Friday, June 28, 2013


At the mercy of the machine?
Gav and I spent a day at Alton Towers last week. This was a bit of a turn up for the books: the trip had looked likely for September; I’d never hitherto been on a roller coaster; and I last rode a fairground ‘flyer’ ride back in 1991- a specific date I remember because it was just after my arrival in Glasgow at the dog end of Glasgow’s year as European City of Culture, and the fair was one of the popular attractions of that year. I also remember that ride because all I could think about while I was on it were the nut and bolt upon which my safety depended, and the physics of shear stresses: the ride reminded us all of both often enough to be sure. That sucked all the fun out of things for yours truly I can assure you dear readers.

Me old mucker, Gav

Well, maybe not an
ancient relic like this
Anyway, long story short, Gav persuaded me to go to my first theme park. And so we were off on a 30-hour red-eye coach round trip from Glasgow. Twenty-plus years since I crapped-out on a regular fairground ride, heading off to ride ultra-modern roller coasters? I confess I was a bit nervy but, as Gav pointed out when I quipped the heading above, roller coasters are safer than buses. Which is true, yadda, yadda, yadda.

Alton Towers: a monstrosity’s monstrosity?
Alton Towers’ lands of adventure (via)
Alton Towers is amazing and terrible at the same time. Amazing- as a theme park; and terrible- in the way that, for some, hell is other people. You enter the camp park to be confronted by Towers Street, a short street constructed after the fashion of a quaint old seaside resort. Piped music is constant almost everywhere you go- there are even speakers hidden in the undergrowth (except, IIRC, in the garden); concession stands are everywhere, with vending machines even more ubiquitous than that. Then there’s the queueing, the endless queueing- Gav and I queued for 1¾ hours for one ride; all that painful waiting for thrills better measured in seconds than in minutes. The queues are literally in pens to keep them orderly (you can, of course, queue 1st Class, with Fastrack tickets). This is already some people’s vision of hell. Add the rumbling of infernal engines and the screams of the damned and you’re there!

Holiday camp kitsch at the entrance
Perfect vision of a consumerist hell notwithstanding, Alton Towers is just plain great fun. There’re the rides, naturally enough, but there’s also the setting- the grounds of a 19th century Gothic stately home. Quirky enough in its own right, but a modern consumerist theme park set in a Victorian theme park- there’s more than just a touch of the postmoderns there, don’t you think? And the old grounds are beautiful to boot. Wandering between sections of the park can be very pleasant, especially when you happen upon follies which remind you of the old place’s half-mad mock grandeur.

The castle, viewed from the bottom of Tower Street
The rides, oh yes, the rides!
After 10 hours of travelling and waiting around in chilly outdoor locations, and having personally been awake already for some 20 hours, I finally reaped the benefits of Gav’s travel plans: early rides- that quiet 9-10am hour when the camp is nearly empty because of the early hour and because only a few rides are open. Net result: very — deceptively, even — short queues. We were heading for Nemesis- it’s Gav’s favourite coaster and I’d figured if I was going to be screwing my courage to the sticking post, I may as well start with a beast. ‘Twas not to be however. We passed another ride on the way to Nemesis and jumped on that because it was early early rides and there’d be no queue, so my first ride was:
      Runaway Mine Train (via)
          1. A very basic roller coaster. Kid’s stuff. Really. Fun but few thrills for adults, unless they’re clinging very firmly to their coaster virginity. With hindsight Gav and I agreed that choosing this coaster to start was a wise decision despite my eagerness to face Nemesis, and with further hindsight I agree all the more: Runaway Mine Train is a good introduction to the experience of riding your basic cars-on-top roller coaster.
              I approach my Nemesis…

                Hurtling out of a
                gully on Nemesis (via)
                And so my 2nd ride turned out to be:
                        1. “Remarkable!” I love Nemesis. The sight of its track, twisting and turning through solid rock, struck real trepidation in me- I was going to ride under that? At least its construction looked reassuringly solid: that these were fixed rides of solid construction being the realisation which had finally overcome my fear of the old fairground attractions- I knew my mind wasn’t going to be worrying about the physics of everything staying in one piece! The sight and sound of Nemesis' cars and riders could only add a tinge of real fear to my existing tension. An average bus queue of a wait then, bang, we’re off, screaming through gullies and tunnels, up, down, round corners and through inversions at speeds whose apparent impossibility makes me think of a flying superhero. The net effect is awesome, as is the rush at the end. I’ve bitten the bullet, and I love this!
                            An inversion on Nemesis (via)
                            And so my 3rd and 4th rides turned out to be:
                              • Nemesis!
                                    1.  We went on the front the first two times, and at the back the third time. Gav he's a G-force junkie explained that it was about higher G-forces riding at the back, but I didn't notice enough of a difference to care one way or the other.
                                        Gav and me on Nemesis

                                        Another shot of Nemesis,
                                        showing the underslung cars (via)
                                        Fate and the misfortune of poor judgement intervened at this point; the former- our next ride of choice — Air — wasn’t working; the latter- we decided to walk to get to the next section of the park when we should’ve taken the Skyride. The valley walk we took was very nice- it was when I got a real sense of what the Victorian theme park was like, but it was long enough that early rides was well and truly over and queueing had begun in earnest, and we were knackered and footsore.

