Attractions industry news

28 Mar 2018

From Queen Victoria to Ron Weasley: 175 years of Blackgang Chine

Not many visitor attractions can say they’ve operated through and survived two World Wars and had Queen Victoria come to visit, but the Isle of Wight’s Blackgang Chine can.

Overlooking the English Channel, the family-run attraction was founded in 1843 and is the UK’s oldest theme park. Named after a now-destroyed chine (a coastal ravine) on the southernmost point of the island, the park was founded in the Victorian era when the concept of tourism was only just starting to find its feet. The park started life as a scenic overlook, with its signature attraction a large whale skeleton, which had been washed up on a nearby beach just a year before.

“My great great grandfather, Alex Dabell, started Blackgang,” said the park’s current chief executive, also called Alex Dabell.

“Ten years after we opened, just before the start of the Crimean War, Queen Victoria came to visit. With the Queen visiting the island regularly, the Isle of Wight was suddenly at the heart of the British Empire. That had a huge effect on increasing the popularity of the island and it cemented what we were doing.”

Not only is the park the oldest in the UK, but it’s among the oldest in the world; only topped in age by Bakken, located in Klampenborg, north of Copenhagen, which opened in 1583; and then Wurstelprater amusement park in Vienna, Austria, which opened in 1766. According to Dabell however, both the Danish and Austrian attractions ceased operation at certain points during the existence. Through thick and thin, Blackgang has remained open, making it the world’s longest continually-operating theme park.

“My grandmother used to tell me a story about the Second World War. The Luftwaffe came over and were doing a lot of bombing,” he said.

“They came to bomb the radar sites nearby in Ventnor. They flew right over Blackgang and she would tell my father ‘get down and pretend to be a cow pat’ – as you do.

“We had the Home Guard in the area because it’s a good lookout point. In truth, we’re closer to Waterloo than we are to World War One. The Crimean War affected us too. Behind Blackgang there’s a big feature called the Russian Column. On one side we commemorate the visit of the Russian Tzar on his visit to see his cousin Queen Victoria and on the other we commemorate all the British soldiers killed by the Russians during that conflict. There’s history all around us.”

As the years have gone on, Blackgang has evolved, metamorphosing into the family-friendly theme park you see today. It has drawn visitors from across the world, with actor Rupert Grint among them, the Harry Potter star calling the attraction his “holiday heaven”.

Through the years, the park has been offered little choice but to grow and adapt. While its business foundations might be solid, its physical ones have proved not to be, with constant landslides seeing the park forced to retreat inland over the last two centuries.

“I’ve had a couple of stints at the park,” said Dabell, who also spent time working at the European Space Agency, sending astronauts to the International Space Station.

“Part of my decision to leave in the first place was prompted by the 200-year-old cottage I’d moved into just a fortnight before falling down, with me inside it. Mother nature gave me a strong push out the front door, you could say.”

Because of coastal erosion, the cliff the park sits on is retreating at a rate of around 3.5m (11.5ft) each year. The process isn’t gradual, with smaller movements happening fairly regularly and larger slides following heavy rain, with the three largest cliff falls happening in 1928, 1961 and 1994.

“It is a challenge,” said Dabell. “My great great grandfather may have had a nice idea but he wasn’t particularly knowledgeable on picking his site. The flip side is I wouldn’t have Blackgang anywhere else. The Back of the Wight is the most wonderful place. We have land movement and we have to move things around, but we deal with it. We’re aware of it. It makes change necessary. How much would we have changed had it not been for that? Necessity is the mother of invention – we have to keep reinventing ourselves and that is a healthy thing. We could sit back and grumble but we make the best of it and use it as a strength rather than a weakness.”

Landslides aside, the park this year reaches its 175th year in operation. According to Dabell, the reason Blackgang has endured so long is because of its mission to create memories crossing multiple generations.

“One of the stories we like to tell is from when we had our dinosaurs that were originally installed in the 1970s,” said Dabell. “There came a time when they were getting a little bit past their sell by date and were needing to go extinct, so to speak. I wanted to keep elements of what was there. We removed some of the tired-looking ones but kept one or two of the old favourites, adding in some animatronic dinosaurs. One of the crane drivers that was helping us put them into place told us that he would come to Blackgang in the 70s as a child. He added that he couldn’t wait to bring his grandson to show him the next generation of dinosaurs. That sums it all up. He was going to relive his childhood with his grandson.

“Our secret is everybody’s secret. We create those memories.That’s what we do.”

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