RIVERDANCE 10 YEARS ON: Crowds arrive to see beached behemoth
The low winter sun bounces off the photo frames as Martin Hunns remembers the tourist boom of a decade ago.
Unlike an undertaker thumbing through the obituaries, he can’t quite be accused of Schadenfreude, though he does ruefully admit he hopes for ‘another Riverdance’.
Some 100,000 people are believed to have travelled to Cleveleys in the days that followed Thursday, January 31, 2008, when the stricken behemoth skidded across the beach and came to a halt.
Martin, who was dining at a restaurant in Beach Road while the ship’s 23 crew and passengers were being winched to safety, flew on holiday days later, leaving the Carousel in Kings Road in the good hands of friends.
He returned to an empty freezer and bare cupboards; emptied by the hordes as they gathered to watch the salt-water spectacle.
A decade on, he sits beneath a life-jacket salvaged from the wreck, now nailed to the wall beside the frames, which contain pictures of the Riverdance being cut to bits.
Leaning over a wooden table as a cup of coffee cools beside him, he talks of the people crowding the streets, and wonders exactly what drew them here.
Perhaps, he says, they expected treasure to spill from the crooked trailers onto the sand, similar to the year before when BMW motorbikes were scavenged from the MSC Napoli after it beached in Lyme Bay.
But the Riverdance only offered up a loot of soggy McVitie’s biscuits, plastic glasses, and bags of peat.
Maybe it was the unusual sight of a 6,000 tonne steel ship sitting haphazardly on the sand.
Whatever it was, in the midst of a cold winter, traders in Cleveleys were making hay.
Martin, who was chairman of the Cleveleys Traders group for 12 years until 2015, said: “The town was buzzing with people. Every business, without a doubt, benefited. From 8.30am there were cars and people coming from everywhere.
“We were up £10,000 or £20,000 that year, even more possibly. All the staff jumped in.
“They gave up their days off and we got through it.”
It was initially hoped the Riverdance could be refloated within hours of it becoming stranded, but each tide left it further and further on its side – not that traders were complaining.
Steve Hardy, from Bispham Kitchen in Red Bank Road and Cleveleys Kitchen in Victoria Road West, reported an ‘incredible’ turnout, with hundreds of hungry onlookers packing out his eateries.
He said at the time: “In terms of numbers of people, it is as many as the peak of the Illuminations.
“It’s almost as if the Lights have been switched back on. When you’re looking for money in February, this is manna from heaven.”
And Martin, who said trade has been ‘very poor’ and Cleveleys ‘very quiet’ in recent years, despite his constant hope it will pick up, added: “It’s a shame it happened but it was good for the town.
“We pray for another one.”
Lee Shuttleworth, 29, whose mum recently sold Kay’s Fish and Chips in Rough Lea Road, said the rush of tourists left Cleveleys ‘even busier than it is during summer’.
He added: “It was absolutely booming. I used to live above the shop and I would see it from my window, and there were hundreds of people on the beach.
“We did really well. Our takings went up massively.”
‘The constant stream of traffic making life hell’
The tourist rush lasted for over 10 weeks, with large crowds expected to gather to see the ship being refloated, one point predicted to happen during the February school holiday.
Tourism chiefs noted a rise in enquiries of around a third after the Riverdance ran aground, but residents grumbled about parking, traffic, and litter.
Anchorsholme councillor Tony Williams, now opposition leader at Blackpool town hall, said at the time: “While this stricken vessel might be attracting sightseers from all over the UK, and providing a welcoming boost to traders in Cleveleys, the situation is doing nothing for the residents on both sides of Huntingdon Road and the surrounding area.
“The constant stream of traffic and people is making their life hell. People have been parking on grass verges and private property, churning up the ground and leaving it in a terrible state.
“The huge amount of litter being left is also a cleaning and an eyesore problem.”
By April, the Riverdance’s appeal began to wear thin. Since declared a ‘constructive loss’ by owner Seatruck, and with authorities clamping down on those getting a bit close to the huge vessel, traders said the number of people coming for a look had dropped drop off.
The boom continued a while longer for the Carousel diner, after Martin and his staff wooed in salvage workers with the promise of a discount and good meal.
The photographs on his wall were taken from their unique vantage point, while the Riverdance branded life-jacket hangs as a symbol of their patronage.
But the finest piece in the small collection is a four-foot-long model of the ship, built by Gordon Cooper and donated to the cafe in 2010.
The boat modeller, from Dalton-in-Furness, spent two months making the replica from door handles, lights, air rifle pellets, cardboard, and even a plastic spoon.
Martin added: “It’s fantastic. People have been coming into the cafe just to have a look at it.”