Many people know Alton Towers as a great venue for a family day out or the home of some of the most exciting rollercoasters in the UK - but few realise its history dates back over 2,000 years.

This year, thrillseekers are anxiously awaiting the new season which starts on Saturday March 17 so they can take a ride on the park's newest rollercoaster, the Wicker Man.

The new wooden coaster is the first to be built in the UK for more than 20 years and will be the world's first to combine wood and fire, themed around the Pagan tradition of the Wicker Man.

But while the park is known for thrills and excitement, Alton Towers also has a rich history which lies forgotten behind the twists and turns of rollercoaster tracks.

The park dates all the way back to 100BC when an Iron Age fort was built on Bunbury Hill, the land that later became the Alton Towers estate.

The fort remained for hundreds of years and in 700AD, King Ine of Wessex besieged the site, which caused such a loss of life the area was known as Slain Hollow, which later became the estate's oriental water garden.

In the 11th century, the site had a castle built to protect soldiers in battle, as did hundreds of others following the Norman Conquest of 1066.

New pictures of the Wicker Man ride have been released

However, in the 17th century, the castle that had stood since Norman times was destroyed in the English Civil War. The site was then redeveloped as a hunting lodge known as Alerton, which is the ancient name for Alton.

In 1801, Charles Talbot, the 15th Earl of Shrewsbury, began redeveloping the hunting lodge into a Gothic-style stately home and 13 years later, he and his wife moved to Alton permanently.

In 1827, Charles Talbot died, and his nephew John Talbot became the 16th Earl of Shrewsbury and voted to complete the building of the house and gardens started by Charles.

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John Talbot is widely believed to be the Earl who was cursed by a witch in the legend of the Chained Oak.

Legend has it that the Earl was travelling through the woods in the late 1840s when he was approached by an old beggar woman who asked for money.

He rudely declined and went on his way, but the woman cursed him and his family, citing that for every branch of the old oak tree that falls, a member of his family would die.

Sure enough, some time later, a great storm broke out and a single branch of the tree fell. Shortly afterwards, a member of the Earl's family, reportedly his son, died suddenly and without explanation.

One of the less well-known attractions at Alton Towers, the Gothic Prospect Tower which was built in the 1820s.
One of the less well-known attractions at Alton Towers, the Gothic Prospect Tower which was built in the 1820s.

It was then that he ordered every branch of the tree to be chained to prevent another similar tragedy.

It is not known how true the legend is, but guests can learn all about the tale at the park on the Hex: Legend of the Towers attraction.

It wasn't until April 1860 when members of the public could visit the estate for the first time. The 19th Earl of Shrewsbury made the decision to allow people into the grounds at certain times of the year to raise funds after a devastating fire ripped through the building.

In the 1890s, the grounds had become such a popular attraction for local people that the 20th Earl, Charles Talbot, started to introduce summer fetes at Alton.

However, after Charles and his wife separated, he decided to sell off much of the estate in 1918. In 1924, the remaining part of the estate and house was sold to a group of local businessmen who formed Alton Towers Limited.

The gardens were closed to the public during the Second World War when Alton Towers was requisitioned by the War Office as an officer training unit, but details about what happened at the site during the conflict against Hitler are sparse.

Alton Towers' Santa Sleepovers 2017
The park is known for extravagant celebrations throughout the year

It was reopened in 1954 and three years later, a model railway opened in the chapel entrance.

In the 1960s and 70s, the grounds were redeveloped as a visitor attraction. This included introducing a fairground, boating lake and chairlift.

In 1980, Alton Towers began its evolution into a major theme park with the installation of The Corkscrew rollercoaster. It was launched as a theme park on April 4 1980 after it had been refurbished by property developer John Broome.

This was followed by the park's second roller coaster, The Black Hole, in 1984.

The park was purchased by The Tussauds Group in 1990, and was subsequently bought by Merlin Entertainments for £1 billion in 2007.

Since then the park has added thrilling rides to its portfolio including Th13teen and The Smiler as well as opening the hugely popular CBeebies Land for kids.

