Taking history for a ride
A new attraction at Alton Towers is unlike any other. Scott Lucas finds that, instead of leaving you
I was at Alton Towers last week. You know, the theme park with rides to put your stomach in your mouth, rides with names of destruction: Nemesis, Oblivion, Black Hole.
Not one of them is a patch on Hex.
Hex isn't a rollercoaster; it doesn't soak your clothes or shred your equilibrium by taking you for a spin. It's not even a ride - not, at least, in the conventional fairground sense. No, it is more than that. It is a manor-house tour, a multi-media barrage, a disorienting illusion.
And it's a history lesson.
The last thing I expected on a day off from work, racing with three teenaged relatives to beat the crowds, was to start taking notes. There was nothing in the omnipresent Alton Towers flyers on Hex - "New in 2000" - to give the game away: no pictures, no adjectives, no exclamation marks. I only followed the signs to the west gallery of the Georgian manor where Hex resides because the queue for River Rapids Canyon was topping 45 minutes and because I couldn't cope with the discoloured 1970s film of the 3-D cinema.
I walk through the double doors and past the sign reading "30 minutes to pre-ride briefing; 40 minutes to ride", into the bastard child of English Heritage and Videodrome. The back-and-forth railings, the curse of any theme park, are there to guide the queue but, beyond that, it's a battle between past and present. Along the walls are all the trappings - military, religious, cultural - of past aristocratic glory. A stained-glass window proclaims: "Made by William Wainwright - 1841." Crossed pikes propped on wall platforms border archways, and a couple of suits of armour are lying about for effect. Small placards list George Talbot, 9th Earl of Shrewsbury (1618-30), Francis Talbot, 11th Earl (1654-68), Charles Talbot, 12th Earl and 1st Duke (1694-1718). All is suitably arranged to give the impression of history refurbished.
Spaced at regular intervals are the monitors. Not too large, too bright or too loud, pitched at a level to draw in some, while leaving others to their chatter or their boredom. On-screen is a man in regulation white business shirt, too tight tie and hard hat. He is identified as Damian Varley, the maintenance manager. Straining to escape the background drone of the queue, I hear Damian's account of the careful renovation, begun in 1999, of the manor. Standard off-peak documentary fare, except that the site manager is filmed off-centre and from below, and "Damian" is helpfully scrawled in large letters across his hard hat. Then there is a cut to a blue-lit caption on black - "A House Falling" - and grainy monochrome footage of chains being thrown across the branches of an oak tree. My 16-year-old cousin enlightens me: "It's Sleepy Hollow meets the Alton Towers Project."
We are being set up, although I'm not sure if any among the audience notices or cares yet. I doubt that any of them shuffled into this wing for archaeology or oak trees - certainly not the eight-year-old girl hanging upside down from the railing, nor the boy in the jester's hat sulking with Dad because he could be queuing at the Corkscrew instead. After 20 minutes, however, there is no alternative to paying attention. We are in front of a pair of imposing wooden doors - the entrance to a manorial lift or the portal to another gallery? - and a sonorous, bass voice is intoning: "It was this renovation that led to an investigation of the 15th Earl and to remarkable discoveries. Move through to discover . . . The Legend of the Towers." I know that voice: it is the narrator of a hundred serious TV documentaries; the man who sounds like Michael Gambon, but isn't Michael Gambon.
As the doors ease open, the voice pulls the crowd into a round room with no ceiling visible in the dark. A large projection screen comes to life with history. In 1821, Charles Talbot, the 15th Earl of Shrewsbury, was returning to Alton Towers in his carriage when it was forced to halt by an old woman standing in the road. Affronted, the Earl refused the woman's plea for a farthing; she cursed the departing carriage with the promise that, for every branch that fell off the giant oak tree, a member of the Earl's family would die.
You could narrate the rest. That night, branch falls and family member kicks the bucket. Crazed Earl orders oak tree to be bound in chains (two top-hatted engineers smirk at us from the screen). "But that's not the end of the story." Earl drags downed branch to manor and, in a secret vault, conducts frenzied experiments to lift the curse. The upside-down girl is unimpressed, but her brother is perking up. "It's a good story," he says.
