Preserving Britain’s oldest rollercoasters

Great Yarmouth Pleasure Beach Roller Coaster

There are five rollercoasters in the United Kingdom that are listed buildings, all located on the English seaside.

This special status is awarded in three different grades, and helps to ensure that structures are preserved due to their age, rarity and cultural significance.

Elain Harwood is a Senior Architectural Investigator at Historic England, the government body which awards the listed status to structures including rollercoasters.

Speaking to RideRater, Elain says she first became interested in “old buildings” as a student in Bristol during the 1970s.

“I first got a job as an administrator at English Heritage, then worked my way up,” she says.

“I love writing and researching, and not knowing what people like your good selves might ask me to look at next.”

Indeed, it was of course to discuss theme parks, rides and rollercoasters why we primarily approached Elain.

‘Architecture and social history’

There are four Grade II listed rollercoasters in the country. Blackpool Pleasure Beach‘s Big Dipper, Grand National and Blue Flyer combine with the Scenic Railway (or Roller Coaster) at Great Yarmouth’s Pleasure Beach.

Dreamland Margate’s Scenic Railway is the oldest surviving rollercoaster in Britain, and is therefore listed as the higher Grade II*.

Scenic Railway, Dreamland Margate
The Scenic Railway at Dreamland Margate was restored in 2015

But it is the 1935-built Grand National that is Elain’s personal favourite.

“It’s so much more fun than other rollercoasters to see the other set of carriages whizz along too,” she says.

She describes her interests as a “balance of architecture and social history”, which “works also for rollercoasters”.

So what is it that an architectural investigator looks for when considering the listing of a theme or amusement park ride?

The age, degree of survival of original features and rarity,” Elain says. “Also whether there is an architectural element to the design as well as an engineering significance.

“Anybody can suggest a structure for ‘spot listing’ if it is more than thirty years old, particularly if it is under threat.”

Unfortunately, Elain adds that Historic England currently has no plans for a systematic study of rollercoasters due to the organisation’s resources being “stretched elsewhere”.

‘Strong arguments’ needed

Grand National, Blackpool Pleasure Beach
The Grand National opened after being designed and built by Charles Paige and Harry G Traver

So what of the rollercoasters that are currently listed? Could they be demolished and rebuilt – or possibly re-tracked as many enthusiasts have called for?

“It would have to be considered on a case-by-case basis, but a very strong, clear-cut argument would have to be made,” Elain says.

“The difficulty of moving a ride and loss of original fabric would be significant factors and hard to overcome.

“I remember this was tentatively discussed at Margate when the Scenic Railway was first listed at Grade II, and not pursued.

“I’m aware that others think that the old feel of the ride is part of the experience. I certainly felt that at Margate and on the Grand National at Blackpool.”

We put it to Elain that listed status may not always be popular among the park owners themselves, if it means that they are prevented from modernising their parks and ride offerings.

“We are aware of this, since owners have the right to comment on proposals to list,” she responds. “It means that our arguments in favour of listing have to be very strong.”

Overall though, Elain says she is glad that so many people share Historic England’s enthusiasm for vintage parks and rides.

“I think they have both an architectural and social importance and am delighted that this is now recognised.”