I have never been to Alton Towers before and I probably never will. For a start, it’s a five hour drive from home. For another thing, I don’t do rides.
We arrived at about 4.30pm on Saturday, which sounds a bit late to arrive at Alton Towers from the other end of the country but this wasn’t just any old trip to Alton Towers. This was the Senior Section Spectacular, a big party to celebrate the Senior Section’s 100th birthday, as organised by Girlguiding South West England. And when we arrived at 4.30, we were actually an hour early. The general public were still milling around the park and none of the staff knew where we were meant to be.
We hauled our luggage down to the Hospitality Suite, only to be told we needed to register at a tent near the main entrance, which turned out to be tucked away in a corner of a car park signposted as for staff only, which turned out to be where I was supposed to have parked my car – naturally, I was at the furthest end of the furthest car park, but that ate up ten to twenty minutes of that hour, fetching it and parking it where it was supposed to be. When that was done, we sat outside the Hospitality Suite, waiting to be told when we would be allowed to put up our tent.
We finally realised we’d got left behind at about 5.40 when we realised other Senior Section were already getting their tent up. The campsite was on the patch of grass at the end of Towers Street, outside the Spinball Whizzer, with views across the lake and the Towers. It was a smaller campsite than I thought and it looked like there weren’t very many of us. I’d never been to Alton Towers before and I was very much not what I was expecting – it looked pretty small and very green and there was no sign whatsoever of the assorted iconic rollercoasters and plenty of signs that it was once the private grounds of a manor house.
I kept an eye on neckerchiefs – a lot of them were wearing them and it made our Ranger ones look a bit staid and boring. A few years ago, my girls opted for navy blue with a light blue border and they look lovely – until you see them next to a neckerchief with purple, turquoise and yellow borders. Our Guide ones are a bit more striking – turquoise with pale pink and hyacinth blue borders, but we were there as Senior Section so we wore the Ranger ones.
Our dinner was at 6, so it was quite the rush. We hauled the luggage out to the lawn and by six, we’d got the outer of the tent up and the inner and the luggage thrown inside to keep it safe and dry while we had dinner. I feel horribly uncomfortably aware of how slow that sounds, considering it’s only a two-person tent but it has three poles, six guylines, at least sixteen pegs and only one mallet.
After dinner, we got the inner up, made the beds, pulled out our swimming stuff and made ourselves comfortable in our little home. It’s been a very long time since I’ve shared a tent with anyone and I found two people in a two-person tent is not terribly comfortable. I’m definitely a one-tent-one-person kind of person.
Off we went to the waterpark. I liked that bit. We had exclusive use of it, since it had closed to the public at least two hours earlier. I hadn’t realised how many of us there were – the queue for the Master Blaster was so long I gave up on it – turns out Rush ‘n’ Rampage are quite enough for me. I enjoyed the Lazy River but I particularly enjoyed Volcano Springs – by the end of the evening, I couldn’t wade through the Lagoona to get back to the changing rooms. Not wouldn’t, couldn’t. It was too cold, so cold that my body locked up and I couldn’t breathe properly. If I fell overboard from a ship into an actual sea, I would die of cold shock in seconds. I really don’t like cold water. Luckily, there was a dry way down, as evidenced by Helen Welsh, who was taking photos of us in the tub. I ended up on her Twitter.
There were far too many of us for the changing rooms to cope with, or at least, too many of us to cope with all getting out at once. I got lucky – I started to get changed under my towel right there among the lockers when a cubicle right in front of me opened, so I dived in. I had no intention of getting dry enough to get back into full uniform – I have a navy blue striped beach dress and I put that on. Outside, it was chilly enough to add my polo shirt and when we got back to Alton Towers, it was pouring with heavy rain, so I added my new softshell jacket, which for all its sins in fit, is definitely showerproof. But there I was in a little tiny skirt and sandals in this heavy rain and we were sent to the Hospitality Suite for supper, where we sat on the floor.
As we got on the bus to go back to the park, a girl in a Senior Section polo shirt came and sat in the seat in front of me. A girl I kind of recognised. I leaned forward. “Are you Eva?”
Yes, this tall Young Leader was a child I had last seen as one of my Brownies. She’s now fourteen and a Young Leader with a Brownie pack herself and had come up as part of the county group – basically, without a leader but with a leader keeping an eye on a motley collection of leaderless girls. I used to work with her mum – indeed, I used to run her Brownie pack with her mum, so I immediately went on Facebook to tell her I’d met her daughter, only to find that she’d messaged me hours earlier when I’d put an update on there to say I was at Alton Towers, telling me to look out for Eva.
Supper was very thick hot chocolate, soup, bread rolls, weird circular chewy tortilla crisps and as much weird squash as we wanted.
