Great Fairs and Theme Parks of Great Britain Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Great Fairs and Theme Parks of Great Britain

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Louisiana fair.

When you think about it, screaming is an integral part of going to a fairground, as is being blasted with heavy-on-the-bass music and going home with a goldfish. Located on the very commons that once played host to their medieval equivalents, for a few days the tranquil green of grass is replaced by day-glo, neon and the shine of well-used metal. The petrol fumes of the generators, the queues and the smell of reheated burger fat are the trade-off for the most fun you'll have on a bank holiday. But then, even if you want to avoid these, you can always go to a theme park: the sanitised version. That's not to say that theme parks are in any way a lesser experience. Absolutely not...

Blackgang Chine

Blackgang Chine is England's oldest theme park, opened in 1843 by Alexander Dabell. Dabell felt that the beautiful crumbling coastline, overlooking Chale Bay on the Isle of Wight, would make a wonderful attraction, with visitors to the Chine paying to stroll through a pavilion that housed the skeleton of a whale that had washed up on the coast. They could also enjoy the magnificent landscape being eroded by the weather. Still owned by the Dabell family 160 years later, the theme park continues to go from strength to strength and is considered by many to be the prime tourist attraction on the island, and doubtlessly one of the most beautiful, and unusual, parks in the world.

Blackgang Chine today is a quiet theme park. Although it doesn't have some of the rides found at places like Chessington or Thorpe Park, it has made concessions to modern desires by including a few 'white-knuckle' experiences alongside the more traditional attractions such as the beautiful gardens, a hall of mirrors, the 'Triassic Dinosaur club' and a 'Snakes and Ladders' slide game. It may not have the immense thrills of the bigger parks, but it is relaxing, has no queues, and also has the Saw Mill and St Catherine's Quay museums.

Drayton Manor Park

Drayton Manor Park, in Tamworth, Staffordshire, is quite small with a definite 'fairground feel'. It has some excellent rides and is a little more cosy than some of Britain's bigger parks, especially if you're not just into the intense roller coaster 'experience'.

It does, however, have some fantastic white-knuckle rides:

  • Apocalypse - A tower. You can either sit or stand and you get winched to the top. You hang there for a few seconds while a camera looks at your terrified face and then you are dropped 200ft to the ground. Not many screams, it just takes your breath away...

  • The Shockwave - The world's first stand-up roller coaster. You are strapped in standing up and it flips you through at least two enormous corkscrews and various other fiendish manoeuvres.

  • Stormforce10 - Easily the best log flume in the UK. Modelled on lifeboats, it really soaks you, as well as having backward and forwards drops.

The Hoppins, Newcastle

This is the common name for the annual travelling fair which meets on Newcastle's town moor each year in the last week of June. It's been going in its current form since the 1880s and is believed to be the largest travelling fair in the world - there are usually at least four aisles, which are each about a mile long. The two side aisles consist mainly of old-fashioned fair stalls - the coconut shy, roll-a-penny, hook-a-duck, the boxing ring, the wall of death, ghost trains, helter-skelters, freak shows and so on, along with 'modern' interlopers such as bingo stalls and arcade games. Each year, the type of prizes for these generally follow a theme - usually whatever the latest kids craze is (South Park, Star Wars, and the like). The middle rows are where all the big rides can be found.

Fair people come from all over Europe and bring the latest rides with them. One of the fun things about The Hoppins is spotting the new rides - and also the ancient ones!

There is one that has been there for at least the last 30 years, if not substantially longer (and with the same little old woman taking your money).

You will also find all the usual types of rides - waltzers, big wheel, dodgems and lots of things that throw you up in the air and chuck you round and round, seemingly with the purpose of getting rid of the contents of your pockets (hint: take a money belt). The atmosphere is fantastic - all ages go, including families (there are some really cute little rides for kids) and also groups of teens (segregated by gender, of course - they often seem more interested in each other than in the rides...).

