The ghosts of Alton Towers
Alton Towers is an amusement park by day but a ghostly playground by night. Poltergeists, twisted jewellery, flying books and the Chained Oak. Be afraid...
The family of Will Broome, Londonlaunch.com's CEO, lived in Alton Towers for 90 years alongside a host of ghosts. For the first time, the Broome family (actually the Bagshaw family), share their personal stories about their haunted home and their bone-chilling brushes with the supernatural.
Alton Towers has been a dwelling for a very, very long time, dating back to almost a thousand years BC when it was an iron-age fort. The Talbot family enjoyed a very long tenure on today's site between 1412 and 1920, starting with the first Earl of Shrewsbury, Sir John Talbot. But it was not until 1753 that the fifth Earl, Charles Talbot, built the magnificently imposing mansion that still stands today and, perhaps even more impressively, created one of the finest landscaped gardens anywhere in the world. As the statue of the fifth Earl at the arched entrance to the gardens so triumphantly declares, "He made the desert smile". In 1923 William Bagshaw, my great grandfather (who I'm named after), bought Alton Towers after selling his business and so began a journey of restoration and, eventually, transformation into one of the most well known places on earth. After the building was commandeered (and largely knackered) by the army during the Second World War, my grandfather, Denis Bagshaw, set about restoring Alton Towers to its former glory and, as the plaque below the fifth Earl states "He made the desert smile again"....
Until I was about 19 (and for all those decades before I was born) my family owned Alton Towers. My Great Grandparents lived there since the 1920's and my grandmother still lived there until seven years ago. I therefore spent a great deal of my childhood (and early adulthood) in Europe's most celebrated theme park. But the Alton Towers that everyone else knew was only part of what I knew. To me, it was a family estate and somewhere I would spend a lot of time at during the off-season. Every Christmas Day, for example, we would have our family lunch at the Towers and then embark on a magical wintry walk around the entire 800 acre estate. These walks were where my granny and grandpa would tell me fascinating stories about things that had happened during their greatest adventure - restoring the magnificent gardens to their former glory and running the estate as a visitor attraction.
From high profile suicides to ghostly apparitions and even extreme poltergeist activity, Alton Towers holds so many secrets and it suddenly dawned on me that I didn't want it to die out with the last generation of my family who lived there.
Granny (or 'Little Granny' as she's now known) is in her nineties and still pulls on her leggings and goes for lengthy walks every day but unless someone writes all this down, time will pass and these great stories will disappear into the ether, just like the ghosts have done (mainly because they've followed my Auntie Annie off the premises but I'll come to that later!) Interestingly, there are all sorts of websites referencing the fact that the Towers are haunted but they're all pretty predictable (hooded monks and creepy footsteps etc) and, frankly, not hugely believable. But I know it's haunted and I know it because many members of my family, who lived there and grew up there for decades have so many stories as well as hard evidence to prove it...
The Alton Towers protagonists
At this juncture, it may be an opportune moment to introduce the main protagonists in the Alton Towers story. Aside from the original owners of the estate, the Earls of Shrewsbury, from my perspective, Alton Towers was all about a gang of adventurers who, not only created one of the most famous and magical (and famously magical) places in Europe, but also lived the dream. The gang consisted of my great grandpa, William Bagshaw, my grandpa, Dennis Bagshaw, my Granny (Sheila Bagshaw), their daughters Jane (my mum) and Annie (my auntie), Nigel Harris, who was known to everyone as only 'Hippo' (my aristocratic and unfortunately named Uncle who Annie named as a little girl because it was 'the most horrible animal she could think of!) and, of course, the guy who spotted an opportunity by charging to drive elderly guests around the estate in a little road train....my dad, John Broome CBE (and yes, that's how it all started).
Exploring the grounds
Ironically, I always found the rides and, specifically, the Corkscrew particularly eerie in the off-season. Gigantic twisted steel sculptures, rising silently in the twilight, half built and covered in snow...I even remember the snowy winter of 1980, when I was five years old, holding my dad's hand and inspecting the steep first bend after the Corkscrew's big first drop. I also remember a few years later, driving round the vast trench carved in the earth for the Grand Canyon Rapids ride, in my grandpa's Range Rover.
