Coaster Kingdom

Hex, Alton Towers
Saturday, February 24, 2007

This article contains spoilers. If you read on, please be aware that surprises or secrets may be revealed in great depth

This all started in 1821 on an old carriage road approaching the then residence of the Earl of Shrewsbury, the Towers, which then was one of the largest stately homes in the whole country.

A haggard old beggar approached the Earl and his horse drawn carriage. She asked the Earl for some change; tired and eager for slumber the Earl snubbed this woman, and ordered the carriage to continue. Insulted, the vagrant in a blind rage warned that from that day, for every branch that fell from the old oak, so too would a member of his family.

The same night, lightening struck one of the oak's prominent branches, and true to the curse, a member of the Earl's family died. The felled branch was hastily taken and locked tight inside a hidden vault, upon which the Earl experimented on its so-called powers that it possessed. It is on this fable that Alton's newest ride would be based.

Despite Alton Towers boasting more cutting edge technology than a top of the range Mercedes Benz, lest we forget the heart of the park, both the Towers and the Gardens. Although the Gardens have been looked after meticulously since year dot, the same can't be said about the Towers, which fell into a state of disrepair following a family feud.

Since then, the empty shell of a building has been free for visitors to roam, yet served no real purpose as although it afforded you good views of the park, it came nowhere near explaining the rich history behind the Towers themselves.

The Towers Gift Shop was the closest to inhabitancy that the Towers could offer. It had a roof, intact windows and even doors. So, it was here that the ride would start, in the room that was formerly occupied by the Armoury.

The ride has a pretty unassuming entrance. You climb a few steps up between two statues of the Talbot hounds that the Towers are famous for. You go through two 30ft doors and into the former armoury.

The queue here slaloms off into the distance of this dark, candlelit room. As it does, it weaves between recovered artefacts, furniture and paintings discovered by historians working on the restoration of the Towers. Covered in dustsheets protecting them from the heedlessness of builders, each is carefully labelled with a code and details telling the significance of this piece of history.

Above, upon stone plinths set into the walls, suits of armour and statues of past Earls stand again covered in sheets. Supported by scaffolding, televisions around the queue have details on the significance of the legend, and how it relates to the ride. Not presented by actors but by historians and employees, all who have a story to tell and can impart their knowledge to previously oblivious guests.

As you weave through the armoury you approach a delicatessen-style counter. From 78, it counts down the amount of riders as they pass through a turnstile. Once you pass through this, in front, scaffolding arches over two oak double doors, sheets and blankets draping over the sides. On the walls, more paintings covered in sheets.

The legend here is briefly set out. Historians working on restoring the Towers got way more than they were bargaining for, something we would soon be experiencing first hand. This is explained under the shadow of a painting of the 15th Earl of Shewsbury standing proud with the Talbot hounds at his feet.

The doors then swing open, and you are to shuffle further into the armoury, which is dimly lit from above by flickering lights. In front, like the room before, scaffolding bridges the doors in front, and this time supports a large projection screen.

As the lights dim, and the doors behind shut, the screen fades into life showing a vivid dramatisation of the legend behind the ill-fated 15th Earl and his cursed family. It is long, but holds your attention well, and after several rides still proves to be an interesting watch. This is an improvement to the previous version that ran up until the summer months of the ride's first year. This had one of the historians behind the restoration up on the roof of the Towers hugging ramparts in the effort to look like an eccentric archaeologist as opposed to a bad actor. Needless to say, he didn't, and it's good to see the park acknowledged this.

As the film ends, the doors open and people move on into the newly restored and highly impressive octagon. Unsurprisingly, it's octagonal, and reaching up the centre is a stone pillar. Around the sides, television screens burst into life with more on the restoration and the discovery of a hidden passage previously hidden by a bookcase. The film jumps and cuts out. The lights dimly pulse in time to a heartbeat. A flash of lightening attracts your attention aloft before the voice of the old beggar attracts your attention to another covered statue, presumably of her, as her ghost appears in the window.

By this time, it is time to walk up some steps under a raised curtain, past the bookshelf that was hiding the hidden passage, before turning to the left along the darkened passageway. Work lights hang from rotting beams as you are taken through this underground corridor, sods of earth dangle down and the air is musty and malodorous.

Approaching two pairs of doors, they swing open as you walk past the Talbot family crest and into the overwhelming vault, supposedly hidden for centuries. In the manner of every other haunted swing, four rows of seats line the room, two on each side facing the centre. That, however, is where similarities end.

As people filter into the room, the air is murky and pungent as the dim lights above sharply flicker. Above you, an arched ceiling in a state of disrepair. Plaster is fraying and the paintwork is wearing. Chained tightly down in the centre upon a wooden lattice, the mythical branch, twinkling in the muted luminosity.

You raise your arms as the lap-bars come tightly down, and the two operators leave the gloomy room, the doors sliding shut behind them, both showing an image of the Talbot hound rearing on it's rear legs.

