By Sophie Campbell
Well, you do wonder. What could have turned a middle-aged boatman with sagging wellies and a tobacco habit into the poster boy of a generation? Or, rather, generations?
When the artist John Hassall was commissioned to design a railway poster trumpeting the charms of Skegness in 1908, I doubt it would have occurred to him that his creation — a joyous, rotund fellow prancing along an unfeasibly yellow beach smoking his pipe, soon nicknamed the “Jolly Fisherman” — would be celebrating his centenary in 2008 with a letter from the Queen and a party (to which you are all invited) on July 27 in Skegness’s Tower Gardens.
Rooneys, Beckhams, Cruises — none of them could be more guarded about their party plans than the mayor of Skegness, Neil Pimperton. He shakes his head sternly when I ask if Jolly (“The Jolly Fisherman” is a bit clunky for modern marketing purposes) is going to leap out of a cake or lead a fish-a-thon in the Tower Gardens duck pond. Pimperton is a sweet man who — along with his wife and mayoress, Rita — is hugely proud of his chosen home town.
He is also far too polite to say “Stuff Boris Johnson” after the London Mayor unfavourably compared Skegness to the Med in his latest Daily Telegraph column.
Pimperton is originally from near Rotherham, which, along with Hull, Keighley, Sheffield and others, was one of the traditional industrial feeders for Skegness; locals still refer to the last week in July and the first week in August as “Miners’ Week”. He gives me that “I know you journalists” look and says that it’s going to be a big surprise.
We — the mayor, mayoress, district councillor and Jolly expert John Byford and I — are on the Jolly Trail, another birthday treat that opened six weeks ago and starts at Tower Gardens. All things lead to (or from) Tower Gardens in Skegness; they were there right from the beginning, when the Earl of Scarborough decided to develop his stretch of flat Lincolnshire coastline into a seaside resort.
Construction began on a neat grid in about 1870 and his land agent advertised plots, extolling the “clean, hard sands, salubrious climate and finest cricket ground in England”, among other things. The gardens occupied the former coal yards, which once stored Tyneside coal debouched from colliers on to the beach.
Today, the pretty little gatehouses have gone and some of the neighbouring Victorian houses burnt down last August. The firemen had to siphon the water out of both town swimming pools and the fish pond to stop the blaze; even so, an amusement arcade went up. Afterwards, singed two-pence pieces were seen circulating in the town.
Holidaymakers stare curiously from their benches as our delegation strolls past. We stop occasionally to ask if they are enjoying Skegness. As the mayor and mayoress are not wearing their chains, everyone looks slightly startled, but they all say yes, thank you. We perambulate past the graceful, station-style pavilion — maroon clapboard, cream bargeboarding — that might, they hope, become a tourist office, café and shop; the matching bandstand, built in the year 2000; and the pond, where an anxious crowd is watching the ducklings frantically trying not to be washed backwards over the cascade.
The trail is marked by large yellow footprints that are controversial, because they are Jolly-sized and deemed unsightly by some. They are also being worn away, because the town council used the wrong sort of paint, but there are wooden markers as well, with Jolly medallions set into them.
They could do with more signs explaining exactly what the Jolly Trail is: a leisurely way to learn about the town’s history, passing the Embassy Centre’s rather glamorous new outdoor pool, stalls selling woolly worms on sticks and castle-shaped buckets, food vans with candy-floss bags bouncing in the breeze and Tupperware tubs of ice-cream toppings. The highlight is the quarter-of-a-mile wide beach of hard, dark gold sand; it might not be buttercup-yellow, but it proudly flies a blue flag.
We pass the Jolly Fisherman fountain, a bronze statue dancing on a pile of rocks. “All sorts of things happen to him,” says John Byford, laughing. “We’ve found him with knickers on his head and his pipe gets broken — and look, someone’s put Fairy Liquid in the water again.” Sure enough, a million bubbles twinkle rainbows in the sun. A CCTV camera swivels impassively on a pole, relaying pictures to the police station.
In the background, two gardeners toil away at a vast flower bed, creating a replica of the Jolly poster. The trail ends at the Clock Tower, where the Pimpertons will share the platform with the singer Jane McDonald for the illuminations switch-on tonight.
The next big event is a John Hassall exhibition at the Town Hall in September, showing the evolution of the Jolly design as well as his other work. The posters are stored in the mayor’s parlour, ordered from a specialist printer and stacked in tissue paper. We admire the original, in gouache, which is worth £30,000. It is startlingly subdued in comparison with its bouncy poster incarnation; the colours are more subtle, the fisherman looks almost more apoplectic than joyous. The difference made by the words — a bold typeface, advertising three-shilling LNER (London & North Eastern Railways) day trips to the east coast, with the immortal line “Skegness is so bracing!” breezing over the picture itself — is extraordinary.
Other posters show that Skegness was originally pitched as a health resort — the Town Hall itself used to be a convalescent home and the Derby Miners’ Convalescent Home is still going — hence the “bracing” line.
The coming of the railway in 1873 brought a different type of visitor, who wanted to do what the Jolly Fisherman was doing: having a laugh on the beach, with blue sky and sun. I will draw a veil over the hilarious Viz parody, which I spotted through the tissue paper, because it caused my hosts such visible distress. John Byford is bravely insisting on putting it in the show.
So stuff Boris and the Med. I was last in Skegness about 10 years ago and I liked it then. Its message might have morphed discreetly from “bracing” to “drier” over the past century, but the place still has real charm — rather like its pop-eyed, buoyant, shamelessly optimistic public figure. Happy Birthday, Jolly.