The thing I remember most though is the hazy, cold, watery winter light hanging over the park and framing the magnificent and unashamedly austere Mansion at the heart of it all, itself reflected in the frozen lake in which the imposing facade shimmers upside down, seemingly suspended in ethereal reflection. It was a magical place from another life.
From Quixhill Drive (which was the original grand carriageway to the main house, now obsolete as the Bamford's neighbouring estate at Wooton Lodge uses this entrance), beyond the log flume and rapids ride in one far flung corner of the park, to my grandpa's office, quietly tucked into the woods behind the Penny Arcade, (which was a vast fun palace of classic arcade machines where I, of course, had a man who would open any machine I wanted to play and click the button for as many free games as I wanted - life really was that simple!) we'd walk the entire circuit with the dogs.
Becoming a theme park
Back in the early days, there was no main 'Towers Street' at the entrance, no monorail, no Nemesis or Oblivion (the latter, incidentally, was quite literally at the foot of granny's garden (you could look down on her house from the top for that split second before it drops...)). No, that was all to come later when my father discovered legendary theme park designer, Michael A. Jenkins in Dallas, Texas. For the time being, the place felt like Downton Abbey with a big yellow roller-coaster in the deer park. It's funny that it wasn't so long ago that the Corkscrew was the UK's only double loop coaster (painted green above the tree-line to skirt planning restrictions) - how quickly things evolve. Another big ride I distinctly remember in the construction phase was the Black Hole which was to be the world's first 'dark ride' roller-coaster since Disney's legendary Space Mountain. Like the Thunder-Looper, the Wave-Swinger, the Beast (with Eddie 'the eagle' Edwards) and the Mouse (with Kylie Minogue), I was one of the first to ride the Black Hole and, following the press launch (which I was somehow always involved in!) was ceremoniously presented with a certificate to commemorate the occasion, signed by...err....my dad!
Our walks would always culminate at the Towers themselves, having meandered through the magnificent gardens, past the UKs finest example of ornate Chinoiserie, the towering Pagdoa fountain (which, in those days, was often firing a hundred foot plume of water into the air, ringing the bells that hung from the giant canopy tiers as it cascaded down), the Chinese Temple with its panoramic views over the sunken gardens below and towards the house, on through the ornate eighteenth century conservatories with the Swiss Cottage high above on the opposite side of the valley, tentatively tiptoeing over the tumbling rockeries, across the oriental and Renaissance stone bridges (or stepping stones, which I always preferred) and arriving at the towering doorway of the Great Hall. Or Granny's gift shop, as we knew it then! For all intent and purposes it was basically my personal Hogwarts.
And everywhere along the way had its own story. It was at the Chinese temple that my grandfather would often tell the the story of how a famous racing driver at the time (who, of course, my mum had gone out with - along with Dave Hill, the guitarist from 70's rockers, Slade and Sir Anthony Bamford (the heir and owner of JCB) amongst many others!), had jumped off the top to commit suicide because it was his "favourite place on this earth". In fact, he didn't even succeed initially. My grandfather found him, clinging on to life (and regretting what he'd just done) before he succumbed to his injuries and died. A few people have done that in the grounds over the years...
The man in medieval dress
George Noakes, our head gardener, would often see a man in medieval dress deep in the gardens, for example - he tried to speak to him on a number of occasions because he had honestly presumed that my grandparents had hired an actor in themed dress to roam the park, but he somehow always eluded him, seemingly evaporating into the bushes. It was after many years that George realised that the medieval man never aged and accepted that it was clearly a spirit, despite his cynicism.
