What to see
You’ll find accounts of Fleetwood’s tourist attractions in Towns of Two Halves (and of 91 other places: order the book now for £8 +P&P from Amazon). For additional information plus shopping, eating out etc there’s Visit Fleetwood.
Comment and colour
Students of geography spend a lot of time worrying about why towns and cities come to be where they are. Often the answer is blindingly obvious: a sheltered harbour, for example, the point at which a river can be crossed, or a handy supply of life’s essentials. It gets more complicated when such issues don’t obviously favour one location over another, as in, say, the plains of Nebraska. In those instances, geographers come up with elegant diagrams involving hexagons within hexagons. The line between practicality and abstract theory is completed.
Why is Fleetwood where it is? There’s a river estuary, golden sands, formerly abundant fisheries… but these weren’t significant enough to be decisive factors. Evidence of Iron Age and Roman interest in the area is also inconclusive. Fleetwood is there because someone called Fleetwood put it there.
To be fair to Sir Peter Hesketh Fleetwood, he considered Wyreton and New Liverpool before settling on a personalised name-plate for his town (Hesketh was already prominent in the Southport/Liverpool area). It was, in any case, much more than a vanity project. Sir Peter’s chief motivation appears to have been to give the ordinary working people of Lancashire a means of having days out at the seaside.
Because PHF’s plans in the early 1830s involved a railway, they may also be regarded as an early attack of Railway Mania. He believed trains heading north from London would be defeated by the gradients of the Cumberland hills if not the Southern Uplands of Scotland, and that another route to Glasgow must be found. He proposed the new town of Fleetwood as a railhead from which passengers would take ship to Scotland. It is no accident that the magnificent hotel built in 1841 at the northern tip of the Fylde peninsula is called the North Euston.
The new town of Fleetwood performed that role for just a handful of years. The railway reached Fleetwood in 1840; seven years later, locomotives proved equal to the Shap Summit and the line from London to Scotland was complete by the mid-1850s. By coincidence, one of the passengers to use the Fleetwood boat-train connection was Queen Victoria, in 1847; this fleeting contact was apparently the first visit by a reigning monarch to Lancashire since the days of Charles II.
Bypassed by the iron horse, Fleetwood’s port nevertheless thrived. Passenger steamers served Dublin, Belfast, the Isle of Man and other destinations around the Irish Sea. A fishing industry that would eventually make the town the third largest fishing port in the country also began to develop. Poor Hesketh Fleetwood’s fortunes declined, however, and he retired to Brighton.
His town, designed by the great Victorian architect Decimus Burton, is still easily recognisable. Built, so it is said, on sand dunes and rabbit warrens, its focal point is a particularly large, landscaped dune called the Mount. This is on the north-facing shore. From it, streets radiate like spokes to the east and south. The rim was the main commercial area of the town; now, the railway is long gone and passenger traffic is reduced to the ferry across the mouth of the Wyre to Knott End. The deep-sea fisheries disappeared in the 1980s.
Modern Fleetwood inherits Burton’s fine buildings: the North Euston, the Custom House (in which Fleetwood Museum is now housed), Queens Terrace, St Peter’s Church and two of the town’s three lighthouses. The pagoda he built on the Mount has been replaced by a pavilion. But it’s a statue of Peter Hesketh Fleetwood that stands in Euston Gardens, in front of the hotel. It’s a touching monument: the town’s founding father holds a model of the Lower Lighthouse, and between his feet a rabbit shelters, having presumably been evicted during the building works.
Fleetwood Museum too is very strong on models, not only of boats and quaysides but also of trawl nets. It devotes separate rooms to deep-sea and inshore fisheries, and in the latter there’s a particularly delightful map that indicates with colour-coded lights what was harvested where.
It’s a varied museum. A Victorian dining room recreates a scene that would have greeted early visitors; the ICI wing makes the point that Fleetwood was not solely about fishing; rooms recall the contributions of the RNLI and the Royal Naval Patrol Service to the town; and behind the building the Harriet, an 1893 fishing smack, is one of the last surviving vessels of its type.
On the way into town by the back road, the A585, you’ll pass the Wyre Estuary Country Park and Farmer Parrs Animal World . Not far south of the Freeport shopping centre is Fleetwood Marsh Nature Reserve.
On the other approach to the town, by the coast road from Blackpool, there are miles of sea-front. In Fleetwood itself the promenade skirts the northern part of the town, with the kind of diversions you’d expect in a resort town but with an Art Deco theatre thrown in. Across the water, a clear day will give you views of the Lake District; in gloomier weather you may be able to see no further than Heysham Power Station.