Bath chairs out, Blair in

Hester Lacey finds genteel Bournemouth, where Labour meets this year, trying to update itself

It's probably easier to get a cappuccino in Bournemouth these days than a decent cup of tea. Frothy, overpriced coffee is a British staple now, so perhaps this shouldn't come as a surprise, and Bournemouth's reputation as the genteel, old-fashioned tea-dance capital of the south coast has long since been mothballed. Nevertheless, it comes as something of a shock when pride of place on the seafront by the pier of my home town is occupied by Hot Rocks, an "American surf restaurant" serving Malibu ribs and Luau chicken, while opposite are the glimmering expanses of plate-glass fronting the Imax cinema, so new it hasn't opened yet.

Being from Bournemouth has always been something of a liability in the credibility stakes. People snigger and say: "That's where all the old people are, ho ho." And yes, there are lots of them. They park their little cars along the promenades in winter and sit wrapped in blankets, gazing out to sea, armed with thermoses, which doesn't seem an unreasonable way of passing the time. But the oldie stranglehold is rapidly loosening. A few years ago, Bournemouth's quiet little college became Bournemouth University and started pulling in the students. There are now more than 8,000 of them, studying tourism and hotel management, photography and media, parking their cars in inconvenient places and staying out late making a racket (according to sniffy local residents) as they rejuvenate the town and encourage a thriving night life (according to the local tourist office).

The pensioners have always fought a fierce battle for seats on the yellow buses with the huge numbers of foreign students that pass through Bournemouth to learn English at the dozens of language schools. And though Bournemouth's traditional money-spinner is tourism, a number of large firms, particularly financial, have relocated main offices to the town, bringing in more jobs and more people. The town centre is getting a facelift to an extent that Jocelyne Wildenstein could only envy. Bournemouth is thriving, thank you, and is really rather proud of itself, geriatric jokes notwithstanding.

The Bournemouth International Centre, where the Labour Party conference will be held, is a red-brick behemoth dominating the West Cliff. It is universally known as "the Bic", though when it was first opened 15 years ago, things were very different; Bournemouth townsfolk were outraged at the £17 million bill for its construction and flooded there in droves to see where their money had gone: 150,000 ratepayers came on a tour of inspection in the first three days, and the Bic ran out of both food and loo paper.

That would never happen now. Though this is only Labour's second visit, the Bic has hosted the Conservatives frequently, and preparations for the conference will have been fine-tuned over weeks - including the security arrangements. When the Conservatives came to Bournemouth after the Brighton bombing, Bournemouth matrons were outraged by rumours of armed snipers on the roof of the Centre to protect the delegates. "Security is very tight," a spokesman tells me. "It becomes an island fortification: I have seen an armed presence."

Hoteliers are like farmers; the concept of a good year is alien to them. Although the summer was better than last year's, which in itself was up on the year before, Bournemouth's head of tourism, Ken Male, complains that there was "a bit of a dive" in the middle two weeks of August. The conference will pull in around 20-25,000 delegates to help fill the town's empty beds. These are spread between 515 hotels, guest houses, B&Bs and self-catering establishments, though the Labour guests will mostly be going for the upper end of the market. "Over 85 per cent of the rooms in Bournemouth are en-suite - that's the sort of thing the modern delegate is looking for," says Male. As well as the Bic itself, the conference will be spilling over into most of the town's other suitable venues, all of which are already booked for fringe meetings.

During the conference, the whole of the Bic will be reserved for delegates, so they alone will be able to enjoy the view from the terrace, which is spectacular on a sunny day - soothing for morning coffee after a strenuous debate, perfect as the backdrop to a televised interview. The Centre is right on the edge of the cliff, and the sea sparkles to the horizon, peppered with jaunty yachts. One end of the bay is bounded by the ancient fortifications of Hengistbury Head, the other by Sandbanks and the entry to Poole Harbour. The sandy cliffs and wooded chines, with the aromatic pines that made Bournemouth a fashionable health retreat in the 19th century, are spread round the coast.

