It was 1942, Hilary Plummer was three years old, and nothing would deter her from walking off the dance floor at the dazzling Blackpool Tower Ballroom. She remembers the moment vividly.
“I yelled, ‘No, no,’” he laughs. “When I see the kids now and they don’t want to get off, I remember myself.”
She would dance there with her mother, May, a wife seeking relief from her lingering worries while Hilary’s stepfather, Charles Tyrer, was away fighting, being evacuated from Dunkirk.
It is said that Hitler gave orders not to bomb the impressive ballroom because he wanted it to be spotless for his troops.
Fast-forward a decade, and excited teenager Jim Mason was following in the footsteps of the Tyrers, “meeting girls”; in 1955, he was taking his beloved Hilary back there to foxtrot across the lacquered floor where she had once taken small steps.
Daily Mirror/Jim Mason)
The couple married in 1958 and honeymooned in Blackpool, just as Jim’s parents had done before him, dancing in the ballroom, of course, again, like them. They remember having to show their marriage certificate to the fearsome owners of the pension, since they seemed very young.
In the mid-’60s, they would take their young children, Peter and Gillian, to the ballroom, Grandma May by hand.
Today Jim and Hilary, 82, still dance there twice a week.
Jim has carried his lady around the floor for 64 years. The glorious scenery cuts through them both like words on a stick of rock facing the sea, a bond sweeter than cotton candy.
“The ballroom feels like a part of us,” says Jim. “My dancing wasn’t particularly good but you get used to dancing with someone. You can make it gel. It’s like a relationship, you have to gel.”
Popper (via Getty Images)
There is a harmony and rhythm to be found in this patterned dance floor that has become ingrained in their marriage. “When you dance you’re not thinking about what may or may not have been a fight!” Jim laughs. “You know you’re going to go out dancing again, so you let it go, it’s not worth it.”
Hilary adds: “It’s romantic. Well, it is for us.
After a long pause, Jim says, “We wouldn’t like to think of leaving without each other.”
The Blackpool Tower Ballroom, which has meant so much more than dancing to so many generations, opened in 1894, and once again looks as it would have through Hilary’s eyes as a child.
Julian Hamilton/Daily Mirror)
It underwent a £1.1 million restoration project last year, and restoration of its impressive oak, walnut and mahogany flooring this winter.
The overall restoration was the first in 60 years, with 30 specialists on site, working a combined 21,000 hours. Several hundred liters of gold paint were mixed to preserve the gold leaf decoration.
The floor was treated for the first time in 30 years, breaking 100 layers of lacquer before sanding its 30,602 blocks of wood could begin, smoothing out depressions and dimples. TV’s Strictly Come Dancing is expected to return in the fall with even greater poise after its two-year Covid-imposed hiatus.
Oli Scarff/Blackpool Tower)
After experiencing a surge in visitors last year, 75% more than before the pandemic, Blackpool tourists will now enjoy the impressive room even more, with its distinctive organ music and afternoon teas.
When it reopened last week, Hilary and Jim were ready for a foxtrot. Although they also like the rumba.
“You still have that sense of shock, that awe at the magnificence,” describes Jim, a retired accountant who lives with retired legal secretary Hilary in Lytham St Annes, Lancs. The closure of the ballroom during the pandemic was “the worst,” he says, leaving them isolated and depressed. The couple caught Covid but luckily they recovered.
Many regular customers did not. There is a bittersweet taste in the return because several have not been able to retrace their steps with the new varnish, taken by coronavirus or another illness during the closure of the ballroom.
Thomas Temple / SWNS.com)
Little did they know that their last whirlpool under Blackpool Tower in early 2020 would be their last.
One of them was Arthur Riley, who died last July at the age of 96.
His last dance was the waltz, with his loving wife of 74 years, Pat.
A rear gunner on the Lancaster bombers, Arthur met Pat at a tea dance during the war.
They got married in 1947 and continued dancing, giving their children and grandchildren the same joy. The family emigrated to Blackpool, and since 2010, four generations of Rileys have danced together at the Blackpool Tower Ballroom every week. “He would have loved the new flat,” says Arthur’s granddaughter, Beverley Hunt, 46.
The hotel worker shows me a video of her grandparents elegantly, patiently and gracefully twirling around the floor before the pandemic, dressed in matching skirts and vests.
“They liked to coordinate the colors,” she says. One of the ballroom organists, Chris Hopkins, recorded Danny Boy to play at Arthur’s funeral.
When the ballroom reopened, Beverley, her son Ethan, 20, her niece Mia, 15, and her parents, Arthur, 73, and Susanne, 71, ran back but with painful anxiety.
His clues were missing. Pat, 94, has not felt capable of returning without his protagonist. “I think he would be too emotional for her,” says Beverley. “She would be dancing with him there twice a week.
She still has her dancing shoes.
But she was excited to see photos and videos of the new floor. Beverley hopes to one day persuade her to join the three remaining generations of Riley.
Thomas Temple / SWNS.com)
For them grieving their loss, the continuity and familiarity that the ballroom provides is powerful.
“When you change into your dance shoes, everything seems less bad,” she says. “The new floor is beautiful, I wish my grandfather could see it.”
For Kevin Garrigan, too, the ballroom will always be a family.
The 61-year-old, originally from Durham, traveled to Blackpool every summer holiday as a child with his great-grandparents, grandparents and parents.
The men were all miners who loved to dance.
Julian Hamilton/Daily Mirror)
He remembers new clothes for trips that he was previously not allowed to wear. “I remember my mother teaching me square tango when I was five years old”, she smiles. “It was the highlight of our lives to come on vacation. The ballroom seemed like a magical place. It was so huge, with more people than I had ever seen.”
As a teenager, he avoided dance lessons, but when he courted his future wife, Gillian, he took her to the Blackpool Tower Ballroom.
“The only dance I could remember was square tango,” he laughs. It was her wedding dance.
His daughter, Sarah, “was dancing before she could walk,” he says proudly, and the family was back with another generation. It’s just the three of them now, but they still go often.
Kevin, a former NHS manager, and Gillian have just retired to Blackpool.
“The new floor is amazing,” he says. “So smooth, but not slippery, it’s unreal. This is how Torvill and Dean must feel.
Thinking of his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, he adds, “I wish everyone could see it.
“When I walk in I still have the hairs on the back of my neck standing up. There are good ghosts there.