After finishing work yesterday evening I drove to Dublin Airport where I caught an evening flight to Liverpool. The two airports are just 225 kilometres apart, a distance that can be covered in around twenty minutes when the prevailing winds favour the east-facing runways on both sides. My journey wasn't quite as fast due to air traffic control delays, but we still spent longer in the queue for take off than we did in the air. The short flight time didn't stop the cabin crew from trying to sell hot meals on board; I decided to abstain.
Once on the ground I headed directly to the Hertz office, where I ran into a minor problem; there was apparently no phone number attached to my account profile, which had prevented completion of my car rental paperwork prior to arrival. The staff member had a very thick accent, and after listening to him for about ten seconds I decided that there was nothing to be gained by pointing out that this was my fifth rental from Hertz in as many months (and my second in the United Kingdom) and this hadn't come up previously. Instead I waited for the issue to be sorted out, and in due course I was handed the keys to a brand new Vauxhall Mokka X with just twenty-one miles on the clock. Soon after I walked past the famous Yellow Submarine on my way to the car park.
6th July 2019
Most readers will be aware that the three parks in the UK-based Gulliver's chain are generally off limits to adults without accompanying children. There have been reports of coaster enthusiasts visiting by prior arrangement, but those trips are escorted by staff and more often than not limited to one ride on each coaster. This weekend represented a rare opportunity for members of the European Coaster Club to explore Gulliver's Warrington and Gulliver's Milton Keynes in full, and perhaps unsurprisingly there were almost fifty people in attendance. Many were local, but there were also a few from much further afield, not least two from the United States.
The day began with an exclusive session on Antelope, a family sized wooden coaster designed by Allott and Lomax in 1995. The ride had quite a bit of new track when I first encountered it back in back in 2007, and though it wouldn't have topped any rankings it was still a pleasant enough experience at the time. Unfortunately the same was not true today; I managed three laps over the course of our one hour session, and found that the only location that was even vaguely enjoyable was the front row. There was a nasty crunch at the base of every drop in row two, and the impacts were amplified by several orders of magnitude in the back. The one saving grace was a single train that was dispatching around once every five minutes; had operations been more efficient I suspect that our group would have struggled to keep the train full for the duration.
Our second stop was at Gilly's Princess Ride, a minute long dark ride that is probably best described as a haunted house for young children. The layout is broken into four distinct segments. First comes the "Enchanted Castle", where painted tapestries show knights facing off against each other. Ten seconds later riders arrive at the "Evil Woods", decorated with slightly unsettling trees. Soon after a bright red dragon prefixes the "Wood Cutters Cottage", home to the local equivalent of a hidden mickey. Last and by no means least comes "The Grand Ball", showing assorted animals dressed up in full costume. There's probably a joke to be made here about coaster enthusiasts and princesses (or perhaps queens?) but in the interests of not offending too many people I'll steer clear of that.
Coaster number two became Wriggler, an authentic Pinfari Big Apple that operated for almost three decades at the late and much lamented Camelot Theme Park. The operator warned us that the brakes had been tightened overnight causing the ride to run slowly, and he wasn't kidding; the drop might as well not have been there for all the speed that we gained. That being said, our three lap cycle was enjoyable even still, and the children in our train were clearly delighted by the experience. We followed this up with the Runaway Mine Carts, a Zamperla Mini Mouse relocated within the park at the start of the 2016 season.
Our next hit was the dark ride once known as Tomb Raider, an attraction that operated for many years as a target shooter. Sadly the newly rebranded Temple Raider (perhaps following a request from Square Enix?) no longer has guns, and though the illuminated targets remain as of this writing there is no way for guests to trigger them. On the plus side this allowed me to focus on the scenery, which was considerably more worthwhile than Gilly's Princess Ride; the sets included assorted artefacts, skulls, life size mummies, and even a small number of animatronics.
In an ideal world we'd have visited the park's highly regarded Haunted Mansion walkthrough, but it was closed for renovation today. Instead the final ride of the morning became Apache Falls, a spinning rapids that was introduced at the start of the 2016 season. The ride bears a passing resemblance to portable designs from Fabbri and Reverchon, but it is evidently of different provenance as the support structure has been constructed from wood rather than steel. The experience was fun, though readers should be aware that we got pretty wet; those trying it for themselves on cooler days would be well advised to wear ponchos.