Thrillseekers who have been fans of the park for some time will have fond memories of long-gone rides, so we've had a look at some of the most popular attractions of bygone years which are no longer standing.

These include Corkscrew, the park's first rollercoaster, which closed in 2008 after visitors noted it was coming to the end of the life. The park hasn't forgotten about the ride, however, as a section of the track still sits proudly in the entrance courtyard today.

The Black Hole was the second rollercoaster to join the line-up at Alton Towers; the indoor coaster thrilled visitors as they didn't know what to expect.

It was removed in 2007 and The Smiler has now taken its place. Since May 2011, the Black Hole has been operating as Rocket at Furuvik, a Swedish theme park.

One ride that many past fans of the park may have fond memories of is Alton Mouse. The attraction opened in 1988 and Aussie pop sensation Kylie Minogue was one of the first to ride it.

The ride had to be removed in 1991 because of the amount of noise created so close to Alton village.

The Flume was once a popular attraction at the theme park

Guests were left shocked when it was announced the Flume would not re-open in 2016. The classic log flume had an interesting twist on the traditional design, as the ride was themed to 'bathtime', after the park struck a deal with Imperial Leather in 2004.

The bathtubs and other memorabilia from the ride were auctioned off for charity in September last year.

What are the 'Big Six' rollercoasters?

There are currently six major rollercoasters at the Staffordshire theme park, including Galactica, Nemesis, Oblivion, Rita, Thirteen and The Smiler.


Formerly known as Air, the ride first opened in 2002 as the first flying coaster made by manufacturers Bolliger and Mabillard.

Riders would be strapped into their seats and 'fly' around the track in a lay-down position with their legs dangling.

The ride was refurbished at the end of the 2015 season and was reopened in March, 2016 as Galactica.

Visitors now have the option to wear a virtual reality headset which simulates a flight through space.

Each seat has its own Samsung Gear VR which projects a moving video straight to the user to make them feel like they are elsewhere.


Located in the Forbidden Valley area of the park, the 716 metre long ride has an impressive top speed of 50 miles per hour.

First opened in 1994, Nemesis was a £10 million investment by Alton Towers and is a firm favourite with thrillseekers, consistently ranking highly in industry ratings.

The theme of the ride revolves around an alien creature excavated from the ground, with guests attempting to escape by riding.

Due to the popularity of the ride, the related 'Nemesis: Sub-Terra' opened in March 2012, and is an immersive walk-through experience which takes guests into the depths of an underground cave network where a nest of eggs have been found.

Sub-Terra has however not been operational since June 2015.


If you have ridden Oblivion at Alton Towers, you will remember it.

Opened in 1998, as 'the world's first vertical drop roller coaster', the ride has a fairly simple layout.

The car slowly rises to 60 feet, at a 45 degree angle, building up the tension of riders, before a 180ft drop, into a dark hole at an 87 degree angle.


Located in the Dark Forest area of the theme park, Rita is memorable for its extremely quick start, firing riders forward at 62.1 miles per hour in just 2.5 seconds.

It is themed on an abandoned drag racing car used by riders to escape from the Dark Forest and was opened in 2005 at the cost of £8 million.

The track takes high-speed corners and while queuing, riders can hear a countdown to the start of the ride which says: "Keep your head back. Hold on tight, you must escape. Go, go, go!"


Thirteen, sometimes written as Th13teen, opened at the park in March, 2010.

It is known as the world's first vertical freefall drop roller coaster, plunging riders five metres into darkness near the end of the experience.

The dark and mysterious ride ventures through an ancient crypt to face the horror behind the whole section of the park, called Dark Forest.

The Smiler

The Smiler opened in 2013 and features 14 inversions
The Smiler opened in 2013 and features 14 inversions

First opened in May, 2013, The Smiler features a world record for the most inversions on a rollercoaster, with 14.

It is themed around a large machine, which tries to manipulate riders into 'smiling' using a large machine called 'The Marmaliser.'

Guests queue in a large metal cage, from which they can look up and see the ride above them and carts flying around the track.

With five separate sections to the ride, each allowing a different train to be in operation at once, The Smiler theoretically has a capacity of 1,200 people every hour.