Coaster Kingdom

Corkscrew (Alton Towers)

I remember once, a few of my despairing colleagues at work watched as I crawled under my desk to rescue a stray biro that had rolled off the edge. Predictably, I was subject to much ridicule as I thumped my tender noggin on the underside of the desk before attempting to regain my dignity by clambering back onto my feet.

Having sustained a fairly hefty whack to the head, the whole saga reminded me of a similarly painful ride on the Corkscrew at Alton Towers. In fact, my immediate comparisons between me hitting my head on a desk and a roller coaster left me favouring the former, not the latter, which for someone who has a certain penchant for roller coasters is a worry.

Now, dear reader, I’m not suggesting that you embark on a tireless regime of self-harm instead of visiting Alton Towers, but I hope you appreciate that to retrieve my biro, hitting my head in the process, I did not have to queue, nor did I have to sustain more than one thump to my gentle cranium. Furthermore, I got a biro out of my escapades, and my colleagues enjoyed watching me hit my head, a pastime they cannot partake in with such intimacy at Alton Towers.

Now, before I embark on a fairly thorough condemnation of the Corkscrew, I’ll admit that the Corkscrew is, in loose terms, historical. In fact, in 1980 when the Corkscrew first opened it was only the second looping coaster to open in the country (Blackpool’s Revolution taking the honour), and the first to summersault riders twice. It’s fair to say the commotion surrounding the rusty relic two decades ago belittled even the hype preceding Nemesis and Oblivion.

If Blackpool’s historic roller coasters were a well-matured vintage wine, The Corkscrew is milk that went sour ten years ago. The Corkscrew only offers sentimentality, where-as Blackpool’s historic rides are not only steeped in history, but decades on are still amongst the best coasters in the country.

Considering the vintage of the Corkscrew, it has had a remarkably serene history. In 1996, the sharp red white and blue trains were replaced by curvier red rolling stock – imagine a VW Beetle without a roof and you have the idea.

The only other significant change – if you want to call it that, is Ug Land, which is two boulders short of a lawsuit from Fred Flintstone. Alton Towers used just as many Flintstones clichés that they could just about get away with for their stone age fairground, and touted The Corkscrew as giving you the opportunity to “find yourself racing dinosaurs and escaping from Ug Beasts on the Corkscrew, which takes you through rocky swamps”.

How we rejoiced at the prospect that the Corkscrew would be given a new lease of life by some TLC from Alton Towers. Unfortunately, the Ug Swamps date back to the John Broome period (many millions of years after the Triassic period), consisting principally of a sea of weed-infested gravel and a small shrub (or large weed). The dinosaurs and Ug Beasts never made it to fruition and the only noticeable changes were eight rib bones around the track running into the station, newly painted trains and a dinosaur head somewhere around the entrance.

The Corkscrew on its own is not to my knowledge the recipient of any awards commending its looks. The track is mostly a pale yellow stained with rust, with the lifthill and first drop painted dark green to hide it from outside the park.

Layout wise, the famous double corkscrew is towards the centre of the ride, with the circumference of the coaster surrounded by the long brake run, transfer track and brakes outside the station which is a canopied structure towards at the back of the ride.

The queue line follows the brake run around to the station, affording budding shutter bugs timeless views of the rusty track and grubby train undercarriage as they slowly roll along the safety brakes into the station.

If Vekoma was a religion, the Corkscrew’s station is hardly a cathedral built in its honour consisting of a covered platform and mucky marquee-style roof. Unsurprisingly, there is no fanfare as the train enters the station. The train is a fairly standard maroon fibreglass affair, with riders sat low down in the four-person cars, the train carrying a total of 24 hapless riders.

Corkscrew’s restraints are as basic as they come, consisting only of a black overhead restraint. It’s interesting to note that Vekoma’s restraints keep bum on seat by applying pressure to your shoulders, as opposed to on Nemesis where you’re restrained by your lap with the rest of the restraint serving as upper-body support. This means that taller riders will have the restraint resting on their shoulders from the moment they pull it down.

You’ll be getting very intimate with the restraints a bit later on, whether you’d like to or not, but for all their sins, the restraints are fairly adequate. They’re simple to use, are accommodating for most dimensions of rider, and provide less to bang your head on than restraints like those found on B&M coasters.

