This is a tale, not of two cities, but of two towns, and of the people who live in them.
Aberystwyth and Blackpool are seaside resorts that – like many others in Britain – have seen better, more prosperous days. Once thriving holiday spots packed with families bearing buckets and spades, they are now somewhat faded and worn around the edges.
Both towns are far from the corridors of power, on the periphery of Britain, facing west, away from Europe; but while one is content to have its back to Brussels, the other enjoys a more positive relationship with the European Union.
The conversations going on in their bars, bus stops and barber shops reflect the political debate raging in the country as a whole: Should the UK remain a part of the EU, or go it alone?
On June 23, British people will vote in a referendum on the country’s membership of the EU. CNN visited some of the most EU-loving and hating towns to show what’s at stake. Here’s what we found…
Wales’ ‘Wild West’
Aberystwyth sits at the tightly-nipped in waist of Wales; surrounded by lush, green fields full of spring lambs and static caravans. It’s a beautiful spot, but an isolated one: “Hinterland,” a dark police drama shot in the often bleak countryside nearby, paints Ceredigion as Wales’s grimly handsome “Wild West.”
Tim Strang farms sheep and highland cattle on the county’s gorse-dotted hills. Strang moved here in the 1970s to follow his dream of getting back to the land, but says it can be a hardscrabble existence, ducking and diving to make ends meet.
“It’s a very agricultural community, heavily reliant on subsidies” from the European Union, he says, adding that many farmers like him fear that in a post-Brexit world, they’d “have to go cap in hand to Westminster for [help] … We wouldn’t be certain of getting support.”
Sitting in the boot and raincoat-packed sun room of his cozy farmhouse, he says the referendum has the potential to be “a game changer. A life changer.” A pro-EU campaigner, he says he’ll be “really surprised” if his adopted home doesn’t vote to stay.
The route down to the coast takes me through tiny villages, little more than a handful of homes clustered around a pub or chapel, the radio signal dipping in and out as I follow winding lanes, their verges crowded with bluebells and dandelions, into Aberystwyth.
It’s a bustling little town where locals stop to chat outside the stores on the main street, their conversations just as likely to be in Welsh as English.
In “Y Popty,” the local bakery, shop assistant Ryan Davies says he’s in favor of remaining in the EU.
“I’ve got friends saying ‘Oh, a change would be nice,’ but I don’t know if we’d be able to survive on our own,” he explains. “The more we’re together, the better it works out. If we break apart, it just gets messy.”
Besides, he says, “there are more important things to worry about, like Syria, like ISIS — we need to work on the bigger problems; if we stay together, we’ll be able to do that.”
Local councilor Ceredig Davies runs the “Mona Lisa” gift shop. Standing among the Welsh flags, jars of peppermint humbugs and daffodil-themed accessories, he says he’ll be voting to stay on June 23.
“Wales is on the extremities of Western Europe,” he explains. “We’re a deprived region. Our economy needs all the assistance it can get, and the EU provides us with a lot of help.”
He’s at pains to point out that, “even though we’re a small town on the west coast of Wales, a long way from anywhere,” Aberystwyth is proudly outward-looking and international. The local school, he says, has pupils who speak 29 languages.
There’s evidence of this attitude, too, on the promenade, where the flags of regions like Wales, with their own distinct cultures and languages — the Catalan and Basque countries, Brittany, Lapland — flutter in the breeze, “represent[ing] the richness and diversity of Europe.”
Jagjit Singh, originally from India’s Punjab region, moved to Aberystwyth two years ago; he works in a phone repair shop in the center of town and, like many here, believes Britain should stay in the EU.
Voting to split from Europe would be “as if you cut off part of your body,” he says. “If you cut off your leg, you can’t walk, you can’t run, so in the race you can’t win. The UK can run, it can win — but only if it’s part of Europe.”
Two towns, two views
The Victorian boarding houses lining the Promenade were designed for visitors who came in search of sea air and saltwater; today, though, many have been converted into accommodation for the town’s 10,000 or so students.
Hanna Dobson is in her second year of a history and Welsh degree. She fears a “Brexit” would change the town – and the university – for good.
“There are lots of European students at the university, and I suppose it would affect their decision to come here, which would be a shame,” she says. “We have people here from all over the country and all over Europe.”
Up the hill, exam season is in full swing, the campus is peaceful and bathed in sunshine; students sit on the terrace for some last-minute studying. Anwen Elias from the Department of International Politics, says Aberystwyth is “a very welcoming place.” The town has taken in a group of Syrian refugees, and there are calls from local residents for it to do more.
“We have large communities of Polish people, Romanian people, but they are very well integrated, so you don’t get the tensions, the resentment that you see in some places — there’s no sense that ‘these people have taken our jobs.’”
England’s ‘Las Vegas’
If Aberystwyth can stake a claim to be Britain’s “Wild West,” then Blackpool, 170 miles to the North, back over the border in England, may be the closest the UK gets to Las Vegas.
