This blog is devoted to images and recollections of Leek and the surrounding Staffordshire Moorlands from years gone by. I hope you find it interesting. If you have anything to add, please use the comment window or you can email me on

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Alton Towers - packing them in since Victorian times

A railway poster from 1873 tempting Yorkshire folk to sample the delights of Alton Towers and Dovedale. Trains left Leeds at 6am, returning from Alton Station at 7.30 in the evening, the eight-shilling first class ticket including admission to the gardens. The small print includes a warning that the gate keepers were under strict instruction to bar anyone “with articles of any description for sale”.

The two and a half million visitors who make their way through the Moorlands every year to sample whiteknuckle thrills at Alton Towers are following a well worn path.

For the stately Towers and their grounds have been a pleasure-seekers’ place of pilgrimage for close on 150 years. Ever since the gardens were opened to the public in 1860, huge numbers have enjoyed a trip to Alton, whether to picnic amongst the shrubbery in Victorian times, listen to band concerts during the Twenties or enjoy the fairground rides that started to be introduced during the Fifties.

The site itself has a long and distinguished history. Ceolred, King of Mercia held a fortress there as early as the 8th century. The Earls of Shrewsbury took over in 1412 and the estate was to remain in the same family until the 1920’s.

Alton Towers owes its magnificent gardens to the 15th Earl, Charles Talbot born in 1753, who famously “made the desert smile” by employing an army of labourers on the massive landscaping project. No expense was spared in creating gardens with an array of temples, statues, streams, fountains and rockeries – for example, the Pagoda Fountain is an exact copy of the To Ho pagoda in Canton and shoots a spout of water 90ft above the tree tops.

A flashback to more stately times, the Earl of Shrewsbury’s grand coach pictured in the grounds of the family estate at Alton in the 1890’s.

There were sheltered corners for the Shrewsburys’ honoured guests to rest in as they walked the grounds and Charles Talbot even employed a blind Welsh harpist – housed in the thatched Swiss Cottage – to provide a little background music.

The Towers themselves were the subject of similar lavish spending, leading Victorian architect Augustus Pugin being employed on their rebuilding (along with other Shrewsbury-sponsored projects such as St Giles’ RC Church in Cheadle and extensions to Cotton Hall – later to become St. Wilfrid’s College).

Opening of the gardens to the public coincided with the growth of railways and soon visitors from all over the country were arriving by the trainload at Alton Station with its extended platforms to accommodate the extra-long trains. Towards the end of the Victorian era, it’s said that up to 30,000 a day would attend garden fetes in the grounds.

But by the turn of the century, the Shrewsbury family fortunes started to decline and in 1920 the house and land were sold to a consortium of local businessmen led by Uttoxeter estate agent William Bagshaw. On his death the estate was run by his sons Denis and Anthony.
Created regardless of expense, the classic gardens – pictured here following their restoration in the 1930’s – have fascinated visitors since 1860.

With a limited company created to run the estate and the gardens were restored, Alton Towers enjoyed something of a renaissance during the Twenties and Thirties and were once again filled with crowds of visitors. Things changed dramatically with the start of World War II and the house was requisitioned as an officer cadet training camp. The estate was to remain under the control of the War Office until 1951.

In 1952 the Bagshaw family re-opened the gardens to visitors, although by this time the house itself was dilapidated and a tea room was created in the once grand banqueting hall.

Alton Towers’ growth as a theme park dates from the early Seventies when businessman John Broome, who had married Denis Bagshaw’s daughter, acquired a majority stake in the business. The rest is theme park history. Succeeding years have brought ever bigger and scarier rides, a take-over by the Tussauds Group followed by the international Merlin Entertainments Group in 2007 – and a place as one of Europe’s most successful visitor attractions.

The Temperance Refreshment rooms, typical of the many businesses which sprang up in and around Alton village to cater for the influx of visitors.  Guide books of the period encouraged visitors to visit the sights of Alton itself and go for rambles along the Churnet Valley.

Advertisements from the 1932 guide to Alton Towers. Entertainment in this era included a full programme of band concerts featuring prize outfits such as the Burslem Imperial, the Kidsgrove Excelsior and the Famous Cresswell Colliery Band. 

A colourful LMS railway poster from the 1920s paints a grand image of the Towers estate.

Nostalgic scenes from the 1964 season, the year when the Towers cable car opened. Travelling from the miniature railway station to the Chinese temple, the network of four-seater cars were capable of carrying 1,000 people an hour.  As well as fairground rides and rowing boats, one of the park boasted ‘the world’s largest model railway’. 

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