Coaster Kingdom

The Ultimate
Lightwater Valley

Pictures used with permission from Coaster Central

The Ultimate was intended to kill two birds with one stone. Towards the back of the park, a section of valley was considered as perfect to build a valley coaster in. Problem was, to get people there would require a ride in itself.

Therefore, why not use the coaster itself to get you there? And hence the longest roller coaster in the world was born – eventually. Intending to open in 1990, the Ultimate opened over a year late.

It was a small British company, Big Country Motioneering, which were in charge of this lustrous project. Problems came thick and fast, and it wasn’t before long that BCM were ousted in favour of an in-house team who were to finish the ride with a little help from British Rail.

The yearlong delay was caused by a number of problems, not one of them leaves on the line (a favourite coined by British Rail). Wheels were a problem, and it was BR’s engineering division that helped Lightwater Valley solve this problem.

Other issues lied in the track, with over-banked sections being intolerably rough, and the notorious ‘wiggle’ section in the second half of the ride that was removed as it wasn’t exciting enough – this, ironically, was replaced by a straight bit of track.

Lightwater Valley isn’t a park I’ve really had an overwhelming desire to visit. The Ultimate is ten years old now, and it is only recently and by complete fluke that I’ve had the chance to ride it. Having ridden it, I’m glad. It is a one of a kind, and even if not the coaster it could have been, it is quite an important coaster for the UK.

Architecturally, the station is fantastic. To accommodate each overly-long train, the station too is rather lengthy. In the centre, a gable end breaks up the slate roof, and a small clock tower seems to finish it off well.

The actual platform is on the first floor with shops and amenities underneath. A wooden railing surrounds the platform itself, and two staircases climb up to the platform itself.

Only two trains run on the Ultimate, something which is quite a chore when for the majority of the time only one is operated meaning a seven-or-so minute wait between departures.

Each train seats an almost irrational 38 people in ten cars, the first omitting the front seats in favour of a fibreglass moulding of a steam train. As a runaway train, maybe, but in either bright red or blue, the shiny tank engine front looks, well, cheap and like something from the local swimming pool.

The train isn’t particularly generous on legroom, nor visibility as each seat has headrests from the days when it tortured riders with over-head restraints. The thought of that alone is enough to send a shiver down my spine.

Once the lap-bars are secure, the train departs, not to return for another seven minutes. A 90-degree turn takes you onto the lift-hill, turning away from the park, supported spectacularly by wooden trestles.

Almost a minute later, you are still on the lift. Some things are slow – milk floats; they’re slow. Tractors; they’re slow too. But if you were to get any respectable dictionary and look up the word ‘slow’, it would be pretty much described as being the lift hill on the Ultimate.

As you wait for the search parties to come and find you, the train finally tops out. Just to tease you just that bit more, however, it isn’t until the last car is pretty much off the chain before you swiftly accelerate downwards towards the ground.

Back seat riders will appreciate the modest airtime delivered, front seat riders will welcome the speed that follows. The drop is over in a second, and the train soon curls over the top of a small hill in a rather wishy-washy excuse of a hill, with another one soon following.

Like a miniature park railway, the ride continues. What is lost through the lack of height following is made up for by the accentuated sensation of speed. Soon, the second lift-hill approaches. A lot of speed has been absorbed by, well, nothing at all. No corners have exhausted momentum, no hills have slowed us down.

In order to stir you from deep sleep, a 20-foot ripple of bunny hops, each reaching into the skies by about 3-inches each sends you onto the second lift-hill.

You could hardly be in a theme park at this moment in time, more like on the top of a hill, looking across at the rolling landscape, the fields surrounding, the small copses that separate the green pastures.

Look forwards, and the grim realisation dawns that although you’re perhaps on the longest roller coaster in the world, that you are too on the slowest lift hill in the world.

At the top, the train crawls around a 60-degree bend apparently to give you the opportunity to take in the view. Problem is, by the time you are at the top of the lift, you could have painted the fantastic landscape in watercolour and walked to the Tate to sell your work and return before the train reaches the end of this chain-driven plateau.

Three minutes later, the train is once again lowered in a rather gentile manner before the back is tugged down deep into the foliage hiding the remainder of the ride.

I’m not going to play around with superlatives here – the ride completely explodes, throwing you to the side with unspeakable ferocity. As acquaint yourself with the turn, with equalled vigour, the train flicks around into the opposite direction, still following the now-rolling landscape into another turn.

As you slalom through these turns, weave throughout the trees, you hold on to stop yourself falling to bits, passing shrubbery a blur as you wonder whether you’re on the same ride.

Like a game of pinball, you rebound from one side to the next as the train almost singes the leaves below the track, as it almost tears itself off the rails with unsurpassed brutality.

A straight bit of track follows as the trees reside, before one of the tightest turns so far pulls you into a tight and curling figure-eight, threading through and over a tunnel before the pace slows dramatically and a final turn burrows the track into the ground as momentum recedes and you coast onto a final shallow lift back into the station.

The first half of the Ultimate completely understates itself. It lulls you into a false sense of security with really nothing of any worth to keep you entertained. Miniature railways used to be quite popular in golf courses and parks when I was little, and the train skirting the ground as it does in the first half does nothing but remind me of these.

Disillusioned, the second lift-hill was the butt of all my jokes. I really wondered whether it had been slowed down as a joke or something. It is like nothing on earth.

The realisation that the ride isn’t the walk in the park is has so far set itself up to be doesn’t dawn until you’re thrown into the first turn below. Even from the top of the lift you have absolutely no idea as the remainder of the ride is hidden from view by the dense trees that surround it.

The second half is undeniably rough, in fact, with over-head restraints I’m surprised even Frank Bruno (who opened the ride) survived. Without over-heads it is bearable, and having caught up on some much-needed sleep in the first half, this section kind-of makes amends.

The Ultimate is a strange ride. It is undeniable that the whole first half is a dead spot with very little to offer. That said, it is this section that adds to its charm and attraction.

It makes for a varied ride – I’m not sure I’d like it to be seven minutes of being thrown around, and with it finishing off in this mental state of mind, it seems to boast a two minute finale, something that most certainly wouldn’t have worked had the first half been after the first lift hill.

The Ultimate isn’t the ride it could have been, nor is it a complete failure. It is a intrepid, yet blemished effort at innovation – whatever way you look at it, though, it is hardly a waste to enjoy the Ultimate.

Roz Holbrook

Pictures used with permission from Coaster Central


Here is our bullet point review of this attraction, highlighting everything that is great about it, and everything that is sadly bad.

Good points: 

  • Very intense second half

Bad points:

  • Very rough in places

  • Terribly designed trains

  • First half is boring

  • Lift hills are a saga

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Awful start, incredible ending. Felix