Today (January 8th, 2018) UK theme park Alton Towers has made a somewhat unexpected announcement. Spring 2018 will see the opening of a new attraction at the Staffordshire based park: Wicker Man.
Wicker Man is the UK’s first new wooden rollercoaster experience in 21 years and comes with a globally unique twist – bringing together wood and fire for the very first time. A Wicker Man structure standing at 57.57ft (17.55m) tall – the height of a six-storey building – will dominate the very centre of Alton Towers Resort, appearing to burst into flames as the wooden track races three separate times through the structure.
The rides own dedicated website (wickerman.com) has a page entitled The Beornen (a middle English word meaning to destroy with, or suffer torture or death by, fire) on which there is an embedded video which invites people to “Unite with the chosen ones. Be chosen“, and provides a link to another website, thewelcoming.co.uk, which as of today loops back to wickerman.com. Previously however, when Wicker Man was still known by the codename SW8 (Secret Weapon 8), Alton Towers provided visitors with this thoroughly Folk Horror tinged flavour of things to come.
Alton Towers’ first proper rides – The Corkscrew roller-coaster, the Pirate Ship, and the Alpine Bob Sled ride – were installed in 1980. It wasn’t until 1992 however (predictably enough when its Haunted House ride was opened) that the park first began to play up a spooky/sinister atmosphere. Over the following decades a cryptic air of menace has become a sort of in-built theme in many of the parks big rides. Not overt horror (although, come Halloween, Alton Towers does offer American style scary mazes complete with zombies and chainsaws) so much as an often deliberately confusing sense of menace and malevolence. Oblivion – the world’s first vertical drop roller coaster – which opened in 1998 for example, features screens in the queueing area showing videos explaining the physical and psychological effects of the ride. Although based on scientific facts, the warnings are exaggerated and delivered in a sinister manner. As the roller-coaster departs, the riders strapped-in a past the point-of-no-return, the narrator intones “For some things, there is no rational explanation. There is no way out. There is no happy ending to the story. Welcome to the unknown; welcome to eternal darkness. Welcome… to Oblivion”.
The Sinister Theme Park/Fun Fair trope is a familiar one – used time and time again in everything from Scooby Doo to Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes – so it makes sense that parks might try to play upon that idea to heighten the excitement of their visitors, right? Well yes, but while there’s no chance of UK parks being built on Ancient Native American Burial Grounds (as the long-abandoned West Virginia, USA, Lake Shawnee Amusement Park genuinely was), there does seem to be some genuine strangeness – some blurring of fact and fiction, of past and present, of adrenaline boosting fun-fear and real, genuine danger – occurring here. Some of these places are not as safe as they seem, and their backstories even more strange and convoluted than those their viral ad campaigns portray.
The Lost Kingdom of Camelot
Although I visited Alton Towers maybe three or four times during the 1990s, as a Fantasy obsessed kid growing up in the North of England in the 1980s, there was only one theme park for me: Camelot. Camelot opened to the public in 1983 and was, as you might have guessed from the name, an Arthurian themed amusement park, in Chorley, Lancashire. I remember the excitement of seeing the fake castle frontage that formed the outer wall of the park as we pulled into the car-park – with its towering turrets (actually probably only about 40 feet tall), knee-deep half moat, and faux portcullis-ed gateway leading to the ticket office. In the park there were armoured horseback jousting tournaments, costumed maids and knights, falconry and birds of prey on display; all the trappings of the US Renaissance Faire in other-words. In King Arthur’s Castle a holographic Merlin appeared in the flames of the fireplace, and the animatronic disembodied arm of the Lady of the Lake thrust Excalibur up from from the murky waters of the park lake with clockwork regularity. As a kid I genuinely felt the place was magical – the diesel powered Dragon Flyer roller-coaster as close as I could ever dream of getting to saddling up an actual fire-drake – but I had no idea of the mythic history of the parkland itself.
Martin Mere in Lancashire was once the largest body of fresh water in England (some eight miles in length when it was recorded upon cartographer Christopher Saxton’s map of 1579) until draining began in 17th century. The mere – which now exists as a much reduced area marshland, mostly a wetland nature reserve managed by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust – once covered the land on which Camelot Theme Park was built. Known as Lancelot’s Lost Lake, there is a great deal of local folklore attached to the mere, some of which is recorded in W. G. Hale and Audrey Coney‘s 2005 book Martin Mere: Lancashire’s Lost Lake.
Arthurian traditions also abound in the local folklore of Martin Mere. It is supposedly into this lake that the nymph Vivian, mistress of Merlin, disappeared with the abducted infant Lancelot, and here that, in subterranean caverns beneath the waters, the child was educated. As Lancelot du Lac, so Roby supposes, he later resided in the area; ruled over the whole or the greater part of Lancashire; and even gave his name to the county itself (Roby 1928: 17).
