Coaster Kingdom

Grand National (Blackpool Pleasure Beach)

It's strange to think that here at the beginning of the 21st century, with technology allowing for more and more sophisticated thrill rides, that some of our best coasters were thrilling people before the war. The Grand National is one of those rides. Designed by Charles Paige, the Grand National opened somewhere in the mid-to-late 1930s (most people agree on 1935), and replaced the park's Scenic Railway coaster. After this the history of the ride is far less eventful than that of its brother, the Big Dipper. Only the Belle Vue Bobs in Manchester challenged the ride for the title of "Britain's Best Woodie". When the Bobs was demolished in 1970, the National the title to itself,  although it has now been challenged by the new pretender, Megafobia.

Being hidden from the view for virtually all of its life by the park's Fun House and now Valhalla, the Nash has always seemed to be forgotten by the public, who don't fancy handing over their cash for a ride they can't see. This is quite ironic, as part of the appeal of a racing coaster to park owners is the fact that it doubles a ride's capacity, while the Grand National seems to struggle to find enough punters to fill its trains. Hopefully, with the increasing use of wristbands, people will be  more than willing to give the ride a try. While it is often ignored by the public, the ride has a very strong following among coaster fans who know all too well that the public are wrong to think that Blackpool Pleasure Beach is only about the Big One and Valhalla, and that a rummage around the park is needed to discover the true gems.

The station was designed by Jospeh Emberton, architect of many of the Pleasure Beach building during the 20s and 30s. The classic white tower has seen a few changes over the years, but was restored to its original look in 1991, only to be dwarfed by the turnaround of The Big One, which does seem to belittle the ride in every sense of the word. The first thing you notice when you arrive in the station is that it is horribly cramped. When there is a queue, the crowding on the platform is ridiculous. This lack of room means that choosing your seat is out.  Usually, however, there's no crowd to fight through, and with some careful timing, you can pass through the turnstile to find a totally empty set of gates.

The trains are of the same design as the Big Dipper, although with only three benches to a car. Early in the 1998 season, a car was removed from each train, leaving only 18 seats per train. This no doubt shocked some enthusiasts, but in truth the back car gave a ride which was rough beyond the point of enjoyment, and as such I haven't mourned their removal.

Once the lap bars are checked by the staff, the trains are away. They leave roughly a second apart, which theoretically makes up for the fact that one train has a slightly longer track, due to being on the outside of more corners. The trains turn away from each other, and out of sight toward the lift hill. Usually they arrive together, leading to the traditional round of joining hands as they make their way up the lift(s).

After passing under the "THEY'RE OFF" sign, the trains turn to the left and toward the famous double first drop.

The drop is great fun, and the extra dip gives a nice bit of airtime, coupled with a moment of silence from the wheels as they part company with the track. Climbing up toward "Beecher's Brook", the trains turn right, ending up facing directly toward the top of the first drop. There are three such turns as the ride progresses, designed to enhance the thrill of racing as the trains constantly change position, the train on the inside of the turn rapidly gains ground on its opponent. Traditionally, these turns would be the scene of hand slapping between enthusiasts who have split themselves between the two trains.

After Beecher's, the trains head over "Valentine's" and into the left handed second turnaround. Front seat riders are given a major dose of airtime rising into this turn, while back seaters will have been given their fix on the previous drop. The next diagonal section (i.e. crossing the middle of the figure 8 ride) is the reason that for me not missing the four car trains. After a good drop, the track heads into another hill, the crown of which is directly underneath Valentine's. Here, riders in that fourth car would be subjected to such a jolt that even as a "prepared" rider, I found it difficult not to feel as if my legs had been snapped in two. The drop out of this is another double drop,  although this time, the second is too small to really notice.

From here, the trains rise into the final main turnaround, which is directly underneath the first, the structure of which enhances the feeling of speed, and into the back straight. A nice little series of dips keeps the interest up, although the final dip of this section is one to watch out for! A final 90-degree right turn brings you toward the station. Nothing of any real note happens here, although this is where riders in the leading can savour their victory. Some brakes ruin what could have been a spectacular dive under one of the park's main walkways and up into the station. Famously, the trains finish the ride having swapped sides, and it is surprising how many people find this baffling. A hint to any of you who still don't know: It happened even before the lift hill!

For a time, the Grand National suffered a major problem in that the racing aspect was lost due to the fact that one train was hopelessly slower than the other. This has since been improved, and the ride is back to its full glory. For maximum enjoyment split your group between the two trains, and you can enjoy racing your friends, as the trains jockey for position the turns, and take drops side by side. It really is an immensely enjoyable experience.

My biggest criticism of the ride is that the area where the real action takes place looks pretty shambolic. BPB has never gone in for Nemesis-style "staging" for its rides, but to have a classic coaster running through what looks like a scrap yard is a little sad. Take your eye off the other train, and you are likely to see old signposts, bits of long gone rides, barbed wire fences, and all sorts of junk lying around. Surely there's somewhere better to put this rubbish!

So, is it Britain's best woodie? Well, it's close but I'd say no. At its best, I'd rank it about level with Megafobia, but my personal favourite has to be BPB's Big Dipper - I'm perfectly aware, though, that I'm in a minority! It is though, hard to rate a racing coaster against a "normal" one, as the Nash may have a slightly less exciting layout, but is perfect for creating the atmosphere of a big race, you only have to listen to people exiting the ride to know that, as comments are invariably of the "We would have beaten you if..." style.

So another classic ride for BPB, and while it doesn't quite have the relentlessness of the Big Dipper or Megafobia, it's an absolute classic and one of the best coasters in the country.

4/5 John Phillips