarding houses that once accommodated holidaymakers have been converted into flats and bedsits. She is conscious that there are now more than 100 people coming for soup and sandwiches at Sacred Heart, “and children there as well. . . .There are an awful lot of people with nothing.”
Sitting alongside her is Joshua Harrison, 19, assigned to the parish on the C of E Ministry Experience Scheme. He is conscious of “real need in Blackpool, both spiritually and financially”, and has noticed that “the whole of St Peter’s has put its might and effort into making everyone feel welcome and accepted, no matter what their background.”
MADELEINE DAVIESWalk to church: Lytham Road, where St Peter’s is found
ACTION to create “more stable, less transient communities” is central to Blackpool Council’s five-year plan, which includes “easing out the people who have no interest in staying and contributing”. It estimates that there are 8000 people moving into and around Blackpool without support networks every year, “driven by the widespread availability of cheap accommodation and poor-quality conversions of Bed and Breakfast stock to Houses of Multiple Occupation”. In 2012, it introduced selective licensing in some parts of South Shore. Almost half of the flats housing vulnerable people were recorded as “non decent”.
Tracy has accompanied some of the council’s visits, and reports that, in her many years in inner-city Manchester, she never encountered anything like this level of poverty: “People living in bedsits without running water, without heating. . .” One man who came to St Peter’s was living in a tent in the sand dunes, eking out an existence while waiting to qualify for council housing.
She regards her parishioners as “victims of everything in society”. We pass a burnt-out laundrette, its shell left to decompose. The Fire Service attended a total of 350 deliberate fires in Blackpool in one year. She is conscious of the effect on people’s psyche of living among deprivation: “I think people become part of it and feel that change will be impossible.”
THE council’s vision is that Blackpool will become “the UK’s number one family resort with a thriving economy that supports a happy and healthy community who are proud of this unique town”. It remains the most popular resort in the country: ten million people visit every year, and more than two-thirds of British people have visited. This year, through the Government’s Coastal Communities Fund, the council received £2.9 million towards a new conference centre, and almost £100,000 towards a project to transform a disused B&B on the seafront into a creative hub and café.
Blackpool, however, is also on the receiving end of some of the sharpest central Government cuts in the country: £93 million since 2011. Analysis published by the Labour Party last year suggested that the change in spending power per household since 2011 had been a loss of £566, compared with a national average of £169. In 2015, it was ranked as the most deprived local authority in England.MADELEINE DAVIESPoised: a statue of Jimmy Armfield, a worshipper at St Peter’s since childhood, and now its organist, outside Blackpool FC Ground, in South Shore
It has the lowest age for male and female life expectancy in England, and the worst rates for seven indicators of public health, including the highest rates of smoking during pregnancy, and self-harm, in the country; alcohol-related hospital admissions are three times the national average. Average earnings are the third lowest in the UK: more than £100 a week less than the average.
Testimonies in a Church Urban Fund report published this year — A Tower of Strength Built Upon Rock: God at work in Blackpool — constitute a bleak litany of hunger, fines for begging, loneliness, fear of violence, the struggle to find employment, and the lure of suicide. Many refer to struggling without access to a washing machine (“I wash my clothes in the shower with me”; “The doctor says I should throw them away, but my Auntie washes them”). One man’s story begins with the confession: “I want to lie down and die somewhere. . . Nothing can be done to help, to change my life, nothing.”
Welfare reform and austerity mean that conditions have “worsened considerably” for those on benefits and low incomes, the report says. While it celebrates “remarkable growth” in social-action groups — faith groups are contributing nearly £1 million annually to the local economy, through unpaid volunteer labour, and savings in council expenditure — there is challenge, too. Leaders ought to be equipping Christians to engage with political and economic systems, it goes on, “not allow them to be satisfied with a purely domestic and private gospel”.
