Oblivion a thrill too far for Alton Towers

Date:

03/08/2004

Author:

David Ward

Source:

The Guardian

Matter:

Roper - Alton Towers

Screaming passengers on some of the world's scariest white-knuckle rides may have to be told to whisper in terror after a legal ruling yesterday.

The owners of Alton Towers, the theme park set in the heart of the Staffordshire countryside, have until November to come up with a plan to cut the noise from its rides, firework displays, concerts and public address systems after a private prosecution by a couple living 100 yards from the entrance.

District judge Timothy Gascoigne found Tussaud's Theme Parks Ltd guilty of statutory noise nuisance under the 1990 Environmental Protection Act.

In his judgment, he told how he had visited the ivy-clad cottage of Suzanne and Stephen Roper, who bought their home in the village of Farley 12 years before the first rollercoaster was built.

The first big thrill was the Corkscrew, with its heart-stopping upside-down disorientating moments; then came Nemesis, with its reputation for lost shoes and G-forces of up to four; and Air with its "true feeling of flight, liberation and exhilaration".

But the judge bypassed those to concentrate on Oblivion, the world's first vertical drop rollercoaster. He visited the Ropers' garden and said he could clearly hear Oblivion's screamers.

"The fundamental problem with Oblivion seems to me is its design," he said. "The ride stops just over the edge of the drop. It then plummets vertically into a hole in the ground before coming out of the tunnel to rise again to the starting point.

"Obviously the 'don't look down' message played as the car hangs over the edge is designed to heighten the white knuckle effect. This induces screaming. I find that the screams and mechanical noise is intrusive and constitutes a nuisance."

He also found that noise associated with a corporate event organised for employees of BT, featuring live bands, had ruined a weekend when Mr Roper and his wife were trying to relax in their garden with guests.

At an earlier hearing, Mr Roper, who runs a china company in Stoke-on-Trent, said he had never known a day like the Sunday of the BT event. "I heard the whole of the speech made by the chairman of BT, Sir Christopher Bland," he told the court. "He might as well have been sitting next to me."

Of the park's firework displays, the judge said: "I find (they) are intrusive . . . In context, Alton Towers, in a conservation area, aims to set off the loudest fireworks in Britain."

Mr Roper had said of the displays: "If you live within, I would suggest, a mile or any more of Alton Towers, your windows literally shake, and if you go outside, the ground shakes."

But Judge Gascoigne did not accept that traffic noise was a nuisance attributable to Alton Towers. He did not serve a noise abatement order on the park, but has scheduled a two-day hearing on November 1 to hear submissions about the detail of any order that might be served.

Outside the court, Mr Roper said: "We are delighted after 25 years of misery. We hope now we can work with Alton Towers as good neighbours in the future."

"It's been difficult, miserable at times and nightmarish at others," added Mrs Roper

In a statement their solicitor, Richard Buxton, said: "It has never been our intention to close down Alton Towers, but after 25 years of escalating noise we seek a level of civilised behaviour."

The Ropers' barrister, Martin Diggins, added: "The case is a historic victory for the little guy against the giant corporation and for the environment in general."

An Alton Towers spokeswoman said the judgment did not mean that the park might close.

"Alton Towers is naturally very disappointed with this verdict and we will now con sider the implications of the judgment whilst we work towards a compromise solution that is acceptable to all parties," said a statement from the company

"However, we are a theme park and it is inevitable that there will be some noise associated with our business.

"We do not believe that this decision is representative of the level of actual complaints received, or the feelings of the majority of our local residents."