The weather each year also follows a theme - it either rains for the whole week so it all turns into a complete quagmire; or it's scorching hot so everybody chokes with all the dust.
Standing on top of the hill in the middle of the moor, looking over at the lights of all the rides on a summer evening, it looks stunning. And it's even better once you've been on the latest big scary ride(s), won a cuddly teddy, had your fortune read (if they are really all related to 'the original gypsy Rose Lee' as they claim, I don't know how she ever found the time to read any fortunes!), stuffed your face with hot dogs, candy floss and/or a sugar dummy and generally walked your feet off...

Great Yarmouth Pleasure Beach

On the sea front in Yarmouth sits a quaint fair. It's not the most technically advanced, nor is it filled with the fastest, stomach-churning rides. But it is, apparently a 'fun day out'.

The atmosphere is vibrant and seaside-like and only spoiled by the fact that it overlaps into a residential zone, kind of spoiling the overall seaside-iness of it all. You can pay for the rides in tokens, which you buy; I think it's about six for a pound, or you can pay fifteen-ish pounds for a wrist strap which will allow you to get on most of the rides as many times as you like.
There are a couple of amusements, most of the games ageing slightly, but still a providing a good few minutes of entertainment. As with most good fairs, you get the throw-a-hoop-around-a-ducks-neck-and-win-a-prize type stalls, there are a couple of cork gun games, water pistol games, and games that get you to knock over a pile of cans.
There is a food area. Again, don't expect any celebrity chefs to pop up and serve your culinary needs, but it's still filling and pleasant. And yes, as with most fairs, candy-floss is sold here.

The rides themselves vary to suit most ages.

  • The snake slides, which are situated by the entrance and are sometimes operational, can entertain the younger member of the family.

  • The delightful horse-monorail - carousel horses on rails which follows a path over the horsey ride, through the roller coaster and past the beach - is open-top, so pray for a sunny day.

  • The roller coaster is a wooden model, no thrills (the biggest drop comes second) but highly entertaining. It's a good ride for people who wish to be weaned slowly onto the faster rides. It also has one of those instant picture features, and you get a lovely view of the beach from the top.

  • The fun house is moderately entertaining. The walls are covered in giant versions of traditional saucy postcards with more innuendos than a Carry On film. Though you're advised not to go in unless you have good sense of balance.

Also in the Pleasure Beach are all the usual waltzer, spinning cart, merry-go-round type rides. Lovely.

Pleasure Beach also has the advantage of being on the coast, which means, apart from just the rides inside, you get mini-golf, more amusement arcades than you can ever want, big jumpy slingshot rides (you strap yourself in and get launched into the air), an aquarium, swimming pool, model village, shops, food outlets, log flume, theatre and even another child-orientated fair, all down the sea-front.

I only threw up once there. The man on the waltzer span the carriages in the same direction that the main platform was spinning, making me incredibly dizzy.

Blackpool Pleasure Beach

When I was a child the highlight of the summer for myself and my two brothers was our annual trip to Blackpool pleasure beach. It's large but it is condensed, so everywhere you look there's a roller coaster. My personal favourite is the Big One, closely followed by the Grand National a heart-stopping wooden roller coaster. Looking back it is wonderfully tacky and sums up everything Blackpool is about. We're still going next weekend though!

Blackpool Pleasure Beach was founded in 1896 by Alderman William George Bean, who wanted to bring the excitement of American parks to the UK. In the 1930s, Bean's son-in-law, Leonard Thompson took over as Managing Director of the Company, the first of a long line of Thompsons to run the park (currently, the park is run by chairwoman LD Thompson (who has often insisted on being the first person to ride each new ride, despite her advancing years), her son Geoffrey and grandchildren Amanda, Nicholas and Fiona).

In the 1970s, the popular wooden roller-coaster The Grand National (which pits two coasters in a race on tracks the mirror image of each other) was joined by the heart-stopping 360-degree loop 'The Revolution' and the innovative 'Avalanche' bobsleigh ride. The 1990s saw the introduction of 'The Big One', 'the world's tallest, fastest roller-coaster' and the 210-foot PlayStation ride (named after the popular games console), which is a tower that catapults its riders into the air at rocket-speed! Today, Blackpool Pleasure Beach's 7 million visitors a year confirm it as 'Britain's most popular resort theme park'.

