Rhyl, the town that exists to make sure Blackpool can merely be labelled the worst seaside resort in England.
Even today, with the sun shining, and the turning seasons pushing up through the soil into spring, Rhyl looked tired and fading. Paintwork flaking under sea-spray, a smattering of independent shops hanging on only because the national chains won't come to displace them. There is a Greggs, however, so I bought a sausage roll and considered the main street. Ridiculous, miserable tat shops, with stock so dreadful it was clearly leftover stuff that couldn't be sold to shops in Scarborough or Great Yarmouth. Faded plastic items given too much window space, sucked into a void of grey depression. Toys that tied into crap films long forgotten. Even WH Smiths looked closed, and we had to try the door in curiosity to find out if it was open. It smelled like a library. Air that never moves.
The shops with the highest quality and most vibrant stock were the pawn shops, bright yellow signage, bulging shelves. It was a town centre in reverse, people bringing their best items to trade in for cash, better to survive the week and hope for a miracle. At the end of a hard winter season, this town has depleted its fat reserves of TVs, consoles, and electric guitars, and now must subsist on selling toasters and fishing gear until the new crop of tourists is ready to harvest.
But the herds are thinner each year. Where once many families came, cherubic children to furnish with nets and buckets, Father glasses of Brown and Mild, Mother gifts for all, postcards for Auntie Gladys, now reduced to a smattering of unimaginative pensioners, stuck in a rut, arrive on a bus or two, drink a coffee, shudder from the wind, and return. When they're gone, the last rock shop will close its doors, the final B&B will stop serving its virtually meatless breakfast sausages in those dreadful hours that can only be experienced in such dank hostelry before 9am, and the streets will fall silent for good.
A shop called 'WHY PAY MORE' held the last spot on the street. Undercutting those expensive poundshops by a significant chunk, they'd piled awful, useless stock up in front of the signage to the extent that the only visible word was 'WHY'. As sentiments go, it was pretty much spot on.
Someone has tried to save this place. Money has been spent, attractions have been opened, but as Blaster Bates once said of a mill chimney that has started to topple over; "No one's ever been known to push one back.".
So it was that we went to the 'Seaquarium', a smart, newish building on the seafront, and Rhyl's final shot at being somewhere worth going. My travel buddy for the day is a student, and got exactly 51p off her ticket for being so. We were the only customers. In the first room, dozens of turtles came forward to see us. Clearly we were the most interesting thing that had happened to them all day. Out the back, they have seals and sea lions in a big pool area. A staff member was feeding them and encouraging them to jump from the water. It was a show with no viewers. We watched from the door, not wanting to intrude. It felt awkward. The seals spotted us, barked, and we came out, gingerly. Again, we felt like we were the exhibits.
Having bought a 50p plastic squid for my car's dashboard, we opted to try out the traditional amusement arcades, of which just 4 remain, 100 bulbs to each puffa jacketed slot machine adict. I love these places. They are so wonderfully awful. Years ago, I took my mum, who is not one of life's gamblers, to a penny arcade in Whitby. She put some 2ps in the slidey tray machines, promptly won about 40p, and panicked, snatching up her winnings and running for the door, terrified she'd be stopped by some giant security guard and locked up.
I failed to win a Teddy on the crane grab machine. My friend failed to win a 'George' from 'Rainbow' on the next one. Then we spotted the giant teddy crane. It was enormous. A plastic box so big that David Blaine could easily have been one of the prizes on offer. And it was filled with 5ft tall cuddly monkey toys. The first effort was not a success, but the second one snagged a big green monkey and started to move it. Encouraged, I continued. The fourth effort lifted the monkey right up, and I began to panic. It had never occurred to me that I might actually win anything from one of these machines, and now I was in danger of having to carry a massive green monkey for the rest of the day. What the fuck would I do with a giant green monkey? It grinned at me hideously as it moved across the front of the box towards the hatch, crane pinched awkwardly around its head, legs dangling limp and thin. "No!" I shouted and banged the box. The monkey slipped out and landed back in the pile, head buried, now presenting its fat green arse to us. The manager looked up from his phone. We left and spoke no more of this.
On the front was a closed kiosk for 'Water Lasers'. Another kiosk had men on the flat roof applying tar. The crazy golf was closed and covered in storm debris. Dogs danced amongst the razor fish shells in the openness of the tide drawn back. The sun shone. I closed my eyes. It didn't sound like a town. The buildings silent, reverting to nature.
We walked back through the town to the car. Shabby, derelict shops all round. An amusement arcade closed, the attractions piled up behind salted windows. The face of an ogre staring back out from a 'Test your strength' machine, stacked up alongside gallopers and a giant frog. Some sort of post apocalyptic cheap plastic wonderland, corpses of machines strewn and piled up with no-one to dig their graves.
The only buildings that looked expensive were the banks, the pharmacies, and the railway station. It figured. The only money to be made here is by loaning to the poor, selling them drugs, and helping them leave. There were no young people. We dined at Pizza Hut, in a trading estate on the edge of town, which perhaps uniquely in my life was the highest class establishment I'd been in all day, and considered what we'd seen. I'd felt for the sea lions in the Seaquarium, performing for nobody's benefit whatsoever, but now I wasn't so sure. They were the only beings I'd seen all day that had a decent job and looked like they were enjoying what they were doing. A man in a red polo shirt and with a massive tattoo for 'Abi' on his forearm served us pizza. The menu offered chocolate pudding with 'Real Maltesers' and I wondered out loud if real Maltesers were really the best indicator of quality. Are fake Maltesers even a thing?
On the way out of town, we passed a locked and barbed wire fenced yard full of disused fairground trains, peeling and rotting, their smiling faces looking out to the road in pure rictus horror. One mile later, I ran over a pheasant. I know exactly how it felt.