The rain had let up in time to go back to our tents but it rained in the night. Katie, my Ranger/other Guide leader, is not a very experienced camper. Her hoodie and coat were both wet, so she spread them out in the porch to dry and of course, the porch dripped and the hoodie was drenched by morning, as was the inside of the raincoat. I’d hung up a washing line to dry our swimming stuff and the outer of my jacket and that was clearly out of the way of the drip but everything else was safely put away in my bag, which is a very heavy and very unwieldy but pretty waterproof Mountain Equipment Wet & Dry bag. At 70 litres, it’s far too big for a weekend trip and pretty heavy, but it swallowed everything, including all my bedding, my boots, my blanket and all the assorted extras and kept it all dry overnight. We were in bed by 11.30 and at about midnight, the Spinball Whizzer suddenly decided it was time to play its music at the top of its voice. That music is kind of cute during the day, no matter how many times you hear it but in an empty theme park at midnight, it’s a bit eerie, not to mention annoying. I thought about yelling out of the tent door “Will you please shut that thing up!” but the Youth Days Out team was camping with us, they were closed to the thing than we were and since they work there, they were probably working on shutting it up already. There seemed no point in being hostile so I stayed quiet. If the weekend had a soundtrack, this is it.
The morning was hectic. Breakfast was at 7.30 and the tents needed to be down by 8.30. Not just down, everything had to be done. There had to be no sign that 500-odd Senior Section had camped in the middle of the park. By 6.30 I was already awake and worrying about how much needed to be done and when I heard voices of other girls moving around outside, I decided it was time to get up. You should have seen Alton Towers at that time in the morning. Deserted, but for damp-looking teenagers with bleary eyes and hair that looked like they’d gone to bed with it wet in a tent. All the toilets were crammed with Senior Section trying to forcibly brush their hair and put it in French plaits.
When I was dressed and re-plaited and washed, I went back to my tent. Katie had been a little bit awake when I left and now she was entirely awake, fully-dressed but refusing to get out of her sleeping bag because it was too cold. Katie is not a morning person and she’s definitely not a morning-in-a-tent person. I’d been out and about outside and it wasn’t cold at all. It was a delightful day, considering the hour. I packed up my stuff while Katie lay in her bed, complaining about the cold and her wet clothes and I tried to ignore her socks, wet and loose around my tent. I’ve been known to be untidy in a tent but things usually stay at least in the vicinity of my bag and I definitely don’t let socks roam.
Breakfast was tense. It was sausages in a bap (I don’t eat sausages and was hoping for some cereal) but worse, the coffee machine wasn’t working properly. It hadn’t been working at all on Saturday night and the Youth Fun Days team had replaced it overnight but the new one wasn’t working either and there were some leaders for whom this was a dealbreaker. Someone behind us was snapping at their girls who felt the breakfast was alright – “it is not alright and I will be writing to them!” – but Katie and I don’t really drink tea or coffee and I’d brought plenty of supplies so we topped up our water bottles and when we had eaten enough, we went to get the tent down.
The water bottles – I must mention them! We were told that an event water bottle was included in the price and to judge by the aesthetic on the booking and information forms, I was expecting a mint-green plastic bottle with a sport lid. What we got was an orange collapsible bottle with the octopus logo on it. I love those kind of bottles! Everywhere we went, we saw girls in aqua or grey or navy uniforms (the occasional unit casual hoodie) or the aqua event polo shirts, all with these orange bag-bottles swinging from their backs. If I’d been a casual visitor on Sunday, I’d definitely have been enquiring where these orange bottles came from. The Youth Fun Days team provided jugs of water and squash, so we could all fill our bottles before we went out for the day, which worked out nicely.
We got the tent down in record time although it had to be put away wet. I hate putting wet tents away but we didn’t have much choice. We had a deadline. The tent went away and we went and sat in the Hospitality Suite for twenty minutes until it was time for the speech and the group photo.
There were far too many of us to get us all in one photo but we did our best.
Katie and I got ourselves to the front, only to find that everyone else squished in front of us. We’re somewhere near the back, towards the right. When the photos were done – and I’m still on the lookout for higher quality versions – the Youth Fun Days team offered us badges and we stampeded them. We already had an octopus-logo SWE badge for the event but now we were offered triangular I Camped at Alton Towers ones as well and badges are candy to Guides of all ages.
And finally, nearly 2000 words in, we were into Alton Towers.
We had Early Ride Time on CBeebies Land, Oblivion and Enterprise. But Katie and I are not fans of rides – who knows why we came in the first place? – so off we toddled to CBeebies Land, where we started with the Octonauts Rollercoaster, which was quite enough rollercoaster to start the day with as far as I was concerned. Then the Get Set Go Treetop Adventure, then Postman Pat Parcel Post (where we had to sit in the back of the van because we were too old to sit in the front!), Nina’s Science Lab and then the In the Night Garden Magical Boat Ride. The ride itself was pleasant but I cannot be doing with all the nonsense words and sounds. This is why children start school so utterly illiterate these days – what happened to entertaining but educational TV for small children, like Rosie & Jim? For crying out loud, at least Rosie and Jim are real words!
