TR: Watermouth Castle
Many a time on this forum I have professed my love of Blackgang Chine, the fantasy theme park on the Isle of Wight. And because of this, Nick has often suggested I visit Watermouth Castle, which has some similarities. Finding myself in North Devon last Sunday, I finally took his advice.
Overlooking the harbour, Watermouth Castle is a 19th-century house (it was built in 1825) between Combe Martin and Ilfracombe. Like Blackgang Chine, it has links with smuggling, supposedly via tunnels between the house and the sea.
Organ music greeted me as I approached the main doors. Once in, you follow a long path through the building, which initially takes you through rooms housing old-fashioned curiosities that are as eclectic as they are antiquated. There are strange arcade machines, such as cranes and hands that grab prizes for you, displays of life in a Victorian kitchen and even a cider-making room playing The Wurzels’ “I Am a Cider Drinker”. All very odd. Creepiest of all is a ventriloquist’s dummy sitting on a chair high above, er... transport paraphernalia, bus levers and such. I entered this small room, only to have the dummy lower the comic he was holding, turn his head and stare at me.
If that wasn’t scary enough (and it was), the trail then descends to the dungeons. I should point out there are signs for an opt-out route via a No Entry door, supposedly for the claustrophobic, but personally I recommend it for anyone averse to weirdness!
First up is a set of fairytale scenes behind glass panels. Once a button is pushed, these light up and are animated. Round a corner, the theme changes to crafts and manufacturing. The displays are still animated in the same way, but this time you can peer into mock-up craft shops.
The dungeon is then punctuated by a small room with various coin-operated machines that are played with 2p pieces. After that, we enter the “real” dungeon, if you like. Various signs warn that the displays are not for the easily frightened. On my visit, they didn’t seem to do much. Whether or not they had been deliberately neutered, I don’t know. The only thing I saw was a pretty realistic ghost (which was not a push-button display).
One optional part of the walk is the “Smugglers Dungeon”, which seems to extend your walk with an extra L-shape if you want. I don’t know exactly what it was, but there were lots of loud noises coming from it. I got the impression it was a fun-house type walkthrough. Perhaps I should have peered in, but I was anxious to see daylight at this stage.
Completing the dungeon is an (optional) mirror maze, which I avoided and, continuing the eclectic, random feel, a cycle museum.
We emerge into the theme park. Phew.
I must say, already a more sinister tone than Blackgang Chine has been set. If I’m being harsh, I’d say that, although distinctive, I didn’t like this meandering way of entering the theme park. I don’t want to overstate how scary it was, but then again I don’t want to understate it either, and I don’t think I’d have been very keen on it when I was a child at all.
But never mind that. The sun is shining and I enter a courtyard. Up ahead is the way to the rides and such. I chose to visit Gnome Land first. On the way are more scenes to activate, this time with a nursery rhyme theme. There are also suspended barrels with animals in them. My favourite of all though was a crocodile that emerged from water, snapped at you, then actually submerged with a splash.
One display had a gnome climbing a rope, watched by an angry (hungry?) troll. It soon became clear that the ongoing theme was “gnomes vs. trolls”. When you open a door next to the crocodile, a troll is poking up from the water and sprays a bit at you.
Entering Gnome Land properly, I went in the mines (where they mine their jewels), saw their home life etc. One bit I was looking forward to was the “Troll Cave”. In this, there is a troll at home with his wife. When you activate the display, you hear troll-like music, and a plate on the floor vibrates.
“The Haunted Mill” serves as the exit to Gnome Land and the path to the rest of the theme park. This is not a walkthrough, but actually seems to be a real watermill. If you peer into the windows, you will see various skeletons.
So, overall it was quite well done, but I’m afraid I didn’t feel any enchantment at this stage. Unlike Blackgang, there is no clifftop feel, no sea air, no illuminations... Or perhaps it’s just my age? After all, it’s not exactly aimed at me. Regardless, as I say, it was quite well done.
Then I saw a tube slide.
Now, I can’t resist a slide. Wet, dry, big, small, bring ’em on! Supposedly, this was once the world’s biggest, which might have been the case when it was built, but I can’t imagine has been so for many decades. I grabbed a mat and hauled it up to the top. Legs in, arms in, whee...! Bump, bump, whoosh, bump, bump, whoosh! I laughed my head off.