Canon Cartmell, now a volunteer with Together Lancashire, is concerned that the Church is not “politically acute. . . If you want to change people’s lives, you have got to change policy, and that means getting involved in politics. Otherwise, you just end up putting bandages on wounds for people, you don’t cure the disease.” MADELEINE DAVIESHolding court: Susanne Johnson, outside her Wool and Haberdashery boutique
While canvassing on doorsteps for the Labour Party recently, he told one woman who was averse to religion and politics that he was her “worst nightmare”. They then had “a wonderful conversation. . . Politics has a lot to learn from the Church. We try to hear people and what they are saying, and that takes time.”
He recently told a Westminster researcher who had come for the day: “If you stay for a fortnight, and walk the streets, and just listen to people, you will begin to realise why they voted Brexit.” The researcher admitted that he had never been further north than Birmingham.
But the Church has its deaf moments, too, he thinks. “The poor have a lot to teach us, but we ain’t very good at listening to them. . . If you want to know how to survive, just live in Blackpool. . . Their natural inclination is to be in community. They look after each other . . . They just laugh a lot; they know how to enjoy themselves.” Meanwhile, “acquisitive communities tend to build Leylandii trees around their houses.”
He is full of praise for Tracy, and is excited about the trips to a Carmelite retreat house in Preston that are being offered to people who attend a Salvation Army project. Food is important, he says, but “everyone is entitled to explore their inner self. That is our job.”
EARLIER this year, the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, warned that the Church was “abandoning” the poorest parts of the country (News, 11 August). Tracy agrees that there is “probably a north/south divide in the C of E”, but, having only worked in urban priority areas, has seen the Church “at the forefront of providing for people”.
The Friday drop-in is one of the highlights of her week — “There is a real sense of joy and people connecting” — and, like Canon Cartmell, she is conscious of how much laughter erupts during it. When it comes to preaching, “a lot of the scriptures appeal to people who live in this kind of area because there is a promise, that sense of hope, there is comfort, the fact that Jesus spent most of his time with people on the margins of society.”
MADELEINE DAVIESRose Queen of 1964: Wendy Anyon, at St Peter’sMany of those who attend might not come on a Sunday. Nevertheless, Wendy Anyon, who has been at St Peter’s since the age of five (she was the Rose Queen of 1964), has taken to sitting in the back row. “Quite a lot of people started to come in, and hesitated,” she explains. “All you are looking at is the backs of people, and it is quite daunting.”
She points to where Jimmy Armfield, who remained loyal to Blackpool FC throughout his career, and captained England in the 1960s, still plays the organ. His smiling statue — one foot for ever poised on the ball — faces the church. There is much to be proud of in Blackpool: like Celia, Canon Cartmell, and others, she remembers the “high-class shops” of Bond Street.
At No. 29, Susanne Johnson holds court at her Wool and Haberdashery boutique, formerly one of six banks located on the street. “Blackpool was the first working-class resort in the world,” she points out. “How fabulous is that? How proud are we?” She wants the area to be “as good as it was in its heyday”, and, as a founder of South Shore Beacons, has developed a “four-pronged attack”.
Propped up in her office is a blueprint for the area, produced pro bono by Joseph Boniface Architects. Other elements include events, a retail academy, and improved security. A recent carnival, for which lottery funding was secured, attracted about 10,000 people. “Build it, and they will come,” she insists.
In the evening, the sky is awash with colour and glows at the sea’s edge “like shining from shook foil” as Gerard Manley Hopkins, who taught at a school an hour inland, put it. This shoreline, Canon Cartmell says, is the “biggest sign” that God offers to those who are trying to discern “the theology of Blackpool”.
“We’ve been given by our Creator seven miles of beach, magnificent sunsets, and a tide which comes in and cleans everything.” He wants to see boats come back, and the beaches “heaving” again.
Dancing in the street on Lytham Road are tiny twin girls walking a greyhound, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Be happy, be bright, be you”.
NEXT WEEK: Madeleine Davies visits one of the UK’s least-deprived parishes
Listen to Madeleine Davies talk about her visit to St Peter’s, South Shore, on the Church Times Podcast
MADELEINE DAVIESSign: sunset on the promenade