6th July 2019
The drive to my second stop took me across the Mersey Gateway, a barrier free toll bridge on the A533 between Widnes and Runcorn. In common with similar facilities elsewhere drivers are expected to make an online payment by midnight on the day after crossing. Unfortunately this facility is not available to those in rental cars who are instead expected to sort things out by telephone. This process is best described as painful.
My first call was a frustrating exchange with a computer, during which I read my vehicle plate to it, argued with it after it had transposed a letter, and eventually got transferred to a recorded message telling me I was calling out of hours and that I should try again later. My second call was more successful, though it still took far longer than it should have done, and it would have been extremely challenging for anyone without fluent spoken English. The two calls combined almost certainly cost me as much as the toll, and left me more than a little irritated; it is hard to understand how a tolling company with operations in seven countries has no arrangement with major rental car companies.
Rhyl Fun Fair
6th July 2019
When I mentioned to Martin that I was considering a detour to Rhyl he described the town using some particularly colourful phraseology that it is probably best not to repeat. Nevertheless his hyperbolic wording proved eminently appropriate for a place that has about as much appeal as an insect-laden landfill on a hot summer day. The seafront car park was full, but apparently only because there were at least fifty visitors from the subcontinent enjoying a picnic in the shadow of a public toilet. After a few minutes searching I was able to parallel park on a side street with a one hour time limit, which I figured would be more than ample for my purposes.
Rhyl Fun Fair comprises eighteen family rides and a miniature golf course located on a twelve thousand square metre site adjacent to the sea front. The pride of the collection is Nessi (#2701), a standard model Super Nessi and one of seven rides of its type in the United Kingdom. There were no more than a dozen other guests in the park, and as such it wasn't much of a surprise when I had the coaster to myself for a three lap cycle that cost me £2.50 (~€2.78). I was required to sit in the front seat; the operator told me that the train can get stuck if there is too much weight towards the rear.
Tir Prince Family Funfair
6th July 2019
The town of Towyn, just west of Rhyl, is home to a notable church, several thousand holiday chalets, a number of caravan parks, and very little else. The only real draw to the area for the average visitor is the Tir Prince complex owned by the Williams family, which includes a retail market, an amusement park optimistically (and inaccurately) described by the official website as "fabulous", and a harness racing track. All day parking is available for £2, and sadly there are no discounts available for those only planning to stay for ten minutes.
On my last visit to the park back in 2008 it was possible to pay cash at individual rides. That has now changed; guests are required to buy a rechargeable smart card from a machine, though on the plus side the deposit for this is refundable once done. Before acquiring mine I walked quickly around the park and determined that the only ride I was interested in was the new coaster; I decided that there was no real need to renew my acquaintance with the Caterpillar I'd ridden more than a decade earlier.
Batman is a mid-sized Fabbri Power Mouse that spent much of its career travelling in Sweden under the ownership of Axels Tivoli. It was also placed in parks from time to time; I rode it at Malmö Folkets Parkin 2011. The ride was manufactured in 2004, making it one of the oldest examples of the genre in operation, and it really looks its age; the track is absolutely covered in rust, and the supports and rolling stock are not radically better. Despite appearances however the comfort level today was fine; my car spun unusually well, leaving me slightly dizzy as I disembarked.
6th July 2019
It took me ninety minutes to cover the seventy miles from Tir Prince Family Funfair to RAF Woodvale, an air base located a few miles outside of Southport. The last five miles to my actual destination took an additional hour, virtually all of it spent in a monstrous traffic jam on the A565. My impromptu parking spot gave me a clear view of someone doing circuits in a 120TP Prefect, as well as a septuagenarian plane spotter brandishing a heavy duty SLR.
My first visit to Southport Pleasureland took place back in 2002 when it was owned by Blackpool Pleasure Beach. At the time it was a veritable treasure trove of classic rides, including a 1937 wood coaster, an even older dark ride, and a unique wooden wild mouse that once operated at Frontierland in nearby Morecambe. Though outwardly successful the park was shuttered without warning at the end of 2006, and virtually all of it was demolished soon after in an attempt to prevent any other operator from trying to compete with the parent company across the bay.
