I visited ‘the UK’s worst seaside town’ – it’s like the British Library for bad tattoos

I narrowly avoided winning a plastic lizard. Which is good because I think I might have been mugged for it by a rowdy crowd of septuagerians otherwise.

At 49, I’m the youngest person in the bingo hall by a decade or two, and the other patrons hardly doubt me. Skegness, it seems, is just a Midland seaside town forgotten by time; it is once lived and then forgotten.

This means that much of what made it famous is still here with just a little bit of moisture. Dodgems and donkey rides, candy floss and caravan parks, Butlins and indeed bingo – it’s all exactly where Freddie Laker left it when his cheap overseas package holiday boom drove two-thirds of the town’s tourists away in the 1970s. Except now vodka slushies are sold alongside the ice creams. (Literally side by side, as it turns out, which traces an interesting path to early alcoholism, and perhaps explains the gangs of underage drinkers who menace some of the streets after dark.)

Skegness isn’t exactly that long; if anything it’s brighter and more lurid (the vodka slushies are neon blue, just in case). Welcome to what the locals call “Skegvegas”…

Look out for food vendors selling donuts and waffles

Health food is scarce in Skeggy – Alamy

What is it really like?

The pier is the heart of Skeggy’s entertainment offer and the great white hope for its future. Currently a little stunted – over the years storms have swept out a chunk of it, and it is now only a quarter of its original length – bought by the Mellors Group in 2021, an ambitious leisure company that has the distinction of creating the Boris zipline. Johnson got stuck. They have secured millions in government regeneration funds (presumably not from Boris) for their plan to rebuild and redevelop the pier to its full 582 metres, and cite New York’s envied High Line urban park as inspiration.

It’s not Manhattan (you’ll find fewer fruit machines on Fifth Avenue), but they’ve already really pushed the pier up a notch, with climbing walls, escape rooms and a not-so-horrific bar, Playa.

There have been little pockets of investment elsewhere too – the Ivernia Hotel, for example, has just come off an impressive refurbishment (theiverniahotel.co.uk) – and some parts of the town don’t need to be restored at all, to thank you very much (the traditional way). a fairground at the foot of the pier, for example, and the long, wide, soft-sand expanse of the beach itself).

Skegness beach, the big wheel and the flat ground, early morningSkegness beach, the big wheel and the flat ground, early morning

Little has changed on the beach itself from day to day – Alamy

What don’t you like?

The “strip” here (South Parade, Grand Parade and North Parade, although the other name, “the B1451” gives it a more accurate love) is a grot-fest of migrainey slot machine joints, unpleasantly accommodation options -carpeted, bad. fast food outlets and even tougher boozers. Chief among the latter is The Hive, which has “8 bars and clubs all under one roof open until 6am” – although, when I was there, it was early May, two operating (the wine bar, Tantra, would have been, but “There was an event last night and someone ripped the sound system out of the wall,” explains the host wearily). I’m forced to settle for Busters, the “fun 80s pub”, where none of the punters look old enough to remember that decade, and none of the (seven!) bouncers on the mindset to allow a lot of fun.

At the other end of the strip, literally and metaphorically, is the North Parade Bingo Club (where I almost won that fake reptile) and The Seaview (“the family pub”). When I visit the latter, it’s karaoke night and a woman who looks like Willie Nelson is singing that song about a little mouse wearing clogs. I can’t wait to hear what comes next.

Butlins Funcoast World, Skegness, circa 1987Butlins Funcoast World, Skegness, circa 1987

Butlin’s water park is still great value – Alamy

Do this…

Billy B set up his first Butlins holiday camp here in 1936, and it is one of only three left. It’s worth the £27 day pass for solo watchers – it’s like the British Library of bad tattoos here – but if you’ve got kids this is a great value day out. The water park, in particular, is great, but the new outdoor adventure playground Skypark is also fun (and has something that claims to be the “longest interactive saw in the UK”). Unfortunately, day passes don’t get you into the night’s entertainment, so I miss out on a tribute act with a great name: Lewish Capaldi.

Blocks of accommodation at ButlinsBlocks of accommodation at Butlins

Blocks of accommodation at Butlins – Alamy

Eat this…

Don’t even bother trying to eat healthy in Skegness. My B&B didn’t offer breakfast (which makes it… just a B?), so I spent 40 minutes walking the streets fruitlessly looking for somewhere to buy a piece of fruit (“We have doughnuts! ” coffee only). Instead, give in to the calories and get breakfast, lunch or both from Kirk’s, a family butcher with a century or so of heritage on the town’s high street. I bought a hot pork roll, with stuffing and applesauce and – simply because I asked for it – I got a crazy good piece the size of my head, and so exquisitely crunchy I doubt every dentist within a 10 mile radius has heard me at cry and shivered.

But don’t do this…

Donkey rides are available on the beach in season. But isn’t it cruel that some poor creature has to drag some alien weight up and down the beach all day in a dingy and unnatural outfit, stopping only to feed on unnutritious food, then put out overnight in cramped conditions and noises? It certainly – wait for it – looks like that for vacationers, so I can’t imagine it’s much better for the donkeys!

Jokes aside, there are many who question the ethics of the donkey rides, although the family business that provides them in Skegness insists that “the welfare of the animals is paramount”.

Donkeys on the beach in SkegnessDonkeys on the beach in Skegness

Donkey rides are available on the beach in season – Alamy

From a local

“I have no idea why people come here. Me and all my friends want to leave. None of us make any money in the off-season though, so it’s impossible to save enough to get a place elsewhere. I will say one thing for Skegness: it is free.” Rob, 23.

From tourists

“Britain’s worst seaside town”. (Who did?

Get there

Trains run to Skegness from Nottingham and Grantham (and it’s a lovely trip, through pretty villages and fields of ryegrass, on the Poacher Line). Be warned, though: in summer, operator East Midlands Railway (eastmidlandsrailway.co.uk) often enforces a pre-booking rule on trains to manage crowds.

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