The history of Alton Towers’ ruins

Alton Towers

Possibly more iconic than any of its rollercoasters, the ruins at Alton Towers remain a centrepiece for the Staffordshire theme park.

The current towers were completed by Augustus Pugin, a pioneer of Gothic Revival architecture who also designed the interior of the Palace of Westminster, including its famous clock tower which houses Big Ben.

The towers also represent the work of other architects including James Wyatt, Robert Abraham, Thomas Allison, Thomas Fradgley, William Hollins and Thomas Hopper.

Several buildings have actually occupied the site under the ownership of the Talbot family since 1412, with the present-day towers being erected from the early 1800s and finished by 1840.

They were effectively an elaborate indulgence by various Talbots, are not as old as they are designed to look, and feature grand additions such as a dry moat, courtyard garden conservatory and beautiful stained glass windows.

It has been claimed that the modern towers were constructed with the proceeds of slavery, with Charles Chetwynd-Talbot having received about £4 million in today’s money after being compensated for the loss of more than 500 slaves.

Alton Towers in the 19th century
Alton Towers in the 19th century | Photograph: William Salt Library

Alton Towers’ former mascot Henry Hound was inspired by the extinct Talbot hunting hounds, which can be seen in the form of statues and a coat of arms situated at the towers’ entrance staircase.

At their peak, the towers were a stunning stately home accompanied by impressive vast gardens.

Abandonment

The towers were home to the Talbot family and associated Earls of Shrewsbury until 1924, after which they were abandoned as accommodation.

After nearly seven centuries, the Talbot family had departed and virtually the entire contents of the towers were auctioned off.

The building was acquired by a consortium of local businessmen, but the towers would later be temporarily taken over by the Ministry of Defence during the Second World War.

121st Officer Training Corps Unit, Alton Towers
121st Officer Training Corps Unit, Alton Towers | Photograph: Mr & Mrs Gerald McCann

After being used for military training exercises during the conflict, the towers were eventually returned to commercial ownership in the 1950s.

The grounds held motorcycle racing for much of that decade, while the gardens became a significant tourist attraction in their own right.

After decades of neglect and disintegration, the ruins themselves were made secure and opened to the public in 1970 – ten years before Alton Towers’ transition to the modern theme park it is today.

Historian Dr Jacqueline Banerjee said “Allowing Alton Towers, a key document in the history of the Gothic Revival, to go to ruin must count as one of the twentieth century’s worst sins against its — and our — Victorian heritage”.

Today, the towers’ preservation is helped by their status as a Grade II* listed building, but that hasn’t stopped their innovative use as part of the modern Alton Towers theme park.

Hosting attractions

In the 2000s, the ruins themselves started to become a home to some of the theme park’s attractions.

2000 saw the Hex dark ride incorporated into the building, featuring an elaborate backstory relating to the 15th Earl of Shrewsbury.

The Grand Entrance Hall serves as the ride’s queue line, while the Octagon is the theatre for an eerie mid-point show prior to the ride.

The ride chamber itself was newly-built, but you may never have known that as it remains effectively invisible to those who cannot work out where it is situated.

Hex, Octagon, Alton Towers
In Hex, the Octagon features an unseen appearance by a witch from a local Staffordshire legend

The Terror of the Towers scare maze was added on a seasonal basis shortly after Hex opened, and today other Halloween scare mazes are also housed within the towers.

The Gothic building serves as an impressive backdrop to both Hex and the scare mazes, considerably heightening their atmosphere – particularly after dark.

It is however these later additions that have sadly curtailed the ruins’ availability to guests in recent years.

The preparation work for each Halloween Scarefest begins by each Autumn, and sees the ruins largely off-limits to guests while the mazes are constructed.

But both former caretakers Tussauds and present-day operators Merlin Entertainments have maintained the towers’ unique character.

As a result, the ruins remain an impressive and mystifying backdrop for the thousands of visitors who come through Alton Towers’ gates every day.