Whatever happened to Tucktonia?

An original cardboard advertisement board from the early 1970s that once stood in the foyer of the Bournemouth hotel run by Alwyn Ladell’s parents

It was the original Little Britain and as the forerunner of Alton Towers and Chessington World of Adventures, arguably the country’s first theme park. To a generation that grew up in Dorset in the 1970s and early 1980s, Tucktonia was the doyen of days out – leisure-time nirvana on the banks of the Stour. Time spent in that part of Christchurch was more than pleasant: it was practically paradise.

This particular vision of Utopia was that of former British Formula Three motor racing champion Harry Stiller, who had bought the Tuckton Golf School site in 1961, converting its clubhouse into the Golfer’s Arms pub and opening Tuckton Golf and Leisure Park. Had he got permission for the roller-coaster he had planned, that might have been the end of it, but the scheme was rejected and Harry’s thoughts turned to a miniature tourist attraction that had impressed him in Holland.

Suitably inspired, he set about creating the ‘greatest little Britain in the world’ – dioramas of the country’s signature tourist attractions in 1:24 scale and featuring more than 200 models, among them Buckingham Palace, Stonehenge, the Houses of Parliament, a Cornish village, London’s historic Prospect of Whitby pub, Tower Bridge, Westminster Abbey and Christchurch Priory. Perhaps less obviously, there were also models of a ‘typical’ British high street, an Elizabethan scene, Piccadilly Circus, a lighthouse, airport, motorway service station, nuclear power plant and oil refinery.

Reputed to have cost around £2 million, Tucktonia was opened on 23 May 1976 by comedian Arthur Askey and ‘The Best of Britain in Miniature’ was its star attraction. It had been two years in the planning and building, during which the site had been drained and filled with 8000 tonnes of hardcore then covered by 2500 tonnes of cement, raising it by 27 inches to combat the risk of flooding. It took 164,000 gallons of water to fill the miniature docks, rivers and seaside and more than 12,000 bulbs to light the four-acre site at night.

As well as the model Britain there was an amusement park with a six-lane, 35-foot Astra Slide (in its final incarnation it had a ‘magic castle’ theme), a lake with bumper boats, mini-motorbikes, go-karts, ride-on Land Rover models, a miniature railway (from 1980), small fairground rides, crazy golf, amusement arcade, gift shop, café/restaurant, mini-cinema and the Roy of the Rovers bar for children.

Tommy Cooper visited, as did actor Jon Pertwee in 1978 (in character as Wurzel Gummidge) to top out the NatWest Tower, Tucktonia’s tallest model. Keith Chegwin and Maggie Philbin hosted the BBC’s Multi-Coloured Swap Shop live from the park, which also appeared in the long-forgotten spoof film, Queen Kong. Later, in 1985, it was used to stage the alien destruction of London in Lifeforce, a sci-fi horror by Tobe Hooper, creator of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The Eagle comic ran a competition in 1982 for winning readers to star in a special episode of ‘The Collector’ photostrip set in Tucktonia. Somehow sleepy Christchurch had become the centre of the leisure universe.

Tucktonia’s take on the  old London Bridge, Tucktonia style

Scaled-down settlements were nothing new, not even in Dorset, where Wimborne’s model town had opened in 1951 and Corfe Castle’s village in 1966, but Tucktonia had swagger, glamour and pizazz. ‘Bringing the past into the future,’ hollered the brochures. And how. The amusement park was bigger and better than small town funfairs; the proto-video games inside were flashier than the ones in seaside arcades. This was the modern world and if a kid on a school trip wanted to strip his shirt off and pretend to be Sid Vicious on a motorbike in the video to the Sex Pistols’ version of ‘Something else’, Tucktonia was the place to do it – and well worth the subsequent detention.

Tucktonia’s owners proudly informed Associated Press at the launch that after the Tower of London, it would be ‘the country’s biggest magnet for tourists’. Open from the week before Easter until the end of October, it employed some eighty staff and for a while things looked good, with half a million visitors a year, but times were changing and fast. Alton Towers opened in 1980 and instantly Tucktonia felt old hat.

The miniature steam railway opened the same year and although it delighted tens of thousands of passengers, the park’s decline was irreversible. After changing hands a number of times, Tucktonia closed in 1986, just a year after plans had been approved for a £10 million housing and leisure complex that would have seen the whole thing relocated to an out-of-town site. It never happened. Instead, any trace of Tucktonia was quickly cleared to make space for The Olde Colonial pub, then Bar Max. In time that also closed and the site was eventually developed for housing as The Meridians.

Tucktonia’s Cornish fishing village – overlooking by flats

Tucktonia’s railway, complete with engines, carriages, tracks and founder-driver Jim Haylock, found a new lease of life at Moors Valley Country Park, where it continues to thrive. The ‘Britain in Miniature’ models were packed away and held in storage in Verwood, where they fell victim to a warehouse fire: all except Buckingham Palace, which until 2002 was on show at Wimborne Model Town before being sold to Merivale Model Village, near Great Yarmouth. It’s still there.

But little else remains of Tucktonia other than the memories of a generation of pocket-money thrill-seekers. Speaking to the BBC in 2010, Harry Stiller said he felt proud of what he achieved with Tucktonia: ‘When I think about it, I think of the hundreds of thousands of people that had the pleasure of Tucktonia – the happiest days of my life.’ He certainly had a point.

The images accompanying this piece are courtesy of Alwyn Ladell. To see more of Alwyn’s 72,000-plus images visit
www.flickr.com/photos/alwyn_ladell/

• First published by Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.

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