The History of Alton Towers: From Royal Estate to Popular Theme Park

Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Wednesday, May 7th, 2014

Alton Towers historical photo
Today, Alton Towers theme park is one of the top entertainment venues in the United Kingdom, known for its creative rides and gravity defying roller coasters. But this theme park has a longer and more storied history than most. The grounds of the popular Alton Towers theme park tell a unique story dating back hundreds of years. During the 19th century, the site was home to English royalty. The original Alton Towers estate, the ruins of which can still be seen if you visit the park today, was one of the most lavish and expansive architectural marvels of its time. Constructed over a 50-year period, the Gothic Revival-style home was the seat of the Earls of Shrewsbury. It was the crowning achievement of renowned English architect A.W.N. Pugin. He completed construction shortly before his death in 1852.

Alton Towers estate today
Shortly after Pugin’s death, the 17th Earl of Shrewsbury passed away. Because the 17th Earl had no children, ownership of the home and the elaborate gardens fell into the hands of the court system. A lengthy and costly legal battle began among extended family members. Henry Chetwynd Talbot, a distant relative, took rightful ownership of the property in 1860. But by that time, the contents had been sold and the home had fallen into disrepair. To pay for the upkeep of the expansive home, the family began charging the public a small fee to explore the grounds. This marked the beginning of the transition from royal homestead to popular tourist destination.

By the end of the 19th century, the 20th Earl of Shrewsbury was hosting special events and exhibitions at the property regularly. He threw extravagant parties, launched exquisite fireworks displays, and even organized a hot air balloon festival for the general public. The home was restored to some of its former glory. But after the Earl separated from his wife in the early 1900s and abandoned the estate, the elaborate home again began a slow decline.

Aerial view of Alton Towers
In 1924, the Alton Towers estate was sold at auction to a group of local entrepreneurs. By this time, the property was in ruins. The team began redeveloping the grounds to attract local visitors to the site. But the process short lived. The English military took over the property during World War II. After the War, all items of value in the home were sold off to recoup some of the lost revenue that the owners experienced during the wartime years.

Rather than tear down the historical property, the owners continued to develop the grounds. Some attractions were built around the Towers and the site was subsequently used as a recreation area and fairgrounds. Alton Towers was purchased by John Broome in the mid-1970s, and he laid the groundwork for what would eventually become the popular Alton Towers resort and theme park. Throughout the 1980s, the park began to expand. Multiple roller coasters, a flume ride, and a pirate ship were built on the grounds.

Roller coaster at Alton Towers
Today, Alton Towers is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the United Kingdom. The park welcomes close to three million visitors annually and has nine different themed areas for guests to enjoy. There are currently 35 rides and attractions on the grounds. The former estate still stands, and parts of it are even open to the public. But it’s a reflection compared to the 18th century marvel it once was. Still, the preservation of the estate combined with the development of the park today make this one exciting history to explore.

Images: altontowers.com, old.towertimes.co.uk, wikipedia.org

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