                                        Just one of the many wooded paths

                                        The pagoda in the valley garden
                                        A bandstand in an expansive garden setting

                                        The Gothic pile

                                        Still, we only queued around half an hour for our next ride:
                                        1. With its woods and witches theme, Thirteen is like a grown up’s Runaway Mine Train with added bells and whistles: faster, banks more steeply, pulls more Gs, nice wooded sections. Alton Towers’ classic, gentle coaster.
                                        This was followed by a quick dash to the nearby:
                                          A lot of track for Rita! (via)
                                          1. Rita is the coaster for which we queued 1¾ hours, a taste of the pens which was utterly dreadful and which I can truly say broke my spirit; an experience so horrible that we soon wished there was any way out other than forward through an indeterminate more of the same. We were in too deep at that point. As a coaster, Rita is all about the speed, from its hydraulically powered launch, all the way round the track with its very steep banking, tight corners and resulting Gs. Maybe not the fastest coaster at Alton Towers (I really don't know just now) but a good one if you like the solid feel of a track under your car. Expect to queue.
                                          Cars being slowly hauled up to the top of The Smiler
                                            An inversion on The Smiler (via)
                                            At Gav’s insistence we’d bought a Fastrack for our next ride- the park’s new attraction, as a result of which we waited a short 10-15 minutes to board:
                                            1. If the queue for Rita broke my spirit, The Smiler broke my nerve, with its astonishing sequence of 14 inversions: twisting, turning and looping passages of blinding speed interspersed with brief spells of calm as you’re hauled into position to be launched once more. An unbelievable whirlwind of a ride, the Smiler left me filled with dread. Quite, quite stunning!
                                            The Smiler by night (via)
                                            I was by now a straight 24 hours in and feeling slightly the worse for wear and in need of rest and recuperation. We ate. I think you can find food at Alton Towers a bit better than the burgers, but they filled a gap. The chips were cold though.

                                            Air (via)
                                            By the afternoon Air was running again, so off we headed (which words make short work of even that short walk: the only thing as interminable at Alton Towers as the queueing is the walking- I’m sure a typical full day’s total walk at the park could easily total several miles). We made our attempt at Air in late afternoon. The park was busy at this peak time, naturally enough, and the rides’ queueing times signalled on boards stationed across the park showed that we could expect queues of at least 45 minutes on the big rides. Getting to Air we saw that we’d be queueing for about an hour and I realised I’d just had enough: though my nerve was a bit shaky, I could’ve done any of the rides (except The Smiler- I wasn’t going back on The Smiler that day!) if I could’ve just walked on to them. I just couldn’t face an hour-long queue for the sake of a quick thrill ride. Gav headed off for one last ride before closing time and I went off to find a place to sit and wait.

                                            Other attractions
                                            Headliners the roller coasters may be, but there are many other attractions at Alton Towers, many of which look to be adventure attractions aimed at kids. Gav and I took in a few of these different attractions as well as the rides. First, one we did in the early rides time because it neighbours its namesake- Nemesis:
                                            1. Reminiscent of the 1990s’ Alien War, Nemesis Sub-Terra is an immersive fright show involving walking about ‘under orders’, sitting down, and computer and other SFX. Worth seeing once if you’re a completist, otherwise, strictly teenage kicks; queue stalls looked quite small…
                                            The rest we similarly went on as we were walking between the big rides.
                                            Hex (via)
                                            1. Based on the Alton Village legend of the Chained Oak, Hex takes you inside the Gothic pile in another immersive themed walk-through and sit down. Don’t expect much in the way of trappings and staging, but Hex is the kind of experience you might want to repeat to get your head around it, so do expect to enjoy the attraction. Also, you'll probably never have to queue.
                                            1. Duel is a ghost train with added laser pistols, which I imagine can only be excellent more than once for the very young or excitable. Gav tanked me in the supernatural shoot out.
                                            The waterfalls on
                                            Congo River Rapids (via)
                                            1. One of 2 big water rides at Alton Towers, Congo River Rapids is gentle, relaxing fun with added splashes and water cannon. In addition the loading and unloading bay is a thing of mechanical ingenuity a delight to behold. Queue is long but fast-moving, so a half hour or so seems about right at peak times. Worth the wait because this really is a nice way to unwind from the thrills of the big rides.

                                            Favourites, favourites?
                                            At the end of a long, wearying day of thrills and delights I can say that I’ll be back at Alton Towers sometime in the future. It really is too good a day out to ignore. I plan on being better organised the next time I go. Meanwhile, if I had to favour one and only one ride out of those I rode last week, it’d have to be The Smiler.

                                            The madness that is The Smiler! (via)

                                            Nemesis was a very close second, but The Smiler is now the ride that Nemesis was before that trip: the signal ride against which I would test my nerve. In any event, The Smiler also delivers more of what it is I think I like about these modern coasters: the disorienting horror of those impossible hi-speed inversions. Nemesis is faster, and more immersive- its location was blasted out of solid rock so that its setting is more than just the coaster’s structure itself, all of which gives it the edge on sheer intensity; but for nerve-jangling sensory overload you can’t beat The Smiler as it throws you up and down, around and around, over and under seemingly for ever, then tells you you’re only halfway. WOW!

                                            The sanity that is science (via)

                                            What a brilliant day out, and all because I overcame my petty fears by putting my trust in science, engineering and good maintenance. ;)

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