The first of a series of forgotten and unsuccessful tourist attractions on East of the M60
As we get older, memories aren’t the only thing which fade from view. In time, our schools will close. Bus routes will change, tourist attractions will change or close, and friends leave us. Some of which may have fond memories of their schooldays, the original 53 bus route, or riding the Bobs at Belle Vue Zoological Gardens and Amusement Park.
In the 1980s, theme parks started to become big business. Alton Towers gained popularity and ample TV exposure; the South of England would see Chessington World of Adventures and Thorpe Park usurp London Festival Gardens (its fairground closing in 1977). The new generation of amusement parks were also car friendly – and more adventurous than the traditional ones on seaside locations (even though Blackpool Pleasure Beach evolved and remains in good health).
In the late 1970s, Derbyshire County Council were at a loss over the regeneration of former mining land in Shipley. By 1979, the land, part of the Shipley Country Park, would become a theme park, thanks to an agreement with Kent based ‘KLF Group’ headed by Peter Kellard. The private sector development would celebrate all things British, with emphasis on Great Britons, traditional events and air tattoos. The then Conservative-led Derbyshire County Council agreed to the plans and a 100 year lease was granted.
The Showcase of Britain
Britannia Park’s aim was to become The Showcase of Britain, but the plans and traffic fears met with derision among Ilkestonians. In its Anglicised form, the park would have 350 acres. It was hoped that on opening, the whole site would have seven zones – all celebrating The Best of British culture. The zones, according to contemporary publicity material included:
- Concourse: ‘intriguing shops and tempting cafés, all set in a classic colonnade’;
- Wonderland: the children’s fairground with rides inspired by storybook adventures;
- Festival Village: demonstrations of blacksmiths and other craftspeople in an ersatz British village setting;
- British Genius: a healthy/jingoistic dose of self flagellation reflecting Great Britons’ achievements in pavilion form;
- Arena: live events, which according to the leaflet would include ‘military tattoos, sporting events, dazzling displays and much, much more’;
- Small World: a model village celebrating the joys of the British Commonwealth. In short, a model village including Buckingham Palace and Sydney Opera House;
- Adventureland: the main fairground element of Britannia Park, including ‘spectacular catapult rides’ and an assault course.
The British Genius would comprise of eight pavilions, sponsored by private sector businesses, explaining the importance of their product. Bass’ tent would have informed visitors about the joys of its beer and the brewing process. Rides would provide ‘thrills and spills for aspiring daredevils’.
Britannia Park opened on Thursday 27 June 1985. Its visitors would see a flypast from Concorde and Henry Cooper’s opening speech. The park was in an unfinished state; only five of the eight British Genius pavilions were ready; its thrill ride was half a mile of miniature railway. Its grand entrance was ready. Even in this unfinished state, they wanted £3.00 entry for adults – equivalent to around £10.00 today.
Closure and Reinvention
The 1985 season turned out to be a wet one, compared with the warm summers of 1983 and 1984. This stymied the park’s success and completion in its Britannia Park guise. Worse, the KLF Group were up to their eyeballs in debt and went into receivership. Britannia Park closed its doors on the 9 September 1985 after just 12 weeks.
The KLF Group were in debt to the tune of almost £9.5million, with most creditors never receiving the cash. Henry Cooper was owed £10,000; the Lord Lieutenant of Derbyshire, Colonel Peter Hilton was owed £28,000; Bass Breweries, £130,000. This resulted in a major police fraud investigation, lasting three years. Peter Kellard was sentenced to four years imprisonment at Nottingham Crown Court, with the chairman of Britannia Park Ltd, John Wright, given a six month sentence.
The trial lasted 14 months, which was – prior to the McLibel Case – the longest trial in British judicial history. After an unsuccessful bid to reopen the park for 1986, Derbyshire County Council bought the site for £2.6 million. It was sold to Granada, who reopened it as ‘The American Adventure’ theme park. This incarnation proved to be more successful (More on their story later).
What Went Wrong?
Mismanagement from the start turned a promising idea into a 12 week long farce. From the publicity, it had potential to become a worthy attraction. The rides weren’t ready (poor project management); the cost for such a limited number of attractions in 1985 would have been prohibitive at £3.00. Though its location was well placed for Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Leeds and Nottingham, there were other theme parks just as close by with more promise. Most notably Alton Towers, and the nearby Gullivers’ Kingdom in Matlock Bath.
Had Britannia Park lasted beyond its 12 weeks, it could have held its own as a niche attraction rather than one with mass appeal akin to Blackpool Pleasure Beach or Alton Towers. Most of the concepts thought of by KLF Group back then would be revisited in another ephemeral attraction in Greenwich (now known as the O2 Arena). It would have pulled out the stops to celebrate all UK Patron Saints’ days and have a J.D. Wetherspoon within its concourse.
Instead, its incarnation of The American Adventure proved more enduring, lasting 19 years. Today, the site has long since vacated, with the Conservative-led (again!) Derbyshire County Council as unsure of its future use – as in 1976.
Before I go…
Did you visit – or work for – Britannia Park, whilst it was billed as the Showcase of Britain? Feel free to comment.
S.V., 26 January 2013.