diamond geezer

 Tuesday, July 21, 2015

IoW postcard: Blackgang Chine

Britain's oldest theme park sits at the southern point of the Isle of Wight, somewhat precariously, on the edge of a crumbly clay cliff. It's been here since the 1840s, when the island first became a holiday destination, and is still run by descendants of the same family. The scenic ravine which gives the area its name has long since disappeared over the edge, as have a number of the older attractions therein. But there's plenty left to enjoy on a family day out, at this low-key fantastical and delightfully quirky pleasure ground.

There can't be many theme parks where you enter between the legs of a giant fibreglass pirate. Getting any further costs the best part of twenty quid, not helped if you turn up on the first day of peak season prices, but for that you can come back any day for the next week (which if you're holidaying here is a bargain). I had two hours between buses, which required a dash around to sample the majority of the site including most of its weirder corners. [10 photos]

I last visited Blackgang Chine in the early 1970s as part of a family summer holiday, and for some reason my abiding memory is of the Crooked House and a hall of mirrors. There was no sign of the latter, but the Crooked House is still there, overlooking the clifftop close to the park entrance. You walk in expecting mechanically shaking walls and floors but oh no, Blackgang isn't like that. Instead this is an exercise in oblique carpentry, with walls and narrow passageways at non-orthogonal angles, and scenes from the rhyme "There was a crooked man" incorporated in tableaux along the way. The crooked man sleeps under a seventies brown duvet, cooks breakfast in a depressingly retro kitchen and watches the test card on his ancient TV set with an IoW-shaped aerial. Most of the children larking through in the wrong direction must have wondered what the hell the point was, but those who 'got' it might well be bringing their kids here in thirty years time.

Down a twisty track is the Smugglers Cave, a tale of derring do and shipwreck on the rocks below, and a licorice allsort cottage, and the home of the Weather Wizard who (no, sorry, I'm on a tight schedule). The Triassic Club is gobsmackingly not what you expect, spoilers, as an animatronic dino-butler ushers you through to a hungry smoking-jacketed allosaurus accompanied by an ostrich on the piano. I walked out having to pinch myself that this actually happened. Rumpus Mansion is similarly semi-mechanical, as various spirits and goblins almost run riot at the press of a button, while in the Valley of the Dodos a colony of big extinct birds gyrate to the BeeGees hit Staying Alive. And yet today's kids seemed much happier elsewhere, clambering over anything they could climb on, or running amok in Cowboy Town, a facsimile Wild West main street laid out beneath towering cliffs which may one day erase it.

It's not all old stuff. One of the latest attractions is Restricted Area 5, a lengthy boardwalk down the cliff face where scout packs can come face to face with giant moving dinosaurs, including a T-Rex that had one small visitor fleeing in terror. It's brilliantly done, including witty takes on warning signs and a section where you'll likely get wet. The park's recently bowed to modern tastes and introduced a rollercoaster called Cliffhanger, whose 35mph curves I spun round twice, but which is also portable should the land nearby ever crumble. I also braved the water slides, where you climb into a dinghy and speed down a bumpy chute, but so did several five year-olds so it's nothing to be especially proud of. But the centre-less hedge maze I had pretty much to myself, and as for Nurseryland (which brings various seminal rhymes 'to life') not one target audience visitor could be seen. Alas Old Mother Hubbard and The House That Jack Built aren't the crowdpleasers they once were, if ever.

As part of the park's unstated ambition to inform, educate and entertain, the sheds containing World of Timber are just as exciting as you might expect. Rather better is an indoor exhibit based on the BBC's Coast, in which Dick Strawbridge tells the tale of repeated local cliff falls, and invites you to stand on a shaking platform to experience the same. Nextdoor the Wight Experience offers a 15 minute cinematic overview of the island (not ideal if there are only 14 minutes left before your bus goes). But if you want to see the model village you really are too late, because that toppled over in the great collapse of 1994. Indeed there are several old paths at Blackgang Chine that have had to be fenced off because they end in slumped clay cliffs. There's a particularly good view of the collapse from the edge of the Water Gardens, an extensive gouged-out splurge of Lower Greensand with the remainder of the island's cliffs strung out behind. Best visit soon.
by bus: 6

IoW postcard: Godshill Model Village
A few miles inland, in the picture postcard village of Godshill, is the Isle of Wight's modelmaking hotspot. A minor model village exists in the gardens round the back of The Old Smithy, centred around a giant map of the island edged by a shallow blue channel. They like their giant maps in Wight, indeed I remember wandering around a similar but larger one back when I was but small. But the Smithy's is merely the aperitif, for across the lane lies the proper Godshill Model Village, and this is both main meal and dessert rolled into one. The top of the gardens is the oldest, dating back to the early Fifties, and based on the seaside streets of nearby Shanklin. From the parish church down to the shore, past a complete hotel and high street, the buildings are enlivened by the most wonderful array of characters each with a charm of their own. From punks to nuns and morris dancers to bandsmen, each has been lovingly created with a spark that'll make you smile... look, a streaker on the football pitch, and why are there dinosaurs on the train, and isn't that Santa atop the 1:10 scale wind turbine? [11 photos]

Lower down the focus switches to Godshill itself, with the model medieval church atop on a mound in front of the real thing. The owners have taken this approach to its logical extreme, and the model of Godshill village contains a model of the model village itself, within which can just be seen a model of the model village in the model village. The other thing that sets this place apart are the trees, sculpted to appropriately scaled dimensions, and at this time of year beautifully arrayed across a spectrum of vibrant greens. Nobody said the place had to be a perfect representation of anything so there are bright Montgolfier balloons hanging in several corners, just because. But it's the variety of mini-people that tips Godshill from good to great, of a quality you'd flock to in London were they displayed as "art". Both humorous and photogenic, there's so much here for the model village aficionado to adore.
by train: Shanklin, then by bus: 2, 3

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