Country house with a theme park attached

Alton Towers, Staffordshire (1977)

Alton Towers, Staffordshire (1977)

Individual adult visitors to the Alton Towers theme-park currently pay around £50 (unless they book online) for a thrilling day out:  http://www.altontowers.com/tickets/#Booking_for_a_visit_today_or_tomorrow.

It’s a pity that there isn’t a way of enjoying the place for its own sake at any reasonable price.

Alton Towers was one of the greatest of all British country estates.  The gardens were developed on an unpromising valley site by Charles, 15th Earl of Shrewsbury (1753-1827), who adapted a lodge into an increasingly grand residence which he spuriously named Alton Abbey.

The writer Christopher Hussey described it as “…the last achievement in England, and on the grand scale, of the Georgian passion for creating private elysiums, which produced Stowe, Stourhead and their derivative landscape parks in the eighteenth century.”

His nephew and heir, John, 16th Earl (1791-1852) carried on his work, and after a fire at his main house at Heythrop, Oxfordshire, he relocated to Alton after 1831.  He was a champion of the Catholic Revival, and the principal patron of the architect Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, who contributed, among much else, the Banqueting Hall and Chapel of the vast house.

His heir Bertram, 17th Earl (1832-1856) was his second cousin once removed.  After his early death the title was disputed between Bertram’s designated Catholic heir and a Protestant descendant of the Jacobean 7th Earl.

As a result the entire contents of the house were sold in a forty-day auction.  When the Protestant Henry, 18th Earl (1803-1868) took possession, a quarter-mile-long procession of tenants and yeomanry welcomed his train at Uttoxeter station.  The incident figures in Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Lothair (1870).

The eighteenth Earl refurnished the house, but it was never as splendid again.  Henry’s grandson, Charles, 20th Earl (1860-1921), caused a great scandal by running off with Ellen Miller-Mundy, the wife of a Derbyshire coal-owner, in 1881.

They eventually separated, and she lived at Alton Towers, which he neglected in the hope of driving her away.

This, rather than wartime neglect, started the physical decline of the building, which was sold with the estate in 1924.

Between the wars it was a highly successful and entirely decorous entertainment centre.  The Coronation Street actor William Roache discovered that his enterprising grandmother, Zillah Waddicor, ran the catering operation there, providing lunches for up to a thousand covers at once:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01n2thm.

From 1973 onwards John Broome, son-in-law of the majority shareholder Denis Bagshaw, began to develop the spare land away from the house and garden as an adventure theme park, which was taken over by the Tussauds Group in 1990.

As a business it’s clearly never looked back, and provides entertainment to millions.  But it’s a pity you can’t spend a day exploring the house-ruins and the gardens for less than a year’s subscription to the National Trust.

The Pugin and the Gothic Revival (September 18th-22nd 2019) tour includes a visit to Alton Towers.  For details please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

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