Famed for its illuminations – almost six miles of light displays featuring a million multi-colored bulbs – its tower, modeled on the Eiffel Tower, and its Pleasure Beach, home to a host of stomach-churning rollercoasters, Blackpool still attracts 13 million visitors a year.
Rob Dunsmore has lived in the town for five months, after being homeless, on and off, for 30 years. Walking his Jack Russell, Binks, along the Promenade he says he’s not surprised to hear that it is one of the UK’s most Eurosceptic spots.
“I get the feeling that Blackpool wants to be British, rather than European, that it wants to stand on its own two feet,” he says. “But I think we should stay — I’m happy with things as they are.”
In the shadow of the Blackpool Tower, teenagers skateboard and ride their BMX bikes across the shiny expanse of the “Comedy Carpet.”
Packed with classic punchlines from Britain’s comic heroes, the sidewalk is part of Blackpool’s newly-revamped seafront. It was paid for, in part, by EU funding, but that doesn’t mean it’s pulling any punches.
One of the gags permanently etched into the floor belongs to The Pub Landlord, a character who pokes fun at the prejudices of ‘Little Englanders’: “Rules is rules. If we had no rules, where would we be? France! And if we had too many rules, where would we be? Germany!”
The xenophobic publican is the alter ego of Al Murray – a comedian more “right-on” than “right-wing” in real life – who once stood for parliament as a protest against the anti-EU, anti-immigration UK Independence Party (UKIP).
But just a few streets away, there’s evidence that not everyone sees Murray’s routine as a laughing matter.
In the Odd Bods barbershop on Dickson Road, across from a Polish mini-market, hairdresser Fay Haynes says she’ll be voting to leave the EU, in part because of the numbers of foreign workers it has brought to the UK.
“I believe in England for the English,” she explains. “I’m English, not British. I never believed in going into Europe in the first place.”
Sitting in the barber’s chair wearing a Union Jack t-shirt, customer Neil Nuttall agrees.
“I want to put the ‘Great’ back in Great Britain,” he says. “We have fantastic resources in this country.”
‘Little Englander’ mentality
But local lawyer Antony Oswin takes exception to claims by some in the “Leave” campaign that Poles and other Eastern European workers are taking British jobs, pointing out that Blackpool has had a large Polish community since World War II, when members of the country’s Air Force were stationed nearby.
Chatting over a pot of tea in the Winter Gardens, a Victorian gem nestled among the charity shops and chain restaurants in the town center, he insists: “You hear people complain that the area is ‘swamped with Poles,’ but no! They’ve always been here.
“As a lawyer, I deal in facts: Supposition and superstition are no substitute for evidence … forget the ‘Little Englander’ mentality, we need to be in the union to help influence it.
“I don’t want everybody running around in clogs, speaking Esperanto – cut me in half and I’m red, white and blue British … I’d never agree to a ‘Federal States of Europe,’ but I honestly feel that if we were to leave, it would be social, economic and political suicide.”
Around the corner at the “Merrie England” bar on the North Pier, an accordionist entertains a crowd of visitors sat in the sun on picnic benches; inside, bar supervisor AJ Forsythe pulls pints of lager for a steady stream of tourists as a couple bicker affectionately over a game of pool.
Pier night-watchman Brian O’Connor is shooting the breeze with Forsythe before his shift begins. Originally from Liverpool, he says he came to Blackpool for a weekend 16 years ago, and never left. On June 23, he says, he’ll be voting to stay in the EU. “It will cause too many problems if we come out. We’ll lose too much. It would change the whole country, and damage the economy.”
Forsythe, though, is no fan of the EU. “I’d rather be out,” he says. “The amount of money we put into it is ridiculous: Millions, billions we pump in, and we get nowt out of it. The money would be better spent in this country instead.”
But Gordon Marsden, one of Blackpool’s two Members of Parliament (the pair are from opposing political parties and are on different sides in the EU debate – Marsden represents Labour and supports the “stay” campaign), insists that Blackpool has seen a return on its investment.
Being part of the EU has done a lot to “make ordinary people’s lives in Blackpool better,” he says, adding that European investment has helped to pay for everything from new trams to training courses.
“It’s a bit like that Monty Python sketch, ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ When you point out some of the things, people say ‘I didn’t realize that was because of the EU.’”
Marsden’s opposite number, Conservative MP Paul Maynard, says that after much debate he is “minded to vote ‘leave,’” and thinks many of his constituents will do the same.
Seen from Blackpool, Maynard says, “London is a very distant place, a different country at times. If supposedly ‘important’ people in London are telling them to do something, it may make them do the opposite … People want to shape their own destiny — they feel disempowered.”
Next month, the people of Blackpool will get their chance to do just that, along with those of Aberystwyth and countless other cities, towns and villages up and down the British Isles. Which “side” will win the battle – and what their victory will mean for the nation – won’t become clear until June 24.