I will never love a theme park more than Wicksteed Park
Northamptonshire’s finest family day out
When I was younger, school holidays meant packing toys, games and videotapes into one of my parents’ travel bags and getting into Dad’s car for the two-hour drive to visit Nan. Nan, and most of my wider family, lived in Corby, Northamptonshire. Not many people have heard of Corby, but my secondary school Chemistry teacher had: he proudly mentioned at a parent-teacher night that when he was young he’d studied it in Geography as a “town in decline”.
Even as a kid, I could understand why. Any energy the place once stored was spent when the steel mill shut down, and so visits to see Nan involved long stretches of having very little to do. The only thing to really look forward to on those long car drives north (apart from seeing family, of course) was Wicksteed Park.
It made the playgrounds back home look small and quaint
I’m not quite sure when I went on my first trip to Wicksteed Park, but it didn’t take many trips before it became a reliable fixture of half-terms in Northants. Most of the time we wouldn’t even go on any rides, we’d just take a picnic and play on one of the many children’s play areas.
That was the beauty of Wicksteed Park: admission was free, you just paid for the rides. You could go and do nothing but sit on the swings or climb the big jungle gym and pretend you were a character in Recess, and you’d still have the best day ever.
While playgrounds back home presented a tired combination of swings, slide and monkey bars, Wicksteed Park offered new tunnels and climbing frames. Plus, the fact you weren’t coming here everyday meant it never got boring. Take me back there now and I reckon I’d still have a great time. Might get a few odd looks from the other kids’ parents though.
Getting the train was really exciting because it took you to a whole new part of the park
Before commuting sucked the joy out of train journey, seeing railway tracks was exciting. It reminded you of that bit in The Railway Children when the girl tries to get the train to stop. On the first couple of visits to Wicksteed, we probably only saw the train from a distance. I imagine Mum held onto me while encouraging me to wave at the train as it went past.
Eventually though it was time to ride the train ourselves. That remains my life’s peak. You didn’t even know going around the back of the big lake and through the tunnel was possible. Best of all, you could get off the train at the other end of the park and go on the boats or the big waterslide. Speaking of which…
You knew you were growing up when you started going on the big rides
The first time you see it, the waterslide looks terrifying. Not because it’s necessarily very big, but because when I was younger it appeared almost overgrown, positioned in its own secluded pond. You half expected a Scooby Doo villain to be operating the machinery. Eventually though I got older, got braver and went on the slide (with Mum in tow, which she probably wasn’t very happy about).
Soon after, you had the confidence to approach the big rollercoaster and the go-karts. These were the rides that brought kids out of their shell, pushing us and making sure we were ready for the independence of big school. Obviously, both were really tame (is it even a rollercoaster if it doesn’t have a loop-the-loop?) but it didn’t seem that way when you were making those first steps towards your teens.
You never got tired of the pirate ship
The gigantic, hissing, creaking pirate ships dominate the landscape at Wicksteed. Forget the indoor cinema screen that made you feel like you were on a rollercoaster, or the circular drum that would spin around so fast you stuck to the wall – the pirate ship was always the highlight of a trip to the park.
Really, a family theme park in Kettering shouldn’t really work. This is a town with a Eurostar link and little else. You wouldn’t expect Wicksteed Park would get enough visitors to pay the bills but somehow it just keeps going. Decades from now, some of the rides will probably have changed, swapped out for virtual reality simulators and whatever the futuristic version of a bouncy castle is, but the pirate ships will still be swinging, cresting the wave of those awkward teenage years.
This piece is part of a series on shit attractions that you – mystifyingly – loved as a child. Want to write about your unmerry merry-go-round? Email [email protected] to volunteer yours.