As Britain’s oldest amusement park, Blackgang Chine sits high above a landslip at the ‘Back of the Wight’. With a longstanding reputation for whimsical creepiness, the park has been owned by the Dabell family since opening in 1843. Today, the usual thrill rides – and animatronic dinosaurs – join some early favourites: a fibreglass Mouth of Hell, the Crooked House and a distorting Hall of Mirrors. Periodically, as the sea encroaches, the attractions closest to the landslip retreat.
A chine is a deep coastal ravine cut by water. Although one Georgian bathing guide described Blackgang as a ‘vast and horrible opening’, entrepreneurial Alexander Dabell saw potential. For him this was a ‘ravine of savage magnificence’. He envisaged pathways leading down to the shore, romantic seating areas, gardens and viewpoints. With the extent of his lease determined by how far Alexander threw a stone, it wasn’t long before work began.
Later, with the paths almost complete, a dead fin whale was spotted drifting off the Needles. This sparked another idea, and Alexander won an auction for the reeking carcass – which drew quite a crowd. Having sold off the blubber, he arranged for the whale bones to be bleached and rearticulated at the top of his path.
Covered first by ‘a species of tent’, this ninety-foot skeleton would go on to house Blackgang’s giftshop. ‘Before descending,’ warned an 1873 Isle of Wight guidebook, ‘the visitor will walk through the bazaar, and will be expected to make a purchase’.
By the mid 1900s, the Edwardian paths and much of the chine had eroded away. And there was no longer any access to the beach. Yet up on the clifftop, the park’s attractions continued to evolve as well as retreat.
The postcard above shows gamblers in the Gnome Garden, which was introduced in the early 1930s (joining the Hall of Mirrors said to have been imported from Paris). For decades the gnomes would remain at their toadstool table, until a spate of rapid erosion in the 1980s saw them moved inland.
By then, they’d been joined by Blackgang’s famous ‘lifesize’ dinosaurs. The photographs above show the original fibreglass beasts being airlifted in – enough of a spectacle to feature on an episode of Blue Peter with John Noakes.
It was the idea of the dinosaurs’ periodic retreat from the landslip that first drew me to Blackgang. So inevitably, I collected a few postcards.
In 1994 a massive landslip led to the loss of Frontierland, Smugglerland and Adventureland (its original Crooked House is shown in the postcard below, along with Nurseryland’s unsettling Humpty Dumpty).
By the time Blackgang celebrated its 175th birthday in 2018, all that remained of Adventureland was the concrete shell of Mission Control and a rusted roundabout at the edge of the cliff.