I came across a moment of realisation earlier this summer break: everything has a history. Of course, this isn’t the very first time that I’ve had this realisation, but for some reason I seem to forget it quite often. Everything has a history: all people, all items, all things. Take for example the cup of coffee I made myself this morning: the cup has its own history and came from somewhere and was made by something/someone; the coffee came to my kitchen through a convoluted history which stretches back much further than simply purchasing it in a supermarket; and this is before we even tackle the reason as to why I drink coffee in the morning (cultural history which stretches back hundreds of years). Anyhow, this most recent realisation came whilst visiting Alton Towers theme park.
Yes, I realised: even Alton Towers theme park has its own history. I’ve never really considered this on previous visits, when back then my main priority was on getting on the best rides and in downing as much Coca-Cola as possible. But this summer I returned not with the intention of doing any of those things but rather in giving my daughter the experience of Cbeebies Land. We spent a couple of days at the theme park, during which time we exhausted the rides in the children’s area; on the second day we decided on venturing further afield and sat down on the grass to eat ice-creams. Whilst there my daughter pointed to the building opposite us and said, ‘Daddy, is that a castle?’ I looked at the structure and thought to myself: ‘Yes, just what is that?’
Previously I had simply considered ‘Alton Towers’ – the older structure which is at the heart of the theme park – a recent invention to pull in the punters. As a child I had walked around it to find other rides and other areas and had never took a moment to ponder just what it was, rather than a geographical hindrance. But now looking at it again I wondered what it was and what its history was. So, my daughter and I decided on a further inspection of the building and we were pleased to find that we could walk inside it and have a gander at the walls and the towers.
‘Do you think Harry and Megan live here, Daddy?’ my daughter asked hopefully. Well, no, nobody lived there anymore. In fact, much of the entrances were boarded up or entirely removed. But whilst walking it was clear that this building had a history and one that stretched back further than the theme park that now serves as the central focus of the area.
The theme park came into being in the second half of the 20th century. Before that the area took the form of many other manorial homes of England: it was a country estate for a wealthy family. In 1801, the 15th Earl of Shrewsbury extensively developed the estate to create a Gothic-inspired home of considerable size. This Earl is attributed to the local ‘Chained Oak’ legend, which gives the story of the Earl returning home and coming across an old beggar woman. Rather than provide some money to the woman the Earl dismissed her, which led to the woman placing a curse on Shrewsbury and his family. The woman is said to have told him:
“For every branch on the Old Oak Tree here that falls, a member of the Earl’s family will die.”
Obviously, the Earl dismissed such superstition and continued on his way. However, that very night came a horrible storm which caused a branch to break and fall. And that very same night came the news that somebody in the Earl’s family had died. Rather than make some sort of recompense to the woman the Earl took the decision to order his servants to chain every branch together to prevent other branches from falling. (Although in recent years the tree has started to crumble and collapse…although the current Talbots have confirmed that when the first branch fell in 2007 no family member died.)
By the middle of the 19th century the home was no longer occupied and at this point it appears to have started its second – now primary – use as a place of attraction to the locals. In order to raise money the grounds were opened to the public, and by the end of the century fetes were held; all of this now appears to foreshadow its use as a place of pilgrimage for pleasure-seekers. And now the history of Alton Towers is somewhat overshadowed by the theme park, with its very own fragments of history being utilised in its rides (such as Hex utilising the legend of the Chained Oak). I guess what an old history lecturer of mine once said is true: ‘All history ends in tourism.’
It was years before I realised that Alton Towers hadn’t been built as a theme park! It’s a shame they haven’t managed to work the history into it, like they have at Warwick Castle.
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Yes, it is an oddity in many ways. There is a ride at Alton Towers – Hex – that I think takes a bit of the history and turns it into a fiction. But very much agree – they are a missing a trick there.