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 sixth article, you can learn about the infamous cross-valley wooden roller coaster that John Wardley designed for the park in 2003.
Before his "retirement" (and subsequent re-hiring by Merlin), John Wardley’s last design for Tussauds was for the infamous cross-valley wooden roller coaster that generated so much ire among local residents and environmental groups. Setting aside the issues over whether or not the ride should have received planning approval after the application in March 2003, there is no doubt that it would have been an extraordinary creation and different from any other wooden coaster in the world.
The ride experience largely consisted of two enormous drops – each over 200 feet – down into the wooded valley between the then-Ug Land area (now the Dark Forest) and Forbidden Valley. The station was to be located on the site of a former quarry close to the Corkscrew. Riders would sit in trains consisting of five cars, each capable of holding up to six people.
After exiting the station, the trains would climb a 22-metre (72 feet) lift hill up the top of the tree line, before plunging down into the valley below, racing past trees on either side of the track and likely hitting speeds of well in excess of 70 miles per hour. After rising up the other side and emerging close to Air, the train would perform several turns, climb another lift hill and plummet down a second drop parallel to the first. After turning a final time, it would return to the station.
The train would have run on steel tracks, but these would be mounted a timber deck approximately three metres wide and supported by a timber structure. Alton Towers promised that the wooden structure would “fit particularly well in visual terms” with the surrounding woodland, and would make for a "stimulating and unique ride experience".
When the plans were withdrawn in the face of fierce opposition, Wardley was left disappointed. However, all hope may not be lost. In a 2010 interview, former marketing director Morwenna Angove said that a cross-valley coaster was "something that we are [still] interested in exploring".
Another false dawn
Fans of wooden roller coasters were hugely excited in October 2006, when Alton Towers announced plans to install a “woodie” in the former Coaster Corner area. This would sit at the centre of an entire new land, which would also incorporate a water ride and a flat ride. Less ambitious than John Wardley’s cross-valley design, the coaster would have been a family-oriented attraction similar in scale to Megafobia at Oakwood in Wales. Wardley was again said to be involved, but no manufacturer had been selected. The ride was described as being “medium-sized”, although it would have been much smaller than the previously-proposed wooden coaster.
The accompanying water ride would have been a Shoot-the-Chute-style ride similar to Tidal Wave at Thorpe Park, with riders boarding large boats before plunging down a drop into a splash zone below. In keeping with the marine life-themed codenames introduced during the DIC era, the plans were known as “Project Shark”.
Though the new land was being proposed for the 2008 season, no plans were ever submitted to the local council and new owner Merlin instead opened the revamped Mutiny Bay in that year.
When plans were being drawn up for the new Dark Forest area (which replaced Ug Land in 2010), designs for a wooden coaster were again considered. These would have run into the woods just as Thirteen (eventually built instead) does - but not running into the valley. Concept artwork shows near-misses with the surrounding trees.
John Wardley had not given up on his dream of adding a wooden coaster to Alton Towers. He pushed the idea one final time for the park’s 2013 coaster, saying in his autobiography: “We all knew that a traditional wooden coaster would be an absolutely perfect attraction for the park, and would thrill young and old alike.” However, Merlin’s management did not approve. CEO Nick Varney has, on several occasions, explained why he does not believe wooden coasters are a good fit for the firm’s parks. In a 2013 interview, he said: “I love wooden roller coasters as much as you do! The problem is that the general public doesn’t ‘get’ what is so special about them and they therefore don’t represent good investments because historically parks will not achieve the visitor uplift required to pay for them. It is, I agree, very frustrating.” Wardley views it as a chicken-and-egg situation: “I was convinced that once the guests had ridden such a ride they would love it and be very enthusiastic.”
Will the cross-valley coaster plans be revived?
Fans were given new hope when operator Merlin updated its long-term development for Alton Towers plan in 2012, which proposes two major new attractions for 2016 and 2019. Intriguingly, one of these is a "Cross Valley Ride", which is described as a roller coaster that would link the Forbidden Valley and Dark Forest areas, passing through the woodlands near the famous gardens – just as John Wardley’s wooden coaster would have done. Its circuit would hug the floor of the valley, using its contours to create speed. Gaining planning permission for such a ride is likely to be a major obstacle, but Alton Towers hopes that by preserving the gardens' existing trees it would be able to create a stunning attraction with minimal impact.
The mention of the "Cross Valley Ride" - a long-standing dream of many Alton Towers fans - will also set some pulses racing. Can the park really pull it off, and create a high-speed link between Forbidden Valley and the Dark Forest? Only time will tell. John Wardley is clear on his hopes for the park, however. Asked what he would most like to see added to the park over the coming years, his response was emphatic: “A woodie!!!”