It costs 30p to wander along the pier (this is refunded if you have tickets for the Pier Theatre's show, which this year is a farce called Run for Your Wife). The pier approach is noisy and crowded in season, with a flight-simulator and a carousel and a little train to ferry lazy holidaymakers along the front. There is a horrible slot-machine arcade and, for £18, Madam Rosina will read your palm. All this is relatively new and not particularly attractive, though the shops still sell candy pebbles, buckets and spades and sparkly windmills to stick in the top of your sandcastle, just as they did 25 years ago. And there is a general air of good behaviour. Even the odd group of lads, ostentatiously swigging from cans and throwing cigarette ends around, are doing it half-heartedly, as though they know very well that this might cut the mustard in Torremolinos, but in Bournemouth no one will be impressed.

The Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, donated to a grateful town by Lord and Lady R-C in 1916, boasts, among its collection, an ancient bath chair. These used to be seen in droves in Bournemouth in the days when the elderly and infirm would take the strong sea air from inside one of these prams for grown-ups. The sea air is still a knockout for anyone whose lungs are more used to city pollution, and the chair is probably still in there somewhere, but the museum is currently closed for refurbishment courtesy of the Lottery Heritage Fund.

Turn inland from the museum, and there is the Royal Bath Hotel, a wedding-cake of a building generally acknowledged to be the poshest in town. I would bet that Tony Blair will be staying there. Oscar Wilde passed through when he was in town, and one of the restaurants in the hotel is named after him. "Oscar's" may well be excellent, but the best food in the area is found out of the centre of town - the Mansion House on Poole Quay and Clarke's in Charminster Road have enough terrines, comfits, jus and the like to keep sophisticated political eaters happy.

The Royal Bath stands at the head of Westover Road, known in its heyday as the Bond Street of Bournemouth. Ken Male met one elderly hotelier who remembered seeing Stewart Granger and Margaret Lockwood strolling down Westover Road in the days when it was a place to see and be seen. The Pavilion Theatre still stands majestically on one side of the street, but the jewellers and furriers have given way to Burger King and a Sega Park full of video games. It was on the Bond Street of Bournemouth that a grubby youth asked me if I had any spare change: a request that comes up every day in London was so incongruous on Westover Road that I jumped in alarm and meanly scuttled off without giving him any money. There were also a number of dispirited-looking Big Issue sellers hanging about the imposing facades of the old-fashioned department stores, Beales and Dingles - there used to be more of these for genteel shopping trips, followed by tea, though now it's all Debenhams, Next and W H Smith.

By the time the Labour delegates crowd into the town, the second phase of the Square Improvement Scheme should be close to completion. Bournemouth Square, the hub of the town centre, has been pedestrianised. The revamped square will eventually have "a Continental-style cafe with outdoor eating area" and, rather ominously, "a designated events area for informal street entertainment". "We are pursuing the cosmopolitan theme as a matter of policy," says Ken Male. "Bournemouth is a town that has one foot on the Continent, to quote Thomas Hardy."

Maybe, but despite everything, it still has one foot in the past. Wandering back down through the Lower Gardens towards the pier and the Bic, past the bandstand and Pine Walk (once known as Invalid's Walk, but renamed after the first world war - even then the town was bridling at its image), here are the wooden frames of the world-beating display that is Bournemouth illuminations.

In this town there are no vulgar neon lights advertising soft drinks, switched on by C-list celebrities. The illuminations in Bournemouth consist of spluttery candles in coloured glass jars, hung from wooden racks to make pictures. What each display represents is often hard to decipher (is it a rabbit? A polar bear?), but turning out with tapers in the evening to light the candles is an old tradition. The year I go down to Bournemouth and don't find the old wooden frames in situ, I'll know the town has really changed.

The author is a staff writer for the "Independent on Sunday"