The Holmeswood bank of Martin Mere is particularly well endowed with Arthurian legend and stories of supernatural events. A pit near the old lake shore and close to Holmeswood Hall was known as King Arthur’s Pit (Plate 5.9) and at least one early-twentieth-century tenant of the hall farm reported seeing boggarts and ghosts in the vicinity. This pit may be identical to that known to local children half a century later as the place where Arthur’s sword was deposited. Another local tradition also asserts that Arthur’s sword once resided at Holmeswood Hall.
Many historians (though it must be admitted that these are usually Lancashire or Merseyside based) believe that some of Arthur’s recorded battles may have taken place in and around Lancashire, near the mere. Some have gone so far as to propose that Camelot (the original one, not the theme park) could have been situated near the town of Standish which sits between Chorley and Wigan [although this seems to have have been a case of false reporting]. According to Camelot (the theme park, not the original one)’s own website:
Camelot Theme Park’s creation is almost as fascinating as the Arthurian legend on which it is based. The land on which Camelot Theme Park and the Park Hall Hotel stands was once the site of a Benedictine monastery. This land, given to Roger of Poitou by William the Conqueror as payment for his help in invading England, passed to Sir Henry de Lea, who built a manor house known as Park Hall. Sir Henry held one half share of the manor of Charnock, the other half by Richard de Charnock, who gave the area its name.
Sadly, Camelot closed its doors to the public in 2012. Some of its rides were sold on to other UK parks, but the majority of attractions were left to rust and rot to ruins in situ. Camelot has, in recent years, become something of an attraction for Urban Explorers, with a visit logged on popular Urbex site 28 Days Later only two weeks ago. A spate of social media posts in 2015 in which explorers chronicled their climbs to the top of the parks 80 foot high rusted roller-coaster tracks prompted increased security on the site (now owned by a company which hopes to build houses there), making access all the more difficult. Urban explorers are not known for shying away from a challenge however and as a result the abandoned park has become a bit of a Holy Grail in terms of must-visit locations.
The Chained Oak and the Hex
Local legend has it that one night around the 1840s, the Earl of Shrewsbury was travelling by carriage to his home at Alton Towers, past the site of the oak tree. Suddenly and unexpectedly, an old woman stepped out and, upon bringing the Earl’s coach to an abrupt halt, asked him if he could spare a coin. The Earl dismissed her, and bid his driver to continue, ordering her off his land as he departed. As he did so, however, the old woman issued the chilling reprimand, “For every branch that falls from this old oak tree, a member of your family will die.”
Some time later a violent storm raged, during which, a single branch was torn from the tree and fell to the ground. Shortly after, a member of the Earl’s family – purportedly his son – suddenly and inexplicably died. So, as the legend has it, the Earl returned to the tree and demanded that the branches were chained together to prevent a similar tragedy.
The ancient Chained Oak still stands near a public footpath in Dimmingsdale near the village of Alton, in Staffordshire and yes, the Earl of Shrewsbury’s 19th century home was the same Alton Towers where the theme park now stands. In March 2000 a new attraction called Hex opened at Alton Towers, set within a real, historic neo-gothic tower in the west wing of the Earl’s house. Hex retells the story of the oak, and the curse, in an incredibly immersive way as visitors make their way through the attraction.
The tale is gradually revealed as you head through the series of rooms that once acted as the ceremonial entrance to the Towers. Having queued through the Armoury of the old house, guests are invited into the old Picture Gallery for the ride pre-show. Here guests are introduced to the legend that acts as the rides basis before being led through to the Octagon.
The Octagon introduces a modern twists to the original legend, through a video talking about a fictional modern excavation, which revealed a previous hidden vault within the Towers. Needless to say, the documentary video does not get chance to play its course before strange occurrences begin and before you know it you are making your way into the Vault itself…
Of course Hex is not really a dangerous attraction, merely a disquieting one. The same cannot be said of The Smiler, however. Opened to the public in 2013, The Smiler holds the world record for most inversions on a roller coaster, with fourteen loops. The Smiler has been beset with problems during its lifetime; there have been numerous faults and malfunctions, the most serious of which occurred in June 2016. Sixteen people were injured when the ride crashed into an empty carriage – one rider, a seventeen year old woman, sustaining such serious injuries that one of her legs had to be amputated.
Wicker Man looks set to create quite a buzz when it opens – its six storey high, ram-horned, Pan-like, central figure towering not just over the wooden coaster-tracks themselves, but the entire theme park. The Staffordshire sky lit up with a 21st century technological miracle; a pre-Christian sacrificial ritual performed symbolically hundreds of times per-day, hundreds of days per year, for the foreseeable future. What could possibly go wrong?