Blackgang Chine feels like it has been here forever. Ask anyone that has ever visited the Isle of Wight or indeed lived here, Blackgang will have permeated many childhoods and formed the backdrop to many memories.
When Islanders take a holiday away, and the conversation turns to ‘where are you from’, invariably someone will pipe up with the classic line “oh yes, I went there on a school trip years ago, I remember going to Blackgang Chine”.
The park opened when the tourism trade was in its infancy and the idea of taking a holiday was, to most, an alien concept. As the trend for well-spent leisure time increased, Alexander Dabell, the founder of the park, realised the opportunity that Blackgang offered. People were beginning to seek out new healthy holiday resorts, close to the coast. As the railway network was improving and getting closer to the south coast, the Isle of Wight became an increasingly attractive holiday destination.
Deciding to act upon this, Blackgang Chine opened in 1843 and its draw was a large whale skeleton which had been stranded off the local coast, near The Needles.
Alexander Dabell had bought it at auction, sold off the blubber, had the bones bleached, then transported it across the Island to be displayed for visitors to marvel at. When Queen Victoria visited the curiosity in 1853, the fate of the park was cemented and its place as a visitor attraction was sealed.
Today, the park is still very much in the family, having moved through the generations. For its 175th anniversary, it is headed up by Alec Dabell, great, great grandchild of the original Alexander. We caught up with him ahead of the celebrations to find out what exactly it is that has made Blackgang Chine so enduring; why it is still a hugely popular visitor attraction now in 2018 as when it first opened way back in 1843?
Why do you think Blackgang Chine has endured over the years, still being as popular today in the 21st century as it was in the 19th century?
“Imagination and creativity are still as relevant as they have always been. Blackgang Chine is a facilitator of people’s creativity, it is a place that enables you to remove the adult constraints and, basically, let your imagination run wild. One day you could be fighting a pirate battle on the raging seas, the next you could be holding up a bank in the wild west or encountering a dodo or dinosaur! Each person’s experience is completely unique, the only thing that is constant is the making of memories”.
What is it about Blackgang that appeals to different generations?
“We have had families return to us again and again. From being children on holiday with their parents or grandparents, to bringing in their own children down the line. We have had some families who have returned each year for the past 30 years. The feeling of playing with your children, letting go and not having to behave like an adult can take years off you. It appeals to the Peter Pan in all of us”.
How has Blackgang evolved and reinvented itself over the years?
“As tourism has evolved, we have too. We recognise that much of our appeal here is that certain parts haven’t changed, but as our imagination evolves, so does the story of the park. We like to use elements of the past and reinvent and improve in order to move forward. A great example is our Area 5. We blended some of our older dinosaurs with the new generation animatronic versions to create a new area, giving people what they want. The thrill of the new, but with some of the well-loved and ‘classic Blackgang’ they have come to expect”.
How will you be celebrating the 175th anniversary?
“This will be a year of celebrations and we will have many fun events taking place, from our wonderful firework nights and big birthday bash, to immersive street theatre. We have a great event called ‘Blackgang and the Curious Timeboat’ which centres around an inventor and a pirate who have to find crystals throughout their journey. This will be played out during the summer, unfolding all the way through the season to October.
So although 175 years ago seems relatively recent in the grand scheme of things, when you consider that within that time, cars, electricity and even tea bags have been invented, you can start to get a grasp on just how old that is. Even time itself (GMT) came after Blackgang!”
A version of this article, by Lindsay Becker, first appeared in Wightlife magazine
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