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September 1st, 2007, 7:37 pm #1

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A look at the link between miniature railways and amusement parks kicks off our monthly Digest.

By Colin Peake

The opening of the new station/shed/museum building at the Rhyl Miniature Railway on 26th May was a landmark in the revival of that railway and credit to the volunteer team that have made it possible. The prospects for Rhyl’s 1911 opened miniature railway haven’t always been that good, the line having closed in 1969 along with the remainder of the Marine Lake amusement park, reopening as a lone attraction in 1978 and almost closing once more after that.

It goes without saying that miniature railways and amusement parks have gone hand-in-hand from the start, even before the pivotal moment Little Giant ran at Blackpool’s South Shore in 1905 miniature lines had been included in the grand exhibitions popular at the time in places such as Glasgow, Liverpool and Earl’s Court, often equipped with the characteristic American 4-4-0s supplied by the Cagney Brothers of New York. In later years there were lines in the shadow of the roller coasters at amusement parks in Southend, Skegness, Great Yarmouth, South Shields and Manchester’s Belle Vue to name a few.

Rhyl's new station building with the water chute at Ocean Beach to the right (Peter Bryant)

Rhyl does still has an amusement park, over the road from the Marine Lake at Ocean Beach. Many had written the park off at the beginning of 2007 and there was some surprise when it re-opened for the season. However redevelopment of the site has recently been approved and having clung on for one more season it is likely that the park will close for good once this season’s holidaymakers have gone home. Whether this affects visitor numbers to Rhyl as a whole will no doubt be seen next year, but past examples of amusement park closures have been be felt across the whole town.

As the crow flies it is not too far across the sea to Southport, where the effects of an amusement park closing have (briefly) already been seen. Southport Pleasureland, owned by Blackpool Pleasure Beach, closed at very short notice in September 2006. Ownership of the site has reverted to the local council who have managed to find a new operator, but this is set against the loss of all the historic rides and attractions. So far the ‘New’ Pleasureland is a collection of travelling fairground rides and it remains to be seen how long it will last or how it will develop. Pleasureland is of course adjacent to the Lakeside Miniature Railway, contemporary with the Rhyl line and recently seeing a revival under new ownership. Following the high-profile closure of Pleasureland visitor numbers to Southport as a resort are likely to be down this season and it can only be hoped that the LMR can weather the storm.

Southport's Lakeside Miniature Railway seen c1989. Pleasureland is out of view behind the railway (Glen Fairweather)

The impending fate of Ocean Beach and the threat against Pleasureland are sadly typical of the loss of many seaside amusement parks in recent times. Some, like Ocean Beach, and Margate’s Dreamland hang on by a thread whilst others such as Morecambe’s Frontier Land (formerly Morecambe Pleasure Park) sit as wasteland, awaiting a future use. Both Morecambe and Margate once had miniature railways amongst their attractions, until visitor demands sought more thrilling attractions over a gentle train ride.

As if to buck this trend, in Scarborough there has been an interesting turn of events. The whole of the town’s North Bay leisure area has been the subject of redevelopment plans for several years, resulting in the closure of the Marvel’s amusement park, close to the North Bay Railway’s Peasholme station, a number of seasons ago. For 2007 the Atlantis swimming pool, in need of repairs to reopen it for a final season, has actually been filled in and replaced with another collection of travelling fairground rides. Is the seaside amusement park, written off by many observers, actually undergoing a temporary revival on the east coast?

It is to Margate we need to look for the next step in amusement park development. As railway enthusiasts we take preservation for granted, in the amusement park world it is something new and almost unheard of outside the preservation of historic travelling fairground rides. No-one has preserved a full park. However, plans are being drawn up for a “heritage amusement park” around the listed Dreamland Scenic Railway roller coaster. This would be a historic park that will bring together rides from closed and threatened parks including rides saved from Southport Pleasureland. Included in the scheme is a revival of the Dreamland Miniature Railway. One of the original locomotives, Rhyl built Barnes atlantic ‘Billie’ will return on a newly laid line and keep the link between miniature trains and amusement parks preserved into the future. More details of the scheme can be found at the Save Dreamland website:

The successor to the amusement park, at least in the eyes of the public, was the theme park. Alton Towers is regarded as the first of the breed in the UK and is still the market leader. The 1980s saw a boom in other parks setting up around the UK, some seeing greater success than others. Boom has now turned to bust and one of the 1980s parks, The American Adventure, near Ilkeston sadly announced in January 2007 that they were to close. Opened in 1987, the park took over the site of the ill-fated Britannia Park, an under funded venture celebrating the “Best of British”. The developers of Britannia Park had seen early on the advantage of a miniature railway as a transport system, and purchased the equipment of the line that had run at the Liverpool International Garden Festival in 1984, including track, buildings and stock. The stock was replaced on the change to an American theme and the track layout changed twice, once before re-opening in 1987 and again into a full circuit of over a mile in 1989. The line was lifted in February/March 2007 and the equipment moved to storage at TwinLakes Park near Melton Mowbray.

Former American Adventure rolling stock in storage at TwinLakes (Colin Peake)

Around the UK’s other theme parks the 15 inch gauge flag is still being flown in North Yorkshire, where the Lightwater Valley Theme Park still operates a circuit around a mile long, providing transport from one end of the site to the other. Sadly this line is a shadow of it’s former self, following a change in management and the departure of it’s collection of historic steam locomotives. Despite acquiring the stock of the line from Flamingoland, which had been replaced by a longer 2 foot gauge line, one train operation is the norm. In South Wales the Oakwood Adventure Park has a 15 inch gauge line connecting the car parks with the main park, operated by an interesting collection of stock including two diesel railcars and several ex-Liverpool garden festival coaches.

Lightwater Valley seen in 2004. Certainly not the first miniature railway in the shadow of a rollercoaster and probably not the last! (Colin Peake)

The link between miniature railways and the amusement/theme park industry looks set to continue well into the future, despite the fluctuations in the industry. Developments in Margate and at TwinLakes are awaited with interest and the potential is there for a revival of the amusement park railway. But it isn’t just the lines within the parks that keep the link alive, lines running close to the gates also maintain the relationship. Whilst the Rhyl team were celebrating their achievements the other side of the country the Cleethorpes Coast Light Railway quietly opened their southbound extension bringing the line closer to the gates of the Pleasure Island theme park…

Sutton Flyer on the CCLR extension, passing the 'Boomerang' ride at the Pleasure Island Theme Park (Ian Holmes)

Special thanks to Glen Fairweather, Ian Holmes and Peter Bryant for allowing the use of their photographs this month.

Miniature Railway World forum members are invited to reply to this Digest entry. Do you have memories or photos of amusement park railways that you would like to share, or perhaps a view on the future of miniature railways and amusement parks?

Please reply to this topic. Your reply will be posted as soon as it has been checked by a Moderator.
Colin Peake
MRW Digest Editor

My blog: O9 Modeller