Your attention is immediately drawn to the mythical and whimsical piece of apparatus at the far end of the room. Fronted by dials and scientific typescript, pipes and beacons flash in a thunderstorm of lighting effects; it's deep whirring swelling into a loud hum, lights flow into the branch from wires and pipes from the machinery, and as this contraption flashes with vivacity, both the room and gondola move in time.

A few perplexed looks are exchanged as people either slump backwards or lean forwards as the room and gondola are pulled to an angle. With nothing moving in the room, confounded looks soon change to an air of anxiety as the music swells, the far-end gadgetry allays and the gondola pulls away from the room and slowly begins to swing in time to the music.

It is obvious at this point that people have been tricked into thinking it is them moving. They are, but only by a small margin. The room too is moving, and therefore tricking the mind into thinking that you are rocking far more than you actually are. There is nothing to fix your eyes on, and even to the accustomed rider gauging by how far you're moving is a challenge.

As the music overwhelms, the room astounds. The attention to detail is inconceivable and beggars belief. The brick walls are dark and inconspicuous. Upon them, the shelves in various states of disorder are home to the Earl's books on science and the supernatural, jars of curious potions, propping the books at one end is even a not-so-neatly manicured bonsai.

Hung up in one corner, a crown and robe, dustsheets cover boxes and storage at the opposite end, candles sat upon the shelves providing little light in the form of a small, flickering flame.

As the gondola's swings increase, more detail is revealed. Underneath the gondola stone steps are covered in a knotted mass of roots, curling over every step and into every crevice. Deep inside this accumulation, two dark orange slits are lit up in an ominous fashion, almost leading you to see a face inside this wooden form.

The music erupts into an epic climax as the room hastily orbits around the bewildered gondola of riders, and with this show of effects, sound and light, many scream or applaud. Even cocky teenagers who spend the pre-shows mocking something that is clearly high-and-over their levels of intelligence are silenced.

The room slows, the lights darken and as the orange eyes of the knotted roots glow, a blizzard of violet strobes from the wooden mass in the now-inverted room light the inky blackness with incredible drama. As the grand orchestral score comes to an end, the branch in the centre of the gondola bursts into life, sparkling and twinkling with a beautiful ferocity before the lights above flicker back into life and the doors open.

The walk to the exit is a long one. You go through Her Ladyship's Gardens via the restored conservatory. Many are surprised merely by the nature of a ride. Many enter with the expectations of a historical dark ride. Upon experiencing the first pre-shows, many perhaps even doubt the existence of a ride at all.

Its popularity certainly arises from riders' ignorance. Nobody expects the finale to be quite so spectacular, and even when sat in the seat ready to go, the air of anticipation is almost as amazing as the ride itself.

And for you haunted swing veterans, this is no less of an experience. Villa Volta, often considered the best of its kind now has a serious rival. The d├ęcor in Hex is enough to make Villa Volta look bare. It isn't just the decor either; the lighting and special effects are just awe-inspiring. The smoke rising from the centre, the branch twinkling with life, the gadgetry at the end of the room, everything is so perfect and the little touches such as the books and candles on the shelves are often forgotten on other similar rides.

The music too is prominent and very tuneful. Although it hasn't got the 'hum factor' of Villa Volta, it, along with the special effects is more than enough to make the hairs on your neck stand on end.

For a few painful months, the pre-show was patronising and making the legend behind of the cursed Earl a mockery and appear to be a fictional farce. A historian explained the legend, before you moved on into the octagon for a three-minute storm of strobes. Since then, a far more moving dramatisation has replaced the first show meaning that you actually learn about the legend that you are soon to experience, first hand.

And as for the latter, soon after opening it improved by adding the statue and ghost of the beggar, bringing in the televisions and decreasing the level of light. Almost every visit, this pre-show differs in some way, something which perturbs me somewhat. It is best experienced in the dark and eerie atmosphere that ended the season last year. Effects like the generator, the witch and the ghost play an important part in the legend, and on the sporadic occasions where there has been too much light, these effects go unnoticed making this particular pre-show rather redundant.

In all its glory, allow yourself to succumb to the superb aura and experience Hex offers. It is hard to improve upon and is an incredible example of well-choreographed special effects.

Please, do not use our ratings to compare rides head-to-head. They rate only how well this ride meets its own objectives using criteria that may not necessarily be relevant with similar reviews.

Good points:

  • The Towers are a perfect setting for this tastefully themed dark ride
  • A great sense of mystery maintained throughout the ride with the audience unaware of what awaits
  • Quite an intellectual ride that doesn't rely on cheap thrills
  • A high capacity ride with an entertaining queueline

Bad points:

  • Pre-shows may begin to grate after a few re-rides, and an anti-social audience can ruin your enjoyment
  • Some miss the point

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