The heir to the throne
Interestingly, George Noakes's mother was a parlour maid for the Earl of Shrewsbury in the Towers. In those days, at the turn of the Century, King Edward VII used to stay frequently and George was possibly evidence of why! The King was very promiscuous with the below-stairs staff and was reportedly there a good nine months before the (unmarried) parlour maid had a baby which looked just like his...erm....father!?! George lived in Pink Lodge (coming to that) at the end of my Aunt and Uncle's driveway and had 'no father'. He and his mother accepted this, of course, and everybody knew not to ask. Ever. Born in mysterious circumstances and never spoken about again, George is the splitting image of the King and, according to my grandparents who employed him on the estate his whole life, it is almost certain that, if life was fair, he would have been second in line to the throne after his 'brother' George V...
The haunted Great Hall aka Granny's gift shop
Apart from the crypt under the chapel where the most spectacular model railway I've ever seen was housed (I had a mini version of it at home built by some of the same designers and engineers), the original Great Hall was the only part of Alton Towers that was regularly occupied and, by day, it was a veritable hive of activity.
Funnily enough, it seems it was by night too, even though there was nobody there! Nobody alive anyway...
With a large gift shop for the thousands of daily visitors and one of the few original restaurants on the estate, it was the beating heart of the fledgling commercial operation. My grandmother ran this shop whilst my grandfather ran the estate, ably assisted by their daughters and a few other family members.
Hippo, my uncle, took a sabbatical for a few years in the middle of his tenure to set up a school in Tenerife where he witnessed the worst air accident the world has ever seen. In 1977, two jumbo jets collided in the fog after a terror threat in Las Palmas meant that several 747's were diverted there unexpectedly - it's actually mentioned in Breaking Bad!
The amazing thing about this is that the first paranormal activity Hippo personally witnessed in his early years at the Towers gift shop was when he came in early one morning and discovered a series of numbers randomly cut out of a book and left on the counter for him to discover.
These numbers were 1736335 and he clearly presumed it was a prank, albeit a very cryptic one! He kept the cut out numbers out of pure fascination, convinced that they must have meant something to someone. Whichever way he looked at them, the numbers were seemingly random though, until years later in 1977, when Hippo had moved to Tenerife and the world's worst air disaster unfolded in front of him, at the old airport to the north of the island. It took him about two days to realise that 335 people died on the Pan Am aircraft and it's flight number?.....1736.
Was it a strange coincidence? Or did he receive a message almost ten years earlier about a place he never knew he would be and at a specific date and time too?
The family poltergeist
During the 1960's and 1970's my otherwise sane and somewhat sceptical family witnessed regular paranormal activity in the gift shop. With their own eyes. In fact, the poltergeist (which they believed to be a woman, as staff claimed to have seen her) became so active that my family went to great lengths to investigate. From sealing doors and windows to sleeping in the Towers themselves and even bringing specialist paranormal investigators up from London, they really tried to get to the bottom of it, but they never officially did...
It all started fairly gently, with granny noticing a line of ducks which she could have sworn were facing one way when she priced up the night before but we're then facing the other. She brushed it off but then it happened again. And again. And then it got scary.
One morning a few weeks later, she unlocked the huge front doors and was faced with hundreds of those little green soldiers (which had all been packed away and sealed in boxes behind the toy department) scattered across the stone floor. But then she noticed something strange. All the soldiers who were brandishing weapons were lying on their front or on their backs, presumably 'dead' whilst every single one of the others (all those without weapons) were still standing. Every single one was meticulously placed to stage this bizarre war scene.
They used to sell a lot of postcards too and would, naturally, offer a stamp to each purchaser (they were very commercial, my grandparents!). Well, these huge rolls of stamps which were kept in the till kept going missing. And I mean reels with hundreds of stamps on them. Now that's a little odd, especially as they would magically reappear weeks or even months later, but were covered in thick grey dust...