Emerging from the snake’s mouth, I gave my endorsement to the slide and ran back up for another go. One thing I noticed was that no kids were riding it. Later on, I saw some dads ride it, but their kids wouldn’t! Whether they were scared or embarrassed, I don’t know, but it was just us men/big kids!
Up a hill, I saw the Big River Ride, which is not a rapids, but a sedate water ride that uses circular boats. Now, I knew there were going to be things on this that squirted water at me, but I decided to be macho and just get on with it. I climbed into the tub, and off we went. There are various huts that house animatronics. The thing I should say is that these are really good. First of all, there is one with a chorus of giant birds, followed by other “The Jungle Book” type animals. Halfway round is a bear that laughs and sprays water at you, but it is only a fine spray, and it was a hot day. Then there are a few more, including an orang-utan, which if I recall correctly is the other one that sprays water at you.
I was very impressed. It was theme park quality.
Even higher up a hill is the Snail Trail ride. This is the 4th Snails ride I’ve seen, and the 3rd permanent one (ie. has a concrete track). The theme is the Teddy Bears’ Picnic. On the outdoor section, these are made out of wood. However, there is a large tunnel at the far end of the course, and it soon becomes clear why they needed an undercover section. This “barn” is full of genuine soft toys, many of them animated.
So, a decent ride. Next up, I had a walk through the gardens. There are pixies, statues and various water sculptures. I also went in a building where you could “leave your shadow behind”. There is lots of stuff like this. I’m not doing it justice really.
I’d spent a couple of hours in Watermouth Castle, and I felt like a sit down. On the bench, I had a great view of all the trees. For some reason, I sat there for ages, with the sun beating down on me. I just felt like relaxing. And that’s the thing, Watermouth Castle is very tranquil. The outdoor bit, anyway. Whilst I had visited for the “fantasy park” aspect (the gnomes, pixies etc), I was actually more impressed with the conventional theme park aspect. I was going to say “traditional”, but no, it’s more the conventional side I was impressed with. It’s no Paultons, but it’s not too far off a Gulliver’s. There were lots of high-quality roundabouts and things that I didn’t ride, but would be a great for a certain age.
Making my way to the exit (and they are quite clear it’s one-way!) I felt glad I had at last experienced this strange, but high quality, piece of the North Devon Coast.
That is a fantastic TR, Graeme. I am glad you finally got to visit Watermouth Castle, even though you probably aren't its targeted demographic. I haven't been for 10 years at least, and there appears to have been a bit of a shift towards theme park rides since I was there. It would be interesting to know if these rides have replaced areas of the park.
I don't think anything can quite compare to Blackgang Chine. What is so special about Blackgang Chine is the fact that it is completely unique, with its clifftop landslip setting adding so much atmosphere. So by definition, I don't suppose we will find anywhere directly comparable.
But if you are looking for more quirky visitor attractions, you could do a lot worse than Disneyland Retford (otherwise known as Sundown Adventureland). The setting has no atmosphere whatsoever, being in the shadow of a power station, but what the owners have done with it is nothing short of incredible and unparallelled, at least in this country.
Wonderland Telford is also worth a look, as is Wookey Hole, which is really taking on a character all of its own under the ownership of Gerry Cottle.
Loved reading this!!
Anything off the Beaten Track appeals to me and in this Themepark that I call Great Britain there are many of these attractions.
Thanks Nick and d_n_s_u. I was hoping you'd both see this. Your comments mean a great deal to me.
> I haven't been for 10 years at
> least, and there appears to have been a bit of a shift
> towards theme park rides since I was there. It would be
> interesting to know if these rides have replaced areas of
> the park.
I'd be interested to know what was there when you visited that may now not be. Gnome Land is now the only significant outdoor "fantasy" area. There is nothing else like that in the park now.
By the way, I forgot to say that it appears Watermouth Castle bought Captain Andy's Show from Thorpe Park. I looked in and it still has all the characters at the side, like Miss Hippo etc:
I haven't been around in awhile, but I saw this, and had to read it, of course! Definitely not targeted at my demographic, but like you, Graz, I can't say no to a slide. Sounds like you had fin, and great pics taken once again. :)