The Ultimate: Rough, ready and rogue

The Ultimate, Lightwater Valley

It has been announced that Lightwater Valley’s trademark rollercoaster, the Ultimate, has been “decommissioned”.

While there is still the tiniest possibility that the former world’s longest rollercooaster could be returned to service, the prospect now seems incredibly unlikely.

A probable victim of large maintenance costs, and failing a cost-benefit assessment, the ride’s decommissioning is a huge loss for the British theme park scene.

It does however come as little to surprise to most. The Ultimate has stood idle since 2019 as Lightwater Valley has shifted towards an under-12 family target market.

Truly one of the world’s most distinctive rides, the Ultimate attracted global attention when it was opened in the summer of 1991 by Frank Bruno – crucially as the longest rollercoaster on the planet.

Its 1.5-mile length held the length record for nine years until 2000, but it remained a standout attraction until the end.

It put a small, independent theme park on the global map, propelling Lightwater Valley into the stratosphere of the UK theme park industry.

All of this was three years before Alton Towers embarked on its journey of customised world-first rollercoasters and Blackpool Pleasure Beach opened the Big One.

Epic and aggressive

One of the most aggressive rollercoasters out there, the Ultimate sprawled across the North Yorkshire countryside, and was certainly a ride of two halves.

The track’s relatively mundane first section included an incredibly slow lift hill and first drop that was cringeworthy if you were seated anywhere significantly towards the front of the train.

A few hills and turns based on the geography of the site, and a bizarre section of bunny-hops led into the second lift hill.

The second ascent was as tedious as the first, but this time it added to the suspense of the epic second half of the ride that was to come.

The Ultimate, Lightwater Valley
The second woodland-based section saw some extreme lateral forces

The train climbed across the half-turn, making the second drop into woodland much more exciting.

Cue an incredibly forceful and aggressive section of ground-hugging madness. A snaking of a natural valley generated lateral forces that appeared to defy the laws of physics.

Its forcefulness meant that its original head-battering, over-shoulder restraints were soon replaced by more forgiving lap-bars, after even heavyweight boxer Bruno looked shaken after riding.

Also over the years, several unfortunate deer tragically succumbed to the uniqueness of the ride, its track remaining close to the ground throughout most of the 6-minute odyssey.

Bizarre and brutal

But the Ultimate was not understood by everyone that rode it. It divided both the general public and rollercoaster enthusiasts alike.

In 2011, after 20 years of operation the ride had completed more than 200,000 laps and 7.5 million people had likely come to one of two conclusions: It was either an amazing thrill or simply too aggressive.

And the ride’s history was bizarre from the very beginning. From changes in engineering designers, which included British Rail, to the ride being tested by the park’s owner Robert Stavely strapped in by nothing more than rope.

The Ultimate’s conception seeing multiple designers come and go meant that its construction and early days were not plain sailing.

It was delivered almost a year overdue and four times over budget. Shortly after it opened, a collision between its two trains also saw guests hospitalised.

And in 1994, the extreme forces of the ride caused wheel axle fractures. Lightwater Valley was subsequently fined for failings under the Health and Safety at Work Act.

The Ultimate, Lightwater Valley
The Ultimate made use of the North Yorkshire countryside to great effect

Stavely had a vision for unique rides and installed several over the years, but Lightwater Valley lost the Devil’s Cascade (later Toad Hole) – an improvised flume ride – some years ago.

The epically-themed faux-subterranean rollercoaster Raptor Attack (formerly the Rat Ride and Sewer Rat), also later became a casualty of Lightwater Valley’s movement towards young families.

While the Ultimate was initially famous for its length, it really made the most of its natural environment. Aside from the two lift hills, it largely relied on the naturally rugged North Yorkshire terrain to which it clung.

There were plans to re-launch the ride as ‘Ultimate II’ in 2014, with new track and trains, but these ideas never came to fruition.

We will never know if those plans would have taken away the character of the ride, or even if they did, would they have helped ensure its survival?

In any case, as the final point-of-view videos on YouTube attest, the Ultimate was rough, ready and rogue until its last day.

If you were unlucky enough not to have experienced the Ultimate, you really did miss out.

With the ride now seemingly past the point of no return, Lightwater Valley has lost the final icon of its innovative and thrilling past, leaving a hole that is simply impossible to fill.