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INLAND PARKS: BEFORE THEY WERE FAMOUS (PAGE 2 OF 3)
by Phil Gould
Article: Added June 2012
Built on the southern boundary of Stoke-on-Trent the Trentham Estate is the former home of the Duke of Sutherland. But for me in the 1960s it was the nearest place I knew where you would find an amusement park.
It was a regular spot for our family to visit so it is perhaps odd that this is the park that I have the least clear memories. I definitely recall that at one time this was a temporary home to one of the travelling Guinness Clocks. I always made sure that I dragged my parents to see it on the hour when all the parade of characters sprung to life from inside the clock. I was fascinated by the contraption. A shame none of these clocks survived.
The gardens made up the formal part of a much larger park. A miniature railway ran from a station close to the funfair into the woods and stopped at the Art Deco open air swimming pool. For a short time this was joined by another mode of transport - a chairlift. This had four-seater cars and travelled from inside the park up the hill to where the Duke of Sutherland’s monument looked out across his estate. I think this attraction was pretty short-lived as it broke down not long after it had opened. One of my primary school friends had been on board with his family when it came to a halt. The following day at school we had a visit from our headmistress who came over to my friend to ask him about his ordeal. Before she left she told him that if he felt tired he was to put his head down on the desk and have a sleep. This is the only time I can recall somebody at school being told that it was fine to fall asleep in class.
The Amusement Park at Trentham was tucked away at the back of the gardens next to the children’s playground but was close to the car park. I do recall a set of Dodgems being the main ride when I was a very small child. A school trip provided me with my first clear memories of the funfair. There was a set of Gallopers; I think these were operated by Congleton-based manufacturers H P Jackson.
Another large ride was the Ark Speedway. I don’t think this had any rounding boards on it and the back was sheeted round to protect riders on days when the weather was inclement. I also recall an Autodrome. You sat in metal cars and these travelled round an undulating track. At first I thought this might have been an adult machine but now I believe it was the children’s Racing Autodrome that in later years resided at Rhyl’s Ocean Beach under the ownership of Henry Crick. I caught up with this ride again years later when it was owned by the late Roger Austin and was on display at his premises in Raunds, Northants. My school friends and me loved the last two rides. The Ark Speedway would be full of my classmates and we couldn’t wait until it hit top speed and you had to hold on for dear life.
Children’s rides also included a yacht ride - the yachts were attached to wooden platforms and followed a gently undulating track to simulate waves. The ride’s paybox was painted to look like a lighthouse. The park contained some small swing boats and the proverbial Peter Pan Railway.
As the years went by it seemed that there became fewer adult rides and more children’s attractions. The Gallopers stayed put and were joined by a square lattice Helter Skelter and a Supercar manufactured kiddie coaster which had a Dragon’s head on the front car.
But things started to change in the early 1980s when entrepreneur John Broome had his sights set on turning the gardens into a major leisure destination. As it was only five minutes from the M6, Trentham was much more easily accessible than Alton Towers.
The Amusement Park started to change almost immediately when an American Scrambler Twist was installed. The following year this was joined by a Polyp, Four man bob coaster and a rather ornate Big Wheel. But Broome’s ambitious plans were thwarted when it was discovered that the park was subject to subsidence because of mining in the area. He decided not to continue investing in the park and the latter three large rides were all relocated to Alton Towers.
As the NCB took charge and tried to sort out the problems at the park local showman Fred Warwick brought his Dodgems, Twist and children’s rides to operate in the summer. Nowadays Trentham Gardens is still a leisure resort and although there is no longer any amusement park a set of Gallopers operate in the shopping village and there is a miniature railway running alongside the lake.
Drayton Manor Park
From the early 1950s the former home of Sir Robert Peel was developed as an inland pleasure resort by the Bryan family. I must have visited the park for the first time in the early 1970s. It was probably the park my family visited the least of all. I think this was mainly because if we headed to the Birmingham area it would normally be to visit our family who lived in Selly Oak. Any trip outs from here would be to Cadbury’s factory at Bourneville or the Lickey Hills, which also happened to have a small children’s amusement park.
The first attraction you spotted from the car park at Drayton was a chairlift. This had four seater open cars, similar to those found on the Alton and Trentham rides. The chairlift travelled from the top end of the park down to the boating lake. It was the first major attractions to be installed back in 1964.
Next to the lake was the place where you would find the majority of the amusements at the park. There was the set of Gallopers that still operate in the park to this day. This ride dated back to the late 19th century and was built by Savages of Kings Lynn. The Dodgems were built inside a semi permanent building and a Supercar manufactured kid’s roller coaster and small big wheel with caged cars. There was also a Waltzer called Merry Go Round. I remember my brother, who wasn’t great on spinning rides at the best of times, went on with me once and was promptly sick as soon as he got off the ride. A tall square wooden Helter Skelter featured and there was plenty of children’s rides including a toy set and a yacht ride.
One of the more unusual rides was the Snake Train. This was a homemade land train and was driven around a course in the woods at what seemed pretty high speed. The ride got its name from the way it used to zig zag through the trees.
A miniature train used to depart from the amusement area and travel around the park’s man made lake. Although the route and rolling stock might have changed the train is still one of the park’s regular attractions today.
I think the funfair rides were operated by showman James Shipley at the time. The attractions at the park remained the same until the 80s when the Bryan family decided to invest in new theme park style attractions. The first two new rides to appear were a Reverchon Log Flume and a small German Jumbo Jet coaster. These two rides paved the way for much larger attractions and the park, close to Tamworth, continues to thrive today.
Not far away from the market town of Knutsford you will find Pickmere Lake. For decades this place was a popular afternoon out for many people living in South Cheshire. I can’t ever remember visiting the amusements with my parents so my first visit must have been in the late 70s after I had passed my driving test and bought a clapped out Vauxhall Viva. You used to park your car in a field at the top and then walk down a hill to the funfair and lake.
The Cheetham Family had operated the amusements at Pickmere since the 1920s. All the rides could be described as vintage. There was a set of dodgems in a semi permanent building and some of the hillside had been cut away so this could be slotted in. The rounding boards had dodgem cars painted on them. There was a proper old fashioned Ghost Train; you travelled round the circuit in individual train cars.
The final large ride was an early Orton and Spooner Ark Speedway. I believe it was originally built for Dreamland in Margate but it had been at Pickmere since 1938, having being acquired from the Thwaites family. The ride was smaller, just 42 foot, than most of the arks I had seen on local funfairs. It had an outside pay box, animals rather motorbikes and was called Wildlife Speedway.
There was a homemade Peter Pan Railway and a children’s roundabout too. An old wooden building contained slot machines. You could hire out boats on the lake itself. If the weather was good you could spend a few pleasant hours by the lake.
The Ark departed in the late 80s and the Dodgems and Ghost Train were joined by a few other travelling rides including a Lighthouse Helter Skelter, Chair-o-planes and Gallopers. But by then I think the place was struggling to survive.
Eventually the Parish Council agreed that the land could be sold for a housing development. Sadly I understand that the Dodgems and Ghost Train were bulldozed where they stood. But a couple of years ago I was lucky enough to ride the Ark at Lincoln Steam Rally after it had been restored by Richard Millband. The ride still survives and today forms part of the Scarborough Fair Collection. If you are thinking of visiting I would suggest you phone ahead as the place doesn’t seem to operate regular opening hours.