Rollercoaster to the past

Infant Stephen McClarence and mother Edna.
Infant Stephen McClarence and mother Edna.
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Stephen McClarence plunges into the story of Blackpool Pleasure Beach with help from a Yorkshire academic

Slowly, like a weary caterpillar, the passenger cars inch their way up the Big One, Britain’s tallest rollercoaster ride. As they reach the top, more than 200ft above Blackpool, they slow even more and seem to pause and then whooooosh, they plunge down a near-vertical slope at over 80mph. Passengers scream, faces contorted, arms shooting up as though greeting oblivion. And they call this pleasure?

I’m at the Pleasure Beach amusement park in the resort that was once the traditional destination of generations of West Riding holidaymakers, with special Huddersfield Dance Weeks and Leeds Feast Weeks and standing-room-only on the sands. Prompted by the publication of a lavish new book about the park by a Yorkshire academic, I’ve come because I’m a bit out of touch with it. The last time I explored it was on a childhood holiday more than 40 years ago.

I’ve brought some well-thumbed black-and-white family photos of that visit with me. Here I am in one of them, looking very cute in elastic-waisted short trousers and plastic-rimmed sunglasses, in front of the Crystal Fountain, with its hint of Gaumont-British Art Deco.

Despite the sunny weather, my mother is frowning at the camera. It was our first Blackpool holiday and she didn’t take to the place, so it was also our last. She’s frowning again in another picture of the two of us walking towards my father and his camera, with the spider-like Victorian Flying Machine in the distance. It’s still there today, the oldest continuously working amusement park ride in Europe, designed, the book reveals, by the man who invented the mousetrap.

I show the picture to Daniel Thompson, the Pleasure Beach’s affable PR and marketing co-ordinator. Where do you think it was taken, I ask. He leafs through the book – Blackpool Pleasure Beach: More Than Just an Amusement Park by Professor Vanessa Toulmin – and finds a vintage picture of the Ice Dome, home of celebrated ice shows. “You were about there,” he says and points to a bollard.

It’s impossible to recognise the scene today, and just as impossible to relate the picture of me tootling gently round in a miniature car to today’s astonishing drama, all-action at every turn, booming music, manic screaming passengers, hurling, twirling upside down, a Spaghetti Junction of snaking ride tracks, getting drenched by water, adrenalin-pumping... the sheer pounding physicality of it all.

It’s exhausting just to stand and watch: 42 acres dedicated to “making adults feel like children again” with new rides and attractions often slotted between existing ones like ancient cities built on top of each other. “It’s the world’s most ride-intensive amusement park,” says Thompson. “A tight site. It’s the perfect place to come with friends. I prefer it to shopping.”

We watch the Big One twist and turns its way round the beach with its 10 rollercoasters (“the rollercoaster capital of the UK” it’s been called), past Valhalla, with its Lost-World cliff face and waterfall and Viking boats and fireballs, past the Ghost Train with its gaping skulls, past Trauma Towers and the Avatar Airbender, spinning its passengers round like a discus.

When the ride ends the passengers – some of whom will have paid the full £32 all-day, unlimited-rides adult entrance fee – make their remarkably composed way out, knuckles not noticeably white.

The young couple sitting in the front seats of the front car say the scariest moment is when it reaches the top and, for a split second of stillness, the world spreads out below you. “It’s the anticipation, I suppose,” says Rosie Ashurst from Nottingham. “People were going hysterical.”

Her boyfriend, Anton Holmes from Rossendale, has been to the Pleasure Beach, the inspiration for Disneyland, before (“It’s a bit of nostalgia for me,” he says, nostalgic at just 23!), but this is Rosie’s first visit and she finds the older rattling, clattering wooden rides most fun.

“I remember my gran telling me about Blackpool as a rickety old seaside town,” she says. “But it’s really nice, it’s honest, it’s not pretending to be anything that it’s not.” Does she, though, find the resort a bit tacky? “That’s the point, isn’t it?”

It’s also a point which the new book, drawing on the Pleasure Beach’s archive of 100,000 photos, implicitly addresses. It’s the second of four designed, as Vanessa Toulmin says, “to highlight Blackpool’s treasures, its four icons”. One on the Winter Gardens has already been published, the others, on the Tower and the Illuminations, will follow.

Vanessa Toulmin is a great evangelist for Blackpool and its entertainment. It features in the National Fairground Archive, which she set up at Sheffield University in 1994 to record the lives and culture of travelling people, and of which she’s now director.

She comes from a Morecambe fairground family, claims to be the only PhD who can spin candyfloss, and used her inaugural lecture as a Professor (inevitably “Professor Vanessa”) to stage a variety show including sword-swallowers, fire-eaters and knife-jugglers. She works with Blackpool Council as creative adviser for Showzam, the resort’s festival of circus, magic and new variety, and knows a lot of headless ladies and levitating lovelies. “I feel Blackpool is the richest entertainment resort in the country in terms of its heritage,” she says. “That’s not heritage in terms of castles and country houses, it’s working class heritage.”

The Pleasure Beach, she points out, employed Hollywood set designers and, less predictably, innovative architects like the celebrated Thirties modernist Joseph Emberton – “the equivalent of having Norman Foster or David Chipperfield design a theme park today”. The book’s hundreds of illustrations show how Emberton’s designs offered – just as the Festival of Britain would offer 20 years later – an ambitious taste of “Modernism for the Masses”.

“He said: ‘One shouldn’t patronise the audience; one should educate them,’” says Toulmin. “The Pleasure Beach employed the greatest designers to design in what some people would have seen as a poky little corner of the North of England.”

It worked. A 1933 photograph shows the main avenue jam-packed with visitors in cloth caps and cloche hats. That was the year JB Priestley paused in Blackpool, out of season, on his English Journey and found “the enormous amusement park, with its terrifying giant coasters and other fantastic idiocies, submitting silently to the wind and the rain”.

Buildings were regularly updated and restyled with more modern fascias to make them look “newer”. Some have been returned to their original designs. For all its constant self-reinvention, this is a working museum of popular commercial architecture. “It’s not seaside tat,” says Toulmin. “It’s architecture that’s as significant in its way as the Prince Regent’s Pavilion in Brighton.”

And it’s been part of her life. “I used to come to Blackpool every year when I was a child; my Auntie Mabel was a gypsy fortune-teller on North Pier,” she says. “I remember the log flume, but the thing I really remember is the Fun House. It was like one of the Seven Wonders of the World.”

I say I’m surprised that there are so few... and she completes my sentence: “...children in the pictures? Children couldn’t go on many of the rides. They were for adults. This was the first place in the country to have a crèche.”

And the appeal of Blackpool to her? “I come here because it’s the nearest I get to going to a travelling fair. The whole city is like that. It’s something in the DNA of the place.” A blitzkrieg of screaming from the Big One rends the air.

Blackpool Pleasure Beach: More Than Just an Amusement Park by Professor Vanessa Toulmin (Boco Publishing, £25).