Michael Fisher
Interviewed by Nick Laister in 2000
 
Staffordshire born priest and historian Michael Fisher is a History graduate of Leicester University and former research scholar at the University of Keele. He is the author of several books on historical and architectural themes relating to Staffordshire, including Dieulacres Abbey (1989), and A Vision of Splendour (1995). In 1986 he edited his grandfather's military papers for publication: Clifford Keates, A Soldier's India (Caron 1986). He is currently based at the twelfth century church of St. Chad, Stafford.

Michael Fisher's interest in Alton Towers started as a young boy, when he used to visit with his family. The idea of turning his life-long interest into a book came when the Towers' owners, The Tussauds Group, invited him to undertake a comprehensive historical and architectural survey of the Towers buildings to inform them of precisely what they had, how it came into being and what needed to be done to conserve it. The survey took two years, in which he went through the building with a fine tooth comb, and it was completed in 1998. Throughout the duration of the survey, Tussauds had encouraged Michael to turn the work into a book. So Michael worked on the book in parallel with the survey. Michael now jokingly describes himself as the "Official Alton Towers Historian"! But Tussauds Group had also turned to him to write a small visitors guidebook on the Towers, which has been sold at theme park outlets for a number of years. So, it seems like "Official Historian" will be a description that will be with him for many years to come.

He remembers Alton Towers long before it was a theme park, but notes that it was still very much a leisure park even then. "There was not much there then apart from the house and gardens, and a few boats on the lake. There were a few entertainments, including a fairground. The fairground rides were in the part of the Towers that is now called Cred Street, a large sort of yard at the back of the house (in the early years of the theme park the area was known as Talbot Street). There were other things: the boats and the sea lion pool. It really started to take off back in the mid-1970s, really."

When John Broome took over the rides franchise in the late 1970s, Alton Towers really started to develop rapidly. Michael remembers that his book nearly got off the ground back in the John Broome days. "He was quite interested in this. I was going to do something like that when he was around, but it fell by the wayside."

Michael considers that the present owners are doing a great job of operating a theme park at the same time as acting as guardians of this important part of the British heritage. "You've got to strike a balance. Most people go to Alton Towers for the theme park, the rides and so on, for a day out. The historic building is secondary to them. I think it can work very well. To a certain extent, I think it always has been a theme park, ever since the gardens were opened to the public in the nineteenth century. It was a fantasy land, where you could forget the world outside. What is happening now is just that modern technology is taking its turn. But the gardens were always open to the public."

Michael believes that visitors to the theme park are now becoming more interested in the history of Alton Towers. "A lot of people visiting the theme park are now going into the house. And with the new ride, the Hex , there is a flow of visitors being fed right past. Well, they actually have to go through a part of the house to get to the ride in the first place!" He hopes that this interest will help support the progress of the Towers restoration programme.

Michael is very pleased with the way the book has turned out in more ways than one: "What is happening now, which is tremendously gratifying, is that some of the recommendations I made have actually happened as part of the restoration programme over the past twelve months."

Undoubtedly, his book will have played a role in encouraging visitors to Alton Towers to take more of an interest in its history. This is not a book about Alton Towers: the modern theme park. It is a book about the great house, its beautiful gardens and, as Michael Fisher describes it, a "fantasy land". The eye-catching features of the garden: the "Chinese Temple", the Pagoda Fountain, the cascades and canal. These were all part of this early fantasy land, and still form a part of the unique Alton Towers theme park experience today. As this book demonstrates, Alton Towers may well have been Britain's first theme park. For those visitors that do read Michael's fascinating Alton Towers story, a visit to the theme park will never quite be the same again!

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