Katie was still complaining about being cold at this point but she declined going to get some hot chocolate to warm up in favour of looking at – only looking at! – the Smiler and I had no other plans so I went along with it. Oh, wow, the Smiler is quite a piece of engineering! I was hugely impressed with the Smiler, with the million and one loops, the speed and the theme. Here was an Orwellian nightmare brought to life and I came home with the burning desire to read the novel. Which doesn’t exist, and I’m not the person to write it. I was almost as impressed with Oblivion. The way it hovers for a second above that drop and then just plummets in a cloud of steam into a hole in the ground – just watching it made me feel weird.
I might have coped with Rita- that thing seemed to be speed rather than terrfying drops and turns but Katie wasn’t having it and I wasn’t going to queue for that long. Th13teen was out of the question too – not least because we couldn’t find it! – and so our first ride not designed for three-year-olds was the Skyride, which we took across to the Forbidden Valley. Katie wanted to go on the Blade. I was less keen but I went along with it. It’s just a swinging pirate boat, it’s fine.
It’s not fine. I was fine with the going down bit but I did not enjoy being lifted up and looking straight down and I enjoyed even less when it let go and I fell. No, not a fan of the Blade. We looked at Nemesis and Galactica and decided it was lunchtime.
Lunch was consumed in the new Rollercoaster Restaurant. I enjoyed that! The food came in little saucepans strapped to robots that whizzed down rollercoaster tracks to the tables! You’re given an iPad when you come in and you order your food from there, so the only work the waiters have to do is show you how the iPad works and collect the dishes afterwards. The tables are little half-circles around a central rollercoaster, about three tables to a table, as it were and the food comes with a little tag to tell you which seat it’s for. Being a Difficult Eater, I opted for the kids’ chocolate brownie with mint ice cream and I was very pleased with the way it whizzed down to me. There were bowls and plates and cutlery and sauces and so on available under the landing platform but it seemed messier to transfer it to a bowl than it was to just eat it straight from the saucepan. Katie had a rollercoaster burger which came in two saucepans – and was transferred to a plate – and a drink, which came attached to the robot by a little neoprene hat. I noticed that for a couple of tables, the food went up in a lift, down a very steep bit of track to gather speed and then looped twice around a barrel roll before making its way down to the table. Very impressed. Total gimmick and it would otherwise be a pretty depressing and institutional cafeteria but the rollercoasters were awesome!
Next was another Skyride to Mutiny Bay and we walked back up to Katanga Canyon via the Gloomy Wood. Yes, the map says we really did that the wrong way round. Finally we went on the first ride of the day that I actually enjoyed – the Congo River Rapids.
The queue was ok, we were put in a boat with a family from Liverpool and off we went. I had the sense to take off my Senior Section Spectacular hoodie and put on my raincoat instead and yes, I did get pretty well splashed on the way round but oh, I liked that one! Splashing and bobbing and spinning and giggling and that kind of fright when you see churning water ahead and the delight when you get spun out of the way of the splash and someone else gets wet. I went for the official photo for that one, and was persuaded that I should buy the three token deal and get photos on two other rides.
So next up was the Runaway Mine Train, which I enjoyed as well. It had one turn that I think was a bit too sharp, it hurt my side but the rest was fun! If there wasn’t a half-hour queue, I’d have gone back and done that one again. A token handed in and another photo.
And to use my last token, we went on Duel. I liked that one. A ghost train and a shooter in one! But Katie didn’t like it. “I didn’t like that one. I didn’t like that one at all…. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like that one.” Katie doesn’t like things jumping out at her. I’m not a big fan but I was expecting it. It’s a ghost train and you’re equipped with a laser gun. A last token handed in and a third picture given.
We were planning to go on the Battle Galleons but it seemed you got really really wet on those. We tried out shooting the galleons from the side but I forgot they can shoot back, so after one squirt, I ran away.
We went on Heave Ho!, a spinning pirate ship for smaller children and Marauder’s Mayhem, a pirate-themed teacup ride, where Katie wanted to spin the barrels like crazy and I concentrated on the fact that I was merely zooming around the centre in a sequence of straight lines, drawing triangles across the ride rather than interlocking circles. And then it was about time to go in the shop, buy the Galactica t-shirt I’d been craving ever since we popped in to kill some time on Saturday afternoon, even though I hadn’t been on it and had never intended to, and then sit on the floor of the Hospitality Suite until we’d regathered enough strength to collect our luggage and limp all the way back to the car.
I wanted to go on the Monorail but there was a twenty-five minute queue, it was already past 4pm and we had a five hour drive home to come so we skipped that.
I will not be going back in the forseeable future but I enjoyed my visit, even if I didn’t go on anything scary and I enjoyed representing my entire District at a big event. We don’t go to enough big events. My big regret was that we weren’t actually ever given any tickets of any kind so there’s nothing to go in my Centenary scrapbook except the map and my receipts.