This activity was all fascinating but what was to come is altogether more spine chilling, goose-bump inducing and eye-wateringly awesome.... The gift shop was quite up-market in many ways (as was park throughout my father's tenure with Gucci, Cartier and Armani shops on Towers Street when he first built it!) and, as well as all the usual ephemera, there were a series of locked display cabinets mainly filled with quite valuable jewellery. One such cabinet displayed an array of fine gold watches and, often, when they opened the gift shop in the morning, this jewellery would have been tampered with. Yet the glass cabinets remained locked, with the only key on a necklace around my grandmothers neck. And when I say tampered with, I mean in an inhuman way. And when I say 'in an inhuman way' I mean in a way that would be physically impossible for a human.
These watches were twisted, torn and ripped to shreds. The result of a violent act of vandalism and it was all carried out within a tiny display space behind toughened glass, for which nobody else had a key. Don't believe me? (after all, I didn't really at first). Well, my grandmother kept one (that’s her mother's hand writing on the price tag) and here it is, clearly violently twisted and certainly not how it was left the evening before...
Another frequent happening was for dolls to be somehow removed from their packaging and sat at chairs in the restaurant (or sometimes in the middle of the floor) with their arms extended, seemingly reading books (from the book department at he other end of the shop) which had been thrust into their hands on specific pages. They were also draped in jewellery, necklaces and bracelets, as if a child had been playing 'dressing up' with them...
A message from beyond the grave
Perhaps the most sinister (that word is derived from the Latin 'sinistre' which means 'left' – I wasn’t forced to do GCSE Latin at 10 for nothing!) activity was the book tearing. Frequently, seemingly random pages would be torn out of books and strewn all over the floor but once or twice, a bit like the Hippo incident, it would go further. One such morning my granny and her catering manager, Dorothy Bond, arrived together. They'd both witnessed several unexplained occurrences between them (Dorothy was always losing butter dishes and cutlery at an alarming rate and they would reappear months later, proving that passing customers hadn't been stealing them as she'd originally suspected!). But this was different. The ghost had become personal, proving a level of consciousness which made the spiritual presence all the more palpable. An alphabet book had been carefully carved up to spell the word D.O.L.L.Y. and these letters were carefully (and neatly) positioned at the foot of a large bookshelf. Granny was mildly impressed and somewhat amused by this new level of activity but Dorothy was white as a sheet. Unbeknown to my grandmother, or anyone else for that matter, Dolly was a name that Dorothy hated, because it's something she used to be called as a young girl, during a particularly unhappy childhood and she’d left that name (and that life) behind her, years before...
The legend of the Chained Oak
Ironically, the most famous Alton Towers ghost story was, in fact, somewhat of a family secret until the ride, Hex, told the story to millions of park visitors a few years ago. In a way it's a shame as I used to love telling the story to school friends before walking them down through the forest to the site of the Chained Oak, which is possibly the eeriest place I've ever been. It's also been somewhat desecrated now, due to excessive visitor numbers - there's even a sign from the main road by Pink Lodge which kind of shatters the magic...
Anyway, in case you didn't know, this is how the story goes.
On a cold, rainy and decidedly windy Autumn night in 1821, Charles the fifth Earl was travelling back from London and as his carriage approached the Old Oak clearing half way up Barbary Gutter towards the Pink Lodge, an old beggar woman was blocking the road. The carriage screeched to a halt, narrowly missing the old lady. The Earl disembarked from his carriage to find out what she wanted and she asked him for money.
Upon hearing this, Charles flew into a rage and ordered her to be cast aside or run over. The old lady then screamed at the Earl, supposedly putting a curse on him and his family, specifically that whenever a branch fell off the Old Oak tree, a member of his family would die. Thinking nothing of it, Charles dismissed this a nonsense and carried on home. That night the storm raged on and, mysteriously, Charles got word that a member of his family had indeed died that night, due to a sudden illness. There is also a report of a riding accident at the time where another member of the Shrewsbury's family was killed. Whether another branch had fallen off it is not clear but it's certain that a major branch had fallen during that original stormy night in 1821. It's a spooky place though and my grandparents often used to ride down Barbary gutter with my mother and auntie towards the lakes at the bottom of the valley. On one such occasion, they came across a group of Druids, dressed in hooded brown coats with flaming torches and masks, chanting as they sacrificed an animal on a stone altar beneath the Chained Oak. The Druids stopped chanting and just silently stared at them as they rode past....they then rode back a different way!
