Saturday, 19 May 2012

The World's First Theme Park.

A day trip down to the Isle of Wight to help Eleanor with a research trip to Blackgang Chine, which claims itself to be the world's first theme park. It was originally opened by an enterprising publican in 1842 to exhibit the bones of a whale washed up on the shore up coast at the Needles. The Victorians were fascinated by these creatures of the deep and flocked in their hundreds down to the chine to take a look. For them the Island was already seen as a little escapist Eden, and, the pleasure gardens must have represented a core within a core.

The bleached skeleton of the whale is still in situ, cramped in a tiny exhibition hall and ignored by most visitors who make their way to the water slides, mini roller coaster and simulated frontier town at the foot of the canyon. Coastal erosion is slowly destroying the site and the crumbling paint flaked exhibits, giant dinosaurs, fairy tale characters and fibre glass smugglers are periodically moved up the cliffs in a bid to extend the park's life.

It's a truly nostalgic place, not just because I had some very happy childhood holidays here, but because, a little like the rest of the island, it seems stuck in a more innocent time. Blackgang Chine has ignored developments in CGI or 3D reality, preferring instead to provide its thrills with the whistling pistons and clunky shakes of early animatronics and poorly made models. The rides have little or no narrative attached and there is little in the way of spectacle or visceral excitement. Still, until the land finally falls away, there's enough room to imagine yourself a caveman, cowboy or fairy princess.

We went briefly onto the donkey sanctuary at Wroxall and then went for a walk along the beach at Bonchurch, underneath the house where Charles Dickens spent a season and would be bad boy poet Swinburne spent his childhood, fixated by the sea, before catching the evening ferry back to the mainland and the twenty first century.

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