I've recently released my new book, Tales from the Towers, which tells the story of how Alton Towers developed from a barren patch of land holding a small hunting lodge into the UK's most popular theme park. We're serialising select parts of the book on Theme Park Tourist, along with photos that didn't make it into the print edition. In this third article, you can learn how John Broome planned to turn Trentham Gardens into a "sister park" for Alton Towers in the early 1980s.
John Broome’s conversion of Alton Towers into a theme park had been a spectacular success. As early as 1982, he was boasting that he was developing a second theme park, and was looking around for a third site. "The inland leisure park is here to stay, and it’s only now being realised that there is a tremendous market in this field. I think we’ve proved at Alton Towers that this market is ripe for tapping in further," boasted Broome. Even as Alton Towers continued to add ride after ride, Broome was already planning to develop a sister park just eighteen miles away.
Located on the southern fringe of Stoke-on-Trent, the Trentham Estate’s history is not dissimilar to that of Alton Towers. The beautiful gardens went into the decline in the early twentieth century. Pollution from the rapidly-expanding Potteries had diminished Trentham's appeal, with sewage spewing into the lake. In 1905, it was abandoned by the Duke and Duchess, who were unable even to give it away. The Staffordshire County Council declined the Duke’s offer to hand it over for free. Instead, he sold it to local building firm Young & Son, which immediately demolished the house and sold the contents for a mere £500. The north-west corner of the estate was subsequently turned into a golf club.
In 1931, Trentham Gardens Limited was formed to transform the estate into a tourist attraction along the same lines as Alton Towers. The gardens were opened to the public, but the major attractions were the ballroom and outdoor swimming pool (lido) that were installed by the new owners. At night, the pool could be illuminated, with former General Manager Philip Bradbeer recalling in Graham Bebbington's Trentham Reflections that "the magic of the place left a lasting impression…it was wonderful, just like part of a Hollywood film set. I can’t imagine another pool that came anywhere near it." The ballroom, meanwhile, hosted concerts from acts such as The Beatles and The Who.
In 1938, a miniature railway was installed. As well as offering views of the lake, this made the trip to the lido much easier. By this time, the estate was pulling in 20,000-30,000 guests on holiday weekends – comparable to attendances at Alton Towers during the same period. The two grand estates shared some commercial interests, with Anthony Bagshaw, a leading shareholder in Alton Towers, opening a short-lived cable car system at Trentham in 1969. This carried guests up to a monument of the first Duke of Sutherland, gazing down on the estate just as the statue of the fifteenth Earl of Shrewsbury looks over Alton Towers’ gardens.
By the 1960s, as at Alton Towers, a fairground had been installed at the Trentham Estate. This boasted a similar array of temporary rides, including dodgems, a merry-go-round, a Speedway attraction (which saw riders racing around on motorbikes on an undulating platform) and a Peter Pan Railway similar to the one at the Towers. As it evolved, many adult-oriented rides were removed and replaced by children’s rides such as a Helter Skelter and a small roller coaster.
In late 1970s, the Trentham Estate was in a seemingly terminal spiral of decline. The pool had been shut in 1975, with evidence that it had been damaged by subsidence caused by coal mining activities. Trentham Gardens Ltd was struggling financially, and in 1979 the Countess of Sutherland announced that the estate would be sold.
John Broome must have noticed the parallels between Alton Towers and Trentham, and had already proven that it was possible to transform a former stately home into a leading tourist attraction. On September 30, 1981, he purchased the site for around £3 million. Improvement work started immediately, with Broome spending half a million pounds on the restoration of buildings and a replanting scheme in the gardens.
On July 15, 1982, Broome announced his grand plans for Trentham. He promised to invest £20 million over the course of two-and-a-half years, creating an “American-style development with sporting, recreation and conference facilities, including a hotel”. Broome promised that Trentham would be transformed into “Europe’s finest leisure centre”, creating more than 1,500 jobs. The estate would be developed “on the pattern of Florida’s Wet ‘n’ Wild water park, with the emphasis on sporting facilities, park and lakeside living and with a 4,000 capacity conference facility and hotel running in tandem.” The hotel alone was forecast to cost £5 million, with Broome admitting that the path to profitability might be longer than it was at Alton Towers. Still, he expected annual income to eventually reach £10 million.
Broome published his plans in a booklet entitled Project Trentham, and applied for planning permission. This was granted on November 23, 1982, paving the way for work to commence.