My auntie and uncle's house was up a driveway from the Pink Lodge and overlooked the valley where the Chained Oak stands. Annie experienced a number of ghostly happenings at the Towers but the most disturbing was what happened in their own house above Barbary Gutter. My cousin, Emma, used to wake up screaming almost every night when she was a young girl and ended up in her parents' bed frequently. One such night, Annie decided to move into Emma's room (which faced the Chained Oak forest beneath) and inadvertently discovered what the problem was.
She woke up in the middle of the night and the room was freezing. Something made her keep her eyes tight shut as she had a distinct feeling that someone, or something, was in the room with her. She also remembers smelling a strong, sweet, treacly smell all of a sudden, very similar to one she’s smelt before in the Towers. It was as if something was kneeling on top of her, on all fours and then she felt it. A warm, rancid breath on her neck. Eventually she dared to open her eyes because she just had to see what it was. The presence was still there but the breathing suddenly stopped. And then it happened. She froze as four indentations clearly appeared in the sheets beside her and repeatedly stamped up and down, faster and faster until she managed to shout (and she's not at all religious!) "In the name of Jesus Be Gone!". And it stopped. It happened once again many years later, but this time she felt as if someone had her by the throat and wrists and it was getting tighter and tighter until she felt as though she would pass out. Nobody never slept in that room again.
So between the Chained Oak and the Towers gift shop, there was something strange (in the neighbourhood!)
Who you gonna call...?
It was clearly time to take things into their own hands and investigate properly. Firstly, the local Chief of Police offered to spend a night alone in the Towers as he was convinced that it was a practical joker (albeit one who remained amused and undetected for more than a decade!). Once inside, he sealed all the doors with masking tape, turned off the lights and sat quietly with his Alsatian. At 3am he was hammering on my grandparents front door, wild eyed and absolutely terrified having 'heard all sorts of noises' - from footsteps to banging sounds and, what's more, his dog went crazy - hackles up and snarling incessantly.
Next up was my grandpa and uncle. They rigged the whole section of the building - masking tape on all external doors, cotton attached to every door knob, flour on the floor to detect footprints - all pretty low tech, but seemingly effective. But nothing happened that night. These ghosts aren't stupid!
Finally, they called the experts. The 1970's version of Ghostbusters. The London version, which I suspect was more handlebar mustache brigade than Venkman, Egon and Ray...(unfortunately).
So, the Paranormal investigator came up from London (it was an official agency of actual Ghostbusters who my grandfather found). After a thorough snoop round in relative silence, the investigator asked if "there were any young children or 'queers' who regularly frequented the gift shop?". Strangely, there were. Nick and Rowena were a gay couple who had worked in the gift shop for years! He then claimed that 'this can trigger paranormal activity!' Amazingly, Nick and Rowena had recently moved to the Swiss Cottage restaurant above the gardens and pans had reportedly started flying off shelves and things were going missing - most notably, lanterns and most worrying, kitchen knives! Some returned, some disappeared forever, just like the gift shop stamps. He spent two full days at the towers and confirmed intense activity in the building, without being able to produce any evidence whatsoever! He did part with the following insight though - "Poltergeists like young children because they are innocent and will play with them with no inhibitions". It seems to make sense! Apparently, it was commonly believed in paranormal circles that homosexuality attracts poltergeists. Although he couldn't tell anyone why?
A stranger is watching
My favourite story of all though (except perhaps for the Tenerife one) combines the Towers gift shop and my auntie Annie. As well as running ‘Annie's Shop’ on the edge of the lake as a teenager she also used to help her parents do stock takes at the end of each day. One such day was late October at the end of the holiday season. The books that were sold in the gift shop were on sale and return and we're all piled up on the counter for collection the next day.