We venture into a third room, the Octagon at the centre of the manor. The voice that is not Michael Gambon's rises a note or two: "You are about to enter the vault where the Earl feverishly tried to lift the curse." Lights flash, a generator is illuminated in a recess in the far wall, and a woman chants in a foreign tongue. Some of the gathering are now speculating about the veracity of the legend. Even the confused and disinterested are affected by the tension. Finally, we move through an arched tunnel, past a giant coat of arms in relief between two doorways, and into a chamber with rows of pews flanking a branch decked with lights and wires. An ornate mantel is carved at either end of the room, and a gridlike pattern is painted on the ceiling. The only unusual feature is that there is a handrail in front of each pew.
I sit for a moment, wondering about the handrail and listening to the spooky music, when I am tugged. Rather, I feel a tug on the bench, which eases back and up. Before my mind, illiterate in engineering, can figure out what is happening, we are facing the floor. Or we think we are - my uncle reminds me later that we didn't fall from our seats against the handrail, but that the room had been rotated around us.
As we exit the vault into the sunlight, there is a hush. People are still sorting out what has happened, and I suspect that the past few minutes have wiped out any consideration of "history". Is any of the history true? I'm still not sure. There was a 15th Earl called Charles Talbot. I saw his portrait as we crept from the wing through the imposing wooden doors, but the placard places his death in 1827, more than a few years before any film could have been taken of the chained oak tree. I can't recall seeing that tree (then again, nobody pays the £21 admission fee to Alton Towers to walk through the gardens), nor were there any locals hanging about in Katanga Canyon or the X-Celerator to answer my questions.
But I am certain that there is another history here. One truth is that the manor is being renovated. It had to be. The visual centre of the park, it was falling into disrepair. It had been ever since the Talbot estate was sold in 1924; since it was requisitioned by the army for officer training during the Second World War; since its interior was demolished in 1951. Seeing the building up close for the first time, you notice that almost all the windows seem to be missing.
Some restoration of the building has been undertaken since Alton Towers became a theme park in 1980 but, for the sake of presentation, something more had to be done, particularly because Alton Towers is now a member of the Tussaud's Group, the manufacturers of history in wax. Yet, after spending all that money, the park would have an impressive but empty manor. So why not turn it into a different kind of attraction? In 1998, £2m was allocated for the renovation and £2m for a ride.
In the cause of recovering a "true" past, a history has been manufactured, one that just happens to turn you upside down (you think) at the end. Here's another titbit for you. There is, indeed, a long-standing tale of the witch's oak tree in Staffordshire. In the "real" legend, however, the curse is delivered not by a crone in the road, but by an old man who gatecrashes the opening ball of the Banqueting Hall, rebuffed when he offers to tell fortunes for a night's shelter. The threat is the same, but the Earl has the tree chained the next day, before any member of his family dies.
I don't blame the creators of Hex for their "economy with the past". It is certainly preferable to Disney's sugary-evil confections, from the Hall of Presidents (of the Greatest Country in the World . . . Ever) to the latest rendition of Pocahontas. And at least the end product is the renewal of a building, rather than the erection of yet another fairy-tale castle in the swamps of Florida or in the suburbs of Paris. At least we have a story that doesn't have to end, as in recent Hollywood histories, with the erasure of everyone except for Uncle Sam as the world's saviour.
History is not an end product, but a tool. We are not condemned to repeat history, but are compelled to create it: for profit, for power, for pride, or just to win an argument. David Blunkett cherishes the sanctity of history in the national curriculum, while his colleagues at the Ministry of Defence rewrite it in their account of the conflict in Kosovo (once again, exactly how many bombs missed their targets?). The Queen Mother becomes a talis-mum for the 20th century, so that her descendants have thrones to sit on in the 21st. In the US, the Democratic National Convention anoints itself by trotting out every living Kennedy to invoke the saintly spirits of their dead relatives. And for every A-level applicant this year who has proclaimed a passionate interest in history, there are two who have asked: "Tell me, what kind of career can I have with this degree?"
So, is the history of Hex real? In this world, it is as real as it gets. Sit back. Hold tight. Enjoy the ride.