Ups and downs as Big Dipper celebrates 90th birthday

Big Dipper - back in the 1920s ... you see not just the park's Big Wheel but the Giant Wheel in the distance
Big Dipper - back in the 1920s ... you see not just the park's Big Wheel but the Giant Wheel in the distance
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At 90 you can be forgiven for slowing down a little, watching the world go by rather than hurtling around at breakneck (not) speed.

But the Big Dipper still likes to live life in the fast lane at Blackpool Pleasure Beach.

There is no DunThrillin’ rest home for retired white knuckle rides. Just scrap, recycling, or sell off for the large scale memorabilia market. Take the old log flume carriages which now appear in people’s back gardens.

Or the open day for the Carriage off the Blackpool Great Wheel (as the event is known) later this month.

On August 24 and 25 Judith Hunter throws open her home Wild Boar Cottage, Rawcliffe Road, St Michaels, to raise money for Marie Curie Nursing Care.

Visitors will see the last surviving carriage from the Great Wheel which stood in the heart of Blackpool from 1896 to 1928.

The original big wheel was the definitive thrill ride of its time - although it never had the crowd pulling appeal of the Big Dipper which represented a very different revolution.

It’s going to be a long time before the Big Dipper, the ride which gave its name to a new generation of white knuckle rides, is put out to pasture, however charitable the cause.

The ride reaches the big 9-0 on Friday August 23. A large automated clock near the ride’s entrance ticks seconds away to the celebration with rides well into the night from 8pm to 11pm.

Ninety and still going strong? Riders gather nerves and mentally check nuts and bolts are tightened before boarding. With a reassuring wave from the brake man they are back.

Most are there for the ride – and the social history. Their grandparents, even great-grandparents, braved the Big Dipper, brought their children, their children’s children.

This really is the time machine- even HG Wells came to see it back in the 1930s.

Once the star of the park the Big Dipper could have been elbowed aside by bigger brasher upstarts, the twin track Grand National opened in 1934, the Big One was born of the drive and vision of the late Geoffrey Thompson in the 1990s.

But founder William Bean’s old roller coaster has a special place in our hearts. This is a ride with gravitas as well as gravitational force. Nothing equals the shake, rattle and roll of a wooden coaster. Fans come from far and wide for the daddy of them all – the definitive big one which spawned a host of copy cats. It even starred in Exposition Internationale in Paris in 1937 when park chief Leonard Thompson took a team to show the rest of the world what Blackpool Pleasure Beach could do.

Pleasure Beach archivists Ted and Caroline Lightbown have original accounts from its construction between 1921 and 1923.

Pilkington Brothers (Accrington) were used for ropes (from Fleetwood Trawlers) and pulleys while J Holden delivered prints, J Hetley ornamental glass, Blackpool Free Press photographs, Lancashire Dynamo Co motor, Edward Henthorne & Co from Blackpool cement and Blackpool Plumbing guttering.

More than 200 contractors worked on the final construction of what was the biggest roller coaster project in the world.

It cost £25,000, a modest sum by today’s standards but a huge investment by Bean back then. He died six years later.

In 1936 – at the invitation of then owner Leonard Thompson – futuristic author HG Wells, who wrote The Time Machine, came to see the Big Dipper. He was at the British Association of Advancement conference held in Blackpool specifically to give delegates the chance to check out the science behind the roller coasters. It gave them a great excuse to try the Dodgems, the Dipper, Sir Hiram Maxim’s Flying Machines and others to find out how they were constructed and stood up to extremes of weather.

In the summer of 1938 finalists from the Cotton Queen of Britain paraded here for an official photoshoot .

But there’s no substitute for trying the ride yourself. Ask Pleasure Beach company secretary and director David Cam. He first tried the Big Dipper at nine years old. Today he works with the fifth generation of the family business. “That’s quite remarkable in its own right.”

David adds: “My own father started work as company treasurer at the Pleasure Beach in March 1964. He commuted weekly from Southport, and lived in the front room of his mum’s house on Warbreck Drive.

“We came over for a day in September to enjoy dad’s new workplace. It was a real treat. All the other kids were jealous but if we came once a year we were extremely lucky. It was very special even if your dad was a senior manager – indeed more so.

“I rode on everything but was a totally dedicated coaster rider then as now.

“The Big Dipper was the first of its type in Europe – before that scenic railways undulated gently as you couldn’t have negative G lifting them off the track.

“The invention of the side friction wheel and under friction wheel made the Big Dipper possible. It was the first in Europe and exceptional.

“My first job at the Pleasure Beach was at the bottom of the slope here – the bridge was built in 1962-64 – which ran down to a Take Your Pick concession and the Turnpike kiosk. I ran the Turnpike kiosk single-handedly from the age of 16. Until 1976 most attractions went out from centre and back so it was a quiet spot and I spent every day of the summer at 16 and 17 looking longingly at the Big Dipper.

“It led me into the industry. I have ridden rollercoasters in 28 different countries and 23 states of America.

“If I’m honest about it my favourite is The Big One. Literally, physically and emotionally it stands out.

“There’s the anticipation of the pull up and speed of the descent and thrill at the sudden abrupt end.

“But that’s the secret of the success of the Big Dipper too, it is the model on which all successful roller coasters were built. It’s like a good novel, with a good start, good middle, good end, lots of twists along the way.

“It is senior, it is unique and it is the ride from which the generic term for roller coasters came. And it’s here. We are rightly proud and ready to party.”

n Tickets for the Big Dipper’s 90th party on August 23 are available at www.blackpoolpleasurebeach.com from £10 for unlimited ride wristband from 8pm to 11pm.

An area of the park will reopen after the rest of the park closes. Party goers will enjoy unlimited rides on the Big Dipper, Infusion, Grand Prix and Wallace & Gromit’s Thrill-O-Matic, as well as take a look at the Dipper’s history.

Special wristband and party meal deals are also available.