The train is chain driven straight from the station onto the lift hill as the whiney lift motor wakes up and pulls the train up the incline to a height of 68ft. The lift hill, along with the end of the ride, is one of the coasters’ highlights. Aside the obvious reason that it is one of the rare moments where your head isn’t ricocheting between the sides of the restraints, the view across the largely unspoilt Staffordshire countryside is beautiful.

Honestly, the ride should end here. But no, it continues on by rattling around a 180-degree turn-around, dipping down as it does so affording the first of many jolts as it abruptly straightens and goes down the first, straight drop.

Almost immediately, we’re climbing away from the mythical Ug Swamps below into a straight climb, topping out (offering a sensation not dissimilar to extreme turbulence on a plane) and swooping out to the right into a 180-degree turn.

The turn soon sends you cartwheeling through two consecutive corkscrews, each executed with absolutely no finesse at all, clumsily clattering clockwise through two almost entirely cylindrical sideways loops of track.

Marred by excessive roughness, a fairly well laid out opening sequence leaves 24 riders wincing with pain as they tighten their upper body in order to sustain the constant sideways shunts.

Evidently, the corkscrews also leave the train out of breath as it limps around an upward-climbing 180-degree turn shadowing the turn into the first drop. The pace is veritably pedestrian as the train passes through some mid-course brakes (slowing the train yet further!) before you drop down towards the gravel below, climb up into a bunny hop, swooping into a helix.

Cleverly, this segment of ride occurs in the shadows of the opening drop, bunny hop and turn into the corkscrews, and follows exactly the same profile, just on a smaller scale. Such touches, however, go un-noticed as the coaster feels like a car crash wherever you are on the course.

By now, I would imagine that most riders frankly cannot be bothered with anything else the coaster has to offer, and nor does the coaster it seems as it passes on the opportunity to surprise us with something fresh and interesting by sauntering into a helix which undulates up and down for the sake of it –it’s a sure sign the ride is running out of breath when a spiral needs to be fluffed up for the sake of it.

If the helix was the ride out of breath, it completely keels over entering its pitiful grand finale. The track suddenly becomes straight enough to draw a line with, banked to the right at about 15-degrees (presumably for effect) as it slowly coasts towards the lift hill. It briefly ducks under the lift structure before this straight develops into a 180-degree turn, shadowing the first turn into the first drop before limping onto the final brakes.

The Corkscrew is a pointless string to Alton’s arrow, and has no positive features what so ever. If I were to praise it for anything, it would have been its ability to vault Alton Towers into the limelight those many years ago. But its work is now done.

Whether a roller coaster is a family coaster or a white-knuckle coaster, riding it must always be a gratifying experience, and – here comes the buzz word; fun. Anything that falls short of this is a wasted opportunity. Now, there are coasters that offer a challenge to all those willing to accept, but they should never be an unpleasant experience through bad design.

Roughness falls into two categories: Characteristically rough and intolerably rough. The UK has many characteristically rough coasters, ones that are best enjoyed by ‘riding’ the coasters as opposed to passively sitting on them and enjoying them. They throw you around, but stop short of making the ride painful. This is often the sign of a good coaster. If the coaster is uncharacteristically rough to the point of intolerance, there really is little point in riding as you get nothing from it.

It is hard to discount the roughness and rate the ride on it’s own merits. To its credit, the opening line-up of elements is a good one until the double corkscrews. From there on in there really is nothing at all to speak of, the helix being the most rousing of elements that the ride can throw at us.

Say what you will about Alton Towers, but they have made an artform out of seamlessly moulding their coasters into their surroundings. In fact, even before Nemesis, the Runaway Mine Train experimented with the philosophy that a rides’ entertainment value should stretch beyond just the thirty-or-so people on the train.

Whilst of course there is the argument that the Corkscrew is almost literally from the Stone Age before such interactivity became fashionable, you have to bear in mind that this further goes to prove that the Corkscrew simply has no place in Alton Towers’ current line up.

The Corkscrew has been pivotal in Alton Towers’ success, but has now become a white elephant that the park has chosen to neglect. Whilst perhaps a coaster of its height cannot ever be built in the area to replace it, the land the Corkscrew currently occupies could most certainly be put to better use. Frankly, such is the ordeal of riding the Corkscrew, perhaps the land would be put to better use left empty.

1/5 Marcus Sheen