A major part of the revamped Trentham estate would be aquatic attractions based around the enormous, 1.5-mile-long lake. This would include rowing boats, miniature stern-wheelers, fishing and even a floating restaurant made up of several small, connected islands with a Polynesian theme. The famous lido would be refurbished, adding a wave machine and several Wet ‘n Wild-style water slides to become the “Spring Valley Wild Water Lido”. There were proposals to construct a retractable roof over the pool, capable of withstanding two feet of snow. A jacuzzi, sauna, solarium, gymnasium, bar and restaurant would round out the area.
The ballroom, too, would be rescued from its state of decay. Sitting at the heart of the 18,000-square-foot Trentham Centre, it would once again host concerts, as well as conferences and exhibitions. The surviving conservatory of the long-since-demolished Trentham Hall would host a high-end restaurant. Businesses would be able to take advantage of cutting-edge conferencing facilities, including satellite communications for international links. The conferencing centre would accommodate 1,600 conference attendees, 3,000 diners for banqueting events and audiences of 2,000 for indoor sporting events.
In the gardens, floodlights would bring the area to life in the evening. The “biggest pair of decorative fountains in the world” would jet half a million gallons of water every hour, with computers controlling the show just as in the Fantastic Fountains display at Alton Towers. Eventually, a “people moving system” would connect the different areas of the estate, but in the meantime a Towers Express-style land train would fulfil that role. Guests would be transported from an enormous new car park by tram cars to the admission booths.
The estate’s Italian-style laundry houses would be refurbished, forming part of an “Italian Village” that would host a restaurant, a bistro, a tea shop, a country life museum, craft shops, a nursery and 50 holiday apartments, all surrounding a main square. A central “piazza” would host craft workshops, a flea market, bistros, cafes, museums and galleries. The planning authorities were not happy with the “Disneyland scene” proposed for the Italian area by Broome, describing it as “inappropriate” and demanding “careful reconsideration”.
Further accommodation would be available in a 150-room hotel in Trentham Centre, with a second, 200-bedroom hotel and sports club opening during a later phase close to the lake. Guests would be able to take advantage of riding trails, horse riding facilities and floodlit tennis courts. Two golf courses were included in the plan – an 18-hole course to complement the conference centre, and a 9-hole course for day visitors and beginners.
To fund all these changes, existing houses on the land would be refurbished and sold, while new, “low-density” housing would be built in small estates. In addition to the hotel, guests would be able to rent one of 100 self-catering lodges on the west side of the lake, along with 49 holiday cottages and apartments elsewhere on the estate.
The fairground, by now almost derelict and partly overgrown with weeds, would be converted into the small-scale “Adventureland”, and would be aimed primarily at children. Broome immediately began to install new rides, including a bobsled-style roller coaster, a Ferris Wheel and a spinning polyp-style flat ride. A vintage car circuit, a carousel and donkey rides were also on offer. Future additions would include a “Mini Dragon” roller coaster, and a Wild West Adventure Playground boasting ropes, catwalks and a stockade fort. Qualified play leaders and supervisors would be on hand so that parents could leave their children while they explored the rest of the estate.
Given its location just five minutes away from the M6, Trentham was easier to reach than Alton Towers. Broome hoped that the two properties would complement each other, with the major thrill rides being located at Alton Towers, and accommodation and water attractions being on offer at Trentham. He boasted that his plans for the estate were so prestigious that they had led to him dining with Margaret Thatcher and being asked to attend a major leisure forum in the USA attended by Ronald Reagan. "Without my takeover," he said, "the situation here would have been a considerable disaster."
Unfortunately for Broome, his plans were literally undermined by the subsidence problems that had already forced the closure of the open air swimming pool. The lake had to be drained to carry out repairs, while areas of the gardens also required major work. Eventually, Broome decided to cut his losses and sold the estate to the National Coal Board for £3 million in 1984, with the NCB promising to make good the damage caused by activity at the Hem Heath Colliery. By this point, according to the Trentham Estate’s own historical timeline, the estate was “in serious decline and had lost virtually all of its dignity”.
Broome continued to run the gardens and fairground under a leaseback agreement, but invested little. The 4 Man Bob roller coaster and the Ferris Wheel were moved to Alton Towers in 1984, with the polyp ride following two years later (becoming The Spider). The trains from Trentham’s miniature railway were moved to Alton Towers in 1988 after it closed, with the Trentham Flyer eventually being employed on the Towers’ own railway. By this time Broome had sold the Trentham lease to Country Sports International and was already moving ahead with plans for a second theme park elsewhere.