This brazen act of cultural vandalism failed in its key objective; a rudimentary funfair opened on the site less than a year later, and though the place looked pretty grim when I visited in 2008 the new owners have persisted with their regeneration efforts despite a number of significantsetbacks. The park as it stands today is a far cry from the disaster zone of the late noughties; instead it is a pleasantly landscaped mix of permanent and transportable attractions, and the latter have been installed so carefully that an average visitor would never recognise their temporary nature. The ride selection isn't quite to the level of times past, though perhaps that will change some day if the business continues to develop.
The operator at the Apple Coaster (#2702) clocked me as a coaster enthusiast right away, and was surprised when I admitted that the ride was in fact a new credit for me ("where have you been, mate?"). A detailed answer wasn't practical on the spur of the moment, so I settled for a few vaguely apologetic platitudes and a shrug. My 257th different Wacky Worm was a pleasant enough experience, though as ever with the genre a single cycle was adequate for my needs. I followed this up with Grand Canyon, a powered coaster owned by Wesley Gill that has been present at the park since 2015. In its first season it was located in the south-west corner of the site, though for the last few years it has been located roughly 125 metres to the north on the corner of the site that once held the Cyclone. The ride didn't feel like a coaster to me; though the motor was in use throughout the ride didn't always speed up when descending, and there were other slowdowns at odd times.
My next task was to renew my acquaintance with the Roller Coaster, an elderly Pinfari ZL42 that became one of my first credits when it was set up in Dublin in the late nineties. The ride began its career at Barry's Amusements in 1991, where it operated for six seasons. It subsequently went to William Bird (Sales) Limited who operated it at a wide variety of locations all over Ireland. In mid-2008 it was passed to an operator in the Czech Republic and then subsequently to a travelling park in Slovenia, where the plain white cars were upgraded with new purple and orange bodywork. Its stay there was short-lived however; soon after it found its way to Serbia and onwards to what will almost certainly be its final home in England.
During its time travelling around Ireland the ride had three trains, though only two were used at any one time. Today there was just one on track, and the transfer rail was empty; it seems likely that the others have become parts donors. The reduction to a single train has allowed the deactivation of the second station common to the type, similar to what I saw a few years ago at Luna Park Sunny Beach; today both loading and unloading were taking place on what is usually the load station, and to aid this there were two permanently installed access routes: a ramp for a queue, and a painted wooden footbridge for the exit that doubled as a vantage point for photographs.
The exterior of the coaster has been surrounded by wooden fencing that hides both its lowest track sections and a water ballast tank. This makes the installation look less temporary than it might otherwise do, but it cannot disguise the fact that both the track and support structure are overdue some fresh paint. Photos taken in 2016 before the fence was erected show the ride looking much better than it did today; three years of sea air has evidently taken its toll. For all that however the comfort level in the front right hand seat was absolutely perfect; there was none of the anticipated headbanging, and only one very minor jolt at the entrance to the loop.
The park has expanded this year into a new space that was formerly home to a go-kart track. The additions are all portable attractions belonging to the UK-based Stokes family, though I'm given to understand that they will be staying at Southport for the entire season. The highlight of the collection is Crash Test, a nicely themed but uncomfortably rough spinning coaster attributed to Cedeal Rides, the short-lived Reverchon brand. The comfort level today wasn't as bad as I remembered, but it was still definitely not up to the usual I've come to expect from the genre. Standing next to it was the Haunted Mansion, a multilevel dark ride that looked like it might be worthwhile from the outside. The experience started out with a moderately impressive projection as my car ascended to the first floor, but that was pretty much all there was to see;. A few token theme elements on the second floor might have been more impressive had daylight not been spilling in from outside. The experience would likely have been better in darkness, though that is unlikely to ever happen in a park that closes at 6:00pm.
