Alton Towers: A magnet for thrill-seekers which helped put us on the map

Believe it or not, there are some people who don’t know our city as the Potteries and don’t even know which county it is in.

Instead they refer to Stoke-on-Trent as ‘that place near Alton Towers’.

Yes, the gargantuan theme park set in the rolling Staffordshire Moorlands countryside really is what puts us on the map for many visitors.

Last year the Alton Towers resort attracted more than 2.6 million visitors – making it the most visited theme park in the UK by some margin.

This wasn’t always the case, however. In fact, thirty odd years ago there was little to indicate that the semi-derelict former seat of the Earls of Shrewsbury was to become a magnet for tourists and thrill-seekers.

During the Sixties and Seventies the grounds to Alton Towers were reopened to the public.

There was a boating lake, a small fairground and visitors were allowed to look round the empty house into which concrete floors had been placed.

Then millionaire property developer John Broome bought out the majority stake in the Towers and it was he who laid the foundations for today’s internationally-renowned attraction.

Broome installed various permanent rides and began to develop the grounds of the estate.

But 1980 was the year when Alton Towers really announced its arrival with the installation of the Pirate Ship and Alpine Bobsleigh along with a ride that was to become a household name.

The Corkscrew was officially unveiled on April 4 that year and was the first rollercoaster yours truly experienced.

Back then there were relatively few steel rollercoasters and the Corkscrew was unique in that flipped you upside down twice (a double inversion in rollercoaster-speak).

The ride did wonders for Alton Towers’s profile in Britain and those who tried it, like myself, wore the experience like a badge of honour.

During the Corkscrew’s first year of operation the waiting times for the ride frequently reached five or six hours – forcing the park to close early.

For many years the Corkscrew was the iconic rollercoaster in this country – used for the opening title sequence of ITV’s The Chart Show (1989-1991) and even the cover image of a single by dance outfit The Prodigy.

The Log Flume, which was to be enjoyed by the likes of Diana, Princess of Wales and her then young sons William and Harry, was unveiled in 1982 and two years later the park’s second rollercoaster, The Black Hole, became operational.

The Eighties was the decade when Alton Towers cemented its reputation as the number one theme park in the UK as more rides such as the Congo River Rapids (1986), attractions and areas were added.

These included Towers Street which is the first area visitors encounter and includes the famous ‘jumping frog’ fountains, a lawned area where seasonal events take place and refreshment and merchandise shops.

The renowned monorail system which transports visitors from far-away car parks to the main entrance and ticket booths was launched in 1987 by non-other than Star Trek’s Captain Kirk – alias actor William Shatner.

Also unveiled that year was the Skyride cable car attraction which transports visitors between different areas of the park.

Since the 1980s Alton Towers has continued to evolve and innovate – adding new ride experiences such as Nemesis, Air, Th13teen and Rita: Queen of Speed to draw in the crowds.

The park also boasts no less than two hotels – one of which has a themed, tropical water park where even our inclement weather can’t spoil the fun.

Of course, Alton Towers hasn’t been entirely free of controversy in the last three decades.

Given the fact that the park can receive up to 28,000 visitors each day, there were bound to be odd technical hitches, fires and accidents.

There has also been a long-running battle with a few local residents who bought their homes prior to the park’s incredible expansion and object to the noise and traffic it generates.

However, there is no doubting the importance of Alton Towers to the region’s economy and the fact that it really does put our city – and the wider North Staffordshire conurbation – on the map.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

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