Thursday, 25 June 2015

Dreamland rises from the ashes

Scenic Railway, Gt Yarmouth
...quite literally!

I've been a roller coaster enthusiast for more years than I care to remember, right from that very first ride on the Scenic Railway at the then Botton Brothers park at Great Yarmouth, when I ended up having four repeat rides as I just didn't want to get off. The second drop, plunging underneath the superstructure, was the biggest drop on the ride and I just couldn't get enough of it!

Since then, I've been on some of the tallest and fastest rides on the planet, but I still love the classic rides that form the rich heritage of the roller coaster. One of which is, of course, the Scenic Railway at Dreamland, Margate. Like the ride at Great Yarmouth, it has flanged wheels on a raised wooden track with a metal running surface on the top; an on-train brake is operated by some lucky so-and-so who gets to sit on the train all day long. No under-track upstop wheels here - any airtime you get is real airtime, although the track was profiled so as not to cause the wheels to rise too far off the running surface. When Dreamland was under the management of the Bembom Brothers, the Scenic
All run down and ready for housing in 2004
Railway held its own against the more modern Schwartzkopf Looping Star. Subsequent owners, however, appeared more keen to let the place run down and build houses; the more popular rides were removed, fires took an arcade building and the Waltzer, ugly steel fencing was erected so close to the Scenic Railway it felt more like a prison camp than an amusement park (although the amount of weed-ridden empty space belied the amusement aspect quite nicely). Then, of course, in went the planning permission to bulldoze the entire site and build houses for the inevitable commuters that the new HS1 high-speed rail link to London would attract.

Except some of us weren't so keen on that idea. The Save Dreamland Campaign was born, and our
The Gala Evening - final rides in 2004
champion, Nick Laister, among others, worked with the powers-that-be to get the Scenic Railway Grade II listed status. It was, after all, the oldest operating roller coaster in the country (built in 1921) and had many features that made it worth preserving. Sadly, the planning permission merely adapted to this scenario and had the Scenic Railway stranded in the middle of a new housing estate. On the final day of operation in 2004, we were there to ride the Scenic one last time (or several last times). The trains were flying around the track, which made the evening even more poignant.

Flying round the track...
Since that final ride, the fate of Dreamland and the Scenic Railway was in the middle of a fair old battle. An arson attack failed to destroy more than a third of the ride, which meant that it retained its Grade II listing. Eventually, a Compulsory Purchase Order was served and the site was saved for use as an amusement park. In the meantime, the Save Dreamland Campaign had developed and the new Dreamland Trust had secured funding from a range of sources to reinvent Dreamland as a Heritage Amusement Park, featuring rides that were introduced in the decades since John Henry Iles took an interest in the park back in 1919. Before then, George Sanger had developed the "Hall by the Sea" and added menagerie buildings along the edge of the park backing onto the railway line - the Dreamland site had been a place of entertainment since 1863. Nick Evans' book "Dreamland Remembered" has as full a history of Dreamland as resources allow - and it has been revised to celebrate the re-opening of the park as "Dreamland Revived" - well worth a look!

The "Big Tidy-Up" Day, 30/11/13
After so much wrangling, the arson attack and the dreadful day when a number of vintage rides that had been donated for use in the park were removed from the site and scrapped (shortly before the CPO went through), Dreamland started rising from ashes. An Open Day was held on Saturday 16 November, 2013. A small area of the park had been opened up, plans for the park were on display, cars from the Whip that had been donated by Blackpool Pleasure Beach were attracting plenty of photograph-takers, models of the rides were there to see, many seeds were planted so that people could grow plants that would then be used in the park - a truly positive atmosphere, and an unexpectedly huge crowd turned up, with queues to get in and see the display. It was estimated that 2,000 people walked around that tiny portion of the Dreamland site that day. A couple of weeks later, I was back with a shovel helping to clear a large portion of the block paving - weeds and moss had taken hold, and after a day of hard work, it was clear of vegetation (just looking a little manky).

The Dreamland Expo - packed out! Opening day 2014
In 2014, the Dreamland arcade was turned into an Expo, with samples of the new designs by Wayne Hemingway (wonderful use of pastel shades), restored sections of the rides that survived Scrappage-gate and even more sections of rides that had been brought into the Dreamland project following that fateful day. A collection of restored vintage pinball machines was providing some active fun for all ages, and a cinema showed old film footage of Dreamland in its heyday. So much excitement was being generated...

...and then the work started on the park itself - The Pleasure Gardens. The Scenic Railway needed all its wood replacing. In order to preserve its Grade II listing, the old wood was replaced section by section, so that the new wood stood in the same structure as the old wood - the "Ship of Thebes/Theseus" paradox. All the operating vintage wooden roller coasters in this country will have had the entire structure replaced over the years - it all just happened a little quicker with the Scenic Railway!

So there we go! Things went quiet on the Save Dreamland Campaign front, as the contractors took over. New wood started appearing on the Scenic Railway not long afterwards, and enthusiastic websites, Twitter feeds and Facebook pages appeared, and we eagerly followed the updates from the building site...

In part 2, I'll take you through my experiences on the Grand Opening Day - 19 June 2015!

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