Fortunately the park has a vastly superior dark ride located in a building that was once home to the park's (in)famous fun house (and subsequently the Indiana's Lost World family coaster). The Ghost Train uses the track and cars from the similar ride that once operated at Camelot Theme Park, though the high quality theming is original to Southport. Dry ice effects and live actors add extra sparkle to what was already going to be a top notch ride. Footage of the ride is available online though as ever it scarcely does the experience justice.
6th July 2019
Standard model spinning coasters from Reverchon are a staple of fairgrounds across the world. The design is sufficiently prevalent that any attempt to complete the set constitutes a fool's errand even for this writer. Permanent installations are a different animal, however, with just sixteen examples in operation as of this writing. One of these was installed at Blackpool South Pier in 2018, and I'd have ridden it in its first few weeks if my plans hadn't been scuppered by high winds.
Readers with even the vaguest grasp of British geography will likely observe that Blackpool isn't on the most direct route between Southport Pleasureland and Northampton, where I'd booked my overnight hotel. The detour was only an hour, however, which was how I found myself trying to find a sensibly priced short term parking space in a town that is geared firmly at all day visits. The cheapest option that I could find in the general area of my target charged me £3.50 (~€3.90) for a two hour stay, and though that was more than I'd have preferred I decided to use the available window to grab some dinner.
Crazy Coaster (#2703) was manufactured around the turn of the millennium for German showman Hans Gormanns. It was toured around Europe over the next decade under the ownership of a number of different showmen before it was sold to a park in the Ukraine. I'd formulated vague plans to get to it there when showman Peter Sedgwick Jnr acquired it in exchange for his tower ride that had broken down in a particularly unfortunate way the previous year. The operation policies today were a little odd, as the staff were loading all the cars at once before dispatching them at maximum throughput, but the queue was short enough that this wasn't a big problem. I waited no more than five minutes for my £4 (~€4.46) solo lap, and with only one person in the car I managed to spin very well indeed.
Northampton Town Festival
6th July 2019
As I prepared to drive south I received a message on my phone from Bruno and Anita telling me about a pair of family coasters at the Northampton Town Festival. My GPS told me that I wouldn't get there until forty minutes before the 11:00pm closing, which was far from ideal, but I decided to take the punt on the basis that it was only a few miles away from my hotel. Finding an on-street parking space proved unexpectedly easy, but only because I'd inadvertently targeted the wrong end of the Race Course site a little over a kilometre away from where I needed to be. It was tempting to relocate, but I decided that doing that would burn too much of my already limited time window; instead, I power-walked along the boundary fence, and ten minutes later I arrived at my destination.
One interesting novelty of British fairgrounds is a number of antique travelling coasters produced by companies such as Schiff and Supercar, many of which feature a wood-fronted station decorated with wagon wheels and pickaxes. Mine Train (Woodward) (#2704) is a fairly typical example of the genre, and it rode reasonably well in the front seat. This was followed with a back seat on Bugs & Bees (Woodward) (#2705), a Wacky Worm with the same sign as its continental namesake. The ride's theming was not quite to the level of the original, but the experience was otherwise identical.
There were no other attractions on my shopping list and I was pretty tired, but I decided that I couldn't leave without a quick courtesy lap on Wild Mouse (Danter). The brief delay worked in my favour; the walk back to my car took me across a field, and I was right in the middle of it with an unobstructed view when fireworks began to light up the night sky. The ten minute performance made for a perfect conclusion to an excellent day.
6th July 2019
It was almost 11:30pm when I arrived at the Holiday Inn Express Northampton - South, and I was ready to sleep. Unfortunately it wasn't to be; a booking error had result in my room being sold to another guest. An apologetic manager told me that he'd arrange a room for me in the Hilton hotel half a mile away, and that they'd be waiting for me when I got there. Heavy traffic disgorging from a Rammstein concert turned the journey into a twenty minute long endurance contest, but in due course I arrived there to find that the staff were not expecting me, and worse yet, they were fully booked.
The battery on my mobile phone was dead, but the receptionist there called the Holiday Inn on my behalf, where the same manager apologised again and said that he'd meant to direct me to the Marriott. It looked briefly like the charade would continue there, but a supervisor was able to sort things out. The room that I eventually ended up in was radically better than what I'd paid for, and the breakfast was fantastic, though on the whole I think I'd have preferred the extra sleep!