I remember when they had a fire at the Pleasure Beach and the news reported mournfully that the Beach's mascot, the mechanical laughing clown that sat at the entrance, had been slightly damaged. Everyone I knew hoped it had been permanent - everyone hated that guffawing abomination.
There's a great ride there now called Valhalla. It's similar to the Log Flume ride they've had for years, in that it's a kind of aquatic roller-coaster in which you're floating in a water-filled track, rising and falling and getting wet when you go down the slopes. The difference is that Valhalla is indoors and largely in the dark. It's based on a Viking theme, and the only lighting comes from jets of flame alongside the track (at a safe distance) and from holograms, which are used to great effect. You travel in little 'longboats', which hold about eight people. They never quite come to a halt as they float slowly past the platform where you embark and disembark - you just have to be a bold Viking and jump in and out while it's still slowly moving.
On the way in, I noticed that souvenir Valhalla plastic capes were selling very well at £1 a go. I soon discovered why. There are some serious splashdowns involved in the ride, so you get very wet on Valhalla!

Alton Towers, Staffordshire

Arguably the pinnacle of British theme parks (and one of the most popular places for a meet-up among our Researchers) is Alton Towers. Originally just a stately home that had opened its doors to the public, it began to take the form of its present theme park-ness in the late 1970s when the corkscrew roller-coaster was installed (the celebrated multiple loop ride that at the time was the ultimate in trouser-soiling excitement); soon after a number of other 'white knuckle' rides were brought in.

  • Nemesis - a ride where the passengers sit in a roller-coaster that is a little like a ski-lift, with their feet dangling down freely from the carriage before being sent hurtling along rails cut into the rock.

  • You get flipped, twisted, turned and inverted all over the place, and come off feeling quite wobbly. One of the best features of the ride is its excellent theming, with a big purple river running underneath it (though usually a bit filled with junk).
  • The Black Hole - A descending, spiralling roller-coaster in almost total darkness.

  • The Apple-coaster - A small, slow coaster shaped like a caterpillar and designed for children of about six years old or under.

  • The Pirate ship - The familiar design of a large pirate ship which swings up into the air and then down - at which point the riders get a rush of butterflies in their stomach.

  • Oblivion - A coaster that has the passengers almost lying on their back as they climb the huge incline, at the top of which they're held waiting at the top of an immense drop to maximise terror. The coaster then soars down into a tunnel cut into the ground.

  • The rapids come highly recommended - best attempted early in the day so you have time to dry off.

  • Hex is a variation on the old 'haunted swing' trick, where the benches you sit on tilt over a little at the same time that the room itself moves round to give the optical illusion that your bench is upside-down.

  • The weirdest bit about that was when they started the ride. There was the impression of massive amounts of static electricity in the whole room or that we were moving very quickly somewhere - except we appeared quite still of course. What makes this one so special is that it's very well themed so you get into the idea of this being a truly haunted swing - especially when it's revealed that there's a huge demonic face underneath where the swing had been. BWAH!
  • The Ripsaw - a double row of seats that you are clamped into and the whole thing is swung around in a huge circle vertically with the carriage able to flip around also. Add to that the silliness of it gratuitously spraying water over everyone on the ride and it is just so amusing (and a little scary) for riders and viewers alike. It is so funny it gets an audience watching all the riders.

  • The most deceptive ride is the teacups. You can take your small children (if you have any) on it and have a good time or you can turn it into a white knuckle waltzer at the end of the day if you want to.

  • The new ride for 2002, called 'air' describes itself simply as a 'flying coaster'.

  • The ride's strength is the anticipation more than the actual ride itself. But the adrenalin rush we had after it was so high that all the other rides were quite tame by comparison. When we finally did get on the Nemesis, for example, it was merely 'pleasant' ...
  • Don't forget the cable cars that run all over the park - easily forgotten, they're the quickest (and most dramatic) way to get from one end of the park to another.

...and many more.

The one thing that gets me with Alton Towers is that despite its multi million pound rides, it is still horribly connected to the outside world. It is in the middle of nowhere - I have been stuck behind tractors getting to the place - seriously - and yet it still attracts the millions. Amazing that London has not managed its equal.

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