It was late, dark and a bit spooky and Annie was in a hurry to get out if there. As she was crouching down behind the counter in the vast vaulted ceilinged entrance hall, it went cold. Then she smelt a strong sweet smell - like an old Victorian scent which my grandmother had often mentioned. It was silent apart from the distant moaning wind outside. Then suddenly there was an almighty BANG immediately behind her. She spun round and discovered that a large book had flown off the counter top and landed directly behind her. On closer inspection, she froze! The title of the book she will never forget. 'A stranger is watching' by Mary Higgins Clark. Now she ran, fumbling with her keys to release herself from the Towers without looking back. She locked the huge doors and ran to her car outside. But then it got weird and she can't explain this part. Having started her engine, she turned it back off and just sat there. She was compelled, with a burning desire, to go back in and get the book. So that's exactly what she did. Fast.
When she got home, she put the book on the bookshelf and forgot about it. On reflection, she now feels that's when the evil spirit from the Towers jumped to her. Years later, her daughter Emma's night terrors started and that's also when Annie started experiencing unexplained things at home.
One day, her very pragmatic husband, Uncle Andrew, told her he was having a bonfire and that he was taking the book that constantly freaked her out, to burn it. Surprisingly, she was fine with it. So off he went with the book. A week later, Annie was rummaging round in the garage and, to her amazement, she found it. When she questioned Andrew he was baffled. Or concealing the fact that he felt compelled not to burn it? So they forgot about it again and kept it.
A few years after this, Emma had a school project for which she had to interview someone about an interesting story. She interviewed Annie about the book and the teacher was spellbound! In fact, so much so that she politely asked Annie if she could see the book. Annie agreed on the proviso that she took care of it and gave it back soon....
Annie never saw the book again. The teacher shiftily made up excuse after excuse as to why she hadn't given it back and eventually claimed that she had 'lost' it. Knowing the feeling, Annie suspected that the teacher felt compelled to keep the book but the reality is probably a little more pragmatic. A mutual friend of theirs claims that the teacher was so disturbed by the story that she destroyed the book before she even got home after school on the day she borrowed it...
Can it be explained?
After all, Alton Towers was on the site of many ancient settlements, including an old monastery, and the gift shop was the grand entrance so it’s plausible (just!) that it was the gateway to a supernatural world.
The rest of the towers were always empty and unattended all night so all sorts of things could have happened without anyone knowing. My father wanted to install hidden projectors to simulate ghostly activity but was blocked by the local council on health and safety grounds!! That’s would’ve been cool though!
There were comedy moments too. Granny remembers two old ladies walking through the gift shop when one said to the other 'Grace, did you see that? That teapot just moved across that shelf", to which Grace responded curtly "Mavis! I told you not to have any sherry before we came today and you've let me down!". But granny smiled to herself, knowing that what the lady saw was only the start of it...
One explanation is that sightings of ‘spirits’ are simply ‘recordings’, in a similar way in which you could technically see the past if you travelled at the speed of light away from the earth with a telescope powerful enough to look back (but that’s a whole other fascinating world of quantum physics!). The idea is that, just like video and audio can be captured and stored on tape via magnetic strips, certain parts of the earth can capture this data and certain people can tune into it. Like a cassette and a cassette player. But that wouldn’t expain kinetics. And how do you explain that twisted watch, even if you don’t believe the other stories? My grandmother feels that if they had used cameras and modern technology when they were investigating decades ago, the ghosts would disable them on the basis that if they were clever enough to do what they were doing, they'd also be clever enough not to be caught in the act.
And finally….it happened to Annie again quite recently. Emma stayed at her mother’s in Buckinghamshire and, unbeknown to each other, they both woke up in the middle of the night. It was freezing cold and they could see their breath. A rancid smell filled the air and they felt a strong unfriendly presence in the house. But then the moment passed. Emma almost said something at breakfast and so did Annie but both didn't want to mention it for fear of scaring each other. When they eventually talked about it, their stories were identical and it turns out that Annie had muttered that prayer again to admonish the spirit. “In the name of Jesus, be gone! It was at 2.15am for both of them…
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