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Is This English Seaside Town Really ‘Worse Than Syria’?

This post originally appeared on VICE UK.

Man, January, am I right? The two bookends of every year are famous for their "slow news day" phenomena. It's a little different this year, what with an actual mad man in the high chair of power, but then again, all the news is about that, and you have to switch it up a little, right? Well, that's what the Evening Standard, the Sun, and the Metro did the other day when they made news out of a three-year-old article from a site called Destination Tips. Titled "11 Worst Travel Destinations in the World You Should Skip," it is essentially a list of war zones and places with drug-gang problems and totalitarian governments—and Skegness tacked on the end of it.

Skegness, for the uninitiated, is a seaside town in the East Midlands of England, and is home to the first ever Butlins holiday camp. It has a beach. It has arcades. It has fish and chips. It has statues of a local character on which postcards are based. But is it quite as bad as the sort of place which, to step foot in, you would be risking the lives of yourself and those around you like the other destinations that make up this list? Well, there's only one way to find out! We got the train up to Skeggy to see how it compared to the most horrible places on earth. It's nearly February guys, things are almost back to normal.

Damascus, Syria

What's Wrong with It: I mean… Damascus is a constant site of death and destruction as civil and proxy war ravages the entire country with hundreds of thousands risking their lives to escape the desolation and (alleged) government sanctioned chemical attacks.

Is It Better Than Skegness: No.

Why: Skegness may not have the terrifying daily realization that your life could be ended at any moment, but what it does have is this pretty nifty Van Gogh's Studio machine on its high street. What you do, see, is you pop 50 cents into it, sit down, and then the camera takes four photos of you. You choose the best one, and then you can pick what style you want it to be in, out of chalk, paint, charcoal, or pencil. I went for charcoal. It's also very quick, so you're not waiting around for ages while the picture comes out, which is helpful as it was extremely cold. I wondered why they chose Van Gogh as the artist the machine was pretending to be, because Van Gogh wasn't really a photorealistic portrait guy. I suppose Chuck Close's Studio doesn't really have the same ring to it.

Oh, well. It's still better than dying, which is what looks like what happened to these freakishly real baby dolls that were being sold alongside Gollywogs in this weird tat shop.

Mogadishu, Somalia

What's Wrong with It: Mogadishu is currently under constant terroristic attack by violent jihadist group al Shabaab. Just yesterday, the group was responsible for 28 deaths in a hotel siege in the Somali capital. Though it attempts to go through intense regeneration after each wave of attack, it is still wrought with extreme poverty and violence.

Is It Better Than Skegness: No.

Why: Skegness has a regeneration happening, too, but it isn't a result of violent civil war or terrorism; it's because the town is growing. Dick Edginton is the mayor of Skegness and tells me about the Premier Inn that's going to be built there. "That says something. You have to bear in mind that companies like that, they won't invest unless they feel there's going to be a commercial return on that investment, so that bodes well." He also tells me that tourism has grown by 11 percent in the past four years. "Certain sectors of British society seem to regard [seaside towns] as the butt of jokes."

Pyongyang, North Korea

What's Wrong with It: Pyongyang has, much like the rest of North Korea, not got a great deal going for it tourism-wise. If you like being followed around by government officials and not feeling freedom even when you're taking a shit, or looking at shop fronts designed to make you think there's healthy commerce when there's actually widespread unemployment and poverty, then Pyongyang is the place for you.

Is It Better Than Skegness: I think it's highly unlikely.

Why: Pyongyang isn't constantly on fire like some of the other places on this list, but that doesn't make it great. One thing I doubt very highly Pyongyang has is this fucking sick arcade that I came across that has things in it I've never seen in any other arcade. Maybe it's due to my lack of experience with arcades, but I've never seen a mini-bowling alley where you can play ten rounds of mini bowling for just a pound. Also, it has this mini dodgems thing (like $2 but still) where I just sat on my own spinning around until I felt a bit ill. It was fucking great.

In fact, I would say the emptiness of this arcade is one of the things an out-of-season seaside town has in its favor. There were almost no kids in there, just a few assorted adults mucking around. I got some tokens, too, and redeemed them for three bags of toy soldiers, a make-your-own spaceship, and a Mr. Burns keychain. Fucking lush.

Ciudad Juárez, Mexico

What's Wrong with It: The problem with this fucking list, aside from the obvious fact that it's total shit, is that it is three years old, so Juárez is just not as dangerous as it was at the height of its cartel warfare. That being said, it's probably dollar for dollar more dangerous than Skeggy, and almost certainly has more murders. 

Is It Better Than Skegness: I'm going to say no, though the food probably is.

Why: Well... that's not fair. We asked Mayor Edginton where we could get some nice fish and chips, proper seaside fare, and he was kind enough to escort us to the Blue Fin, a shop owned and run by Dave Wilkinson, Eileen Beckford, and their youngest daughter, Danni. It has a license, too, so I got a bottle of Stella. They were still open out of season—something the mayor seemed afraid they wouldn't be, which he constantly reminded me of, so as not to get my hopes up. They seemed happy enough to just be serving the locals until the season started again, though they didn't think Skegness was without its problems.

"Last year, we were the fourth busiest resort in the country," says Dave. "But people take these things to heart, don't they? They think it's all old fashioned and old hat. I personally do."

"There's not much to do," says Danni.

"We are in the process of modernizing," says Dave, "but there's not enough nightlife. Though you need to keep some of that culture back from older days a little bit."

"We need more upstream shops," says Eileen. "There's nothing for people coming to shop for or to look at."

Skegness isn't even the worst place in Britain I've been to, let alone the world. Quite the opposite, in fact: Out of season, and in the icy fog, it has a certain charm to it. Sure, it looks a little rundown and old but so does your mom, and she's still lovable, right? A walk along the beach is still a walk along the beach; it's still soothing to hear the crashing waves and watch the foamy water recede, taking a few soft pebbles with it. If anything, the all-pervasive gray that surrounded me at every turn added to a kind of spooky aesthetic, one of abandonment, though you can see how sprightly the place could be once there's a bit of sunshine.

"To make comparisons about, you know, war zones and North Korea, one of the last bastions of Stalinsim, is ludicrous. Fortunately, in my experience, nobody takes those claims seriously," says the disgruntled Mayor Edginton when I ask him about the article. "I find these unsubstantiated comments hurtful, insofar as the town is a seaside resort, it's a major employer, and it's one of the best in the country. We have a loyal band of people that come here. We cater for all tastes and age ranges. We're a traditional seaside resort, a holiday that most people cut their teeth on. They get their first taste of sand and sea if they go to a British seaside resort. It's unhelpful, not only for Skegness, but for British seaside resorts in general."

Anyway, next week we might go back to Hull to see if it's still a pile of fucking garbage! Stay tuned!

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Photos by Chris Bethell