Interview with Nick Laister
Nick Laister, Chairman and co-founder of the Dreamland Heritage Trust from 2007 to 2016, speaks here about the campaign that saved Dreamland Amusement Park from closure, and reimagined its future as the world’s first amusement park including thrilling historic rides.
Did you have a long history of visiting Dreamland before you set up the Save Dreamland Campaign?
I first visited Dreamland in 1993, and I made a few visits after that with my children. In 2001, I sent a report to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) suggesting that they might want to list the Scenic Railway roller coaster, which was the oldest surviving roller coaster in the UK. Looking back now, I am so glad I did as I am not sure that the Scenic Railway rebuild, or indeed the reopening of Dreamland, would have happened; the Scenic Railway seems to be at the heart of the enthusiasm of many people.
How did it feel to see the Scenic Railway rising from the ashes?
The listing of the scenic seemed like such a little event at the time, but it has had far reaching consequences that I could never have anticipated. It is fantastic now to see the ride so beautifully reconstructed, especially given the extensive damage it suffered in the 2008 arson attack.
Looking back, what do you think were the biggest milestones in the Dreamland journey?
The idea for rebuilding Dreamland as the world's first amusement park of thrilling historic rides was something that the Save Dreamland Campaign came up with in 2007. This was the height of the property bubble, and seaside parks were closing all around the country - not because they weren't viable, but because their redevelopment value was so high. The rewards for building a supermarket or apartments were too much to resist. As someone who works in the industry as a planning and development advisor to a large proportion of the UK's amusement and theme parks, I was aware that every major historic seaside park outside Blackpool and Great Yarmouth was set to close by the end of that year, meaning that virtually all the amusement park heritage outside these two towns would have been lost within 12 months. I thought that we needed to save these rides, many of which were the oldest surviving examples of their type in Europe or the world. These rides would otherwise have been lost. We thought that the idea of rebuilding them, or similar rides from different eras, alongside the Scenic Railway in, what I believe to be the oldest surviving amusement park in the UK, was so right. And thankfully many influential people and organisations agreed with us.
What was the next step?
Setting up the Dreamland Heritage Trust was the next step. Two of my colleagues at the Save Dreamland Campaign, Sarah Vickery and Susan Marsh, had been at the forefront of building the Campaign and getting the message across through so many different channels, whether it be the local or national media, local plan consultations or just simply standing on the streets of Thanet in the pouring rain trying to persuade people that supporting Dreamland is a good idea. And support us they did; we managed to get the Dreamland site protected in the Thanet Local Plan. But we decided that campaigning alone wasn't enough. There needed to be an organisation that could actually involve itself in driving forward plans to reopen Dreamland, by going out there and securing funding for the project. And so The Dreamland Trust was born towards the end of 2007.
The Trust worked tirelessly to make this happen, convincing many organisations that it would be a good idea to invest in the Dreamland project. I can remember so many meetings in London and elsewhere trying to persuade organisations that Dreamland was a cause worth supporting. A large number of these organisations got on board: English Heritage, The Arts Council, Thanet District Council, South East of England Development Agency, Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, the list goes on. And with these organisations behind us, we were able to apply for money from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and the DCMS. We successfully secured several million pounds from the HLF. Other funders then came forward and we managed to get the project budget up to £18m. A huge thank you goes out to all the funders, but particularly to the Heritage Lottery Fund, DCMS and Thanet District Council, as, without these organisations, this project could not have happened.
How did having the funding in place change things?
It meant that we could bring a team on board, both in-house staff and also specialist consultants. And when our Heritage and Learning Officer, Jan Leandro, joined us in 2010, we were really able to reach the local community and bring them with us, something the Trust directors, all volunteers, could not do alone. And our project directors, particularly Jonathan Bryant and Eddie Kemsley, really drove forward the project. Our creative adviser, Wayne Hemingway, gave Dreamland a striking new look and feel that fitted with the heritage ethos.
Were there any moments when you thought that the project would not come to fruition?
One or two, but we always fought on. For every bad moment, like the devastating Scenic Railway fire of 2008, there have been so many great ones, such as somehow getting 2500 people to turn up at Dreamland on one cold afternoon in the middle of November in 2013 to look around an empty and derelict amusement park, just after the Dreamland project had gained control of the site. It was moments like that - and there were many - that made me certain that we were doing the right thing in bringing back to life the south of England's greatest amusement park.
How did you go about finding the appropriate historic rides?
The starting point was to understand which rides were under threat of destruction. I knew where most of these rides were, because I work in the theme park industry as a planning and development consultant. Most were at parks that were about to be closed. Once I had assembled the list of threatened rides, we needed to decide what would work for Dreamland, in terms of rider appeal, capacity, likely running costs, etc. We then identified a shortlist and contacted the relevant parks to see what could be done. In most cases, the parks were very helpful. We then had to secure the funding, and all the logistics of dismantling and transport. These were very complex operations!
What is special about these rides?
Age and rarity are what make the rides special. We have tried to source rides that cannot be found anywhere else, or where there are very few to be found. What made some rides even more special was their connection to Dreamland. For example, the Caterpillar ride that is currently under restoration at the time of interview, would be the only survivor of its kind. Built partly out of the former Battersea Fun Fair Caterpillar, with bits of the Southport Pleasureland ride incorporated, it will be completely unique. But importantly, it is identical to the ride that used to operate at Dreamland. We have a number of rides that fall into that category, which make them exceptionally special. I am delighted that we have been able to save them and get them up and running again to delight visitors to the park. And there are more to come in the future.
How were they restored?
Most of the vintage rides have been restored by David Littleboy, a specialist ride restorer based just outside Wakefield – which coincidentally is my home town! He literally strips the rides down to their components and restores each component one-by-one, replacing parts where they are no longer serviceable, or where they are unlikely to be appropriate to the operating conditions at Dreamland. When the rides are returned to us, they are like new; they have proven to be very reliable, and, I understand, easier to keep going than the more modern rides.
The Dreamland Heritage Trust.
THE DREAMLAND STORY
From the 1920s until today, discover the story behind Kent’s most iconic theme park.
Just before Christmas 1919, and almost exactly one year after the end of the Great War, John Henry Iles purchased Margate’s The Hall By The Sea.
Give someone a pencil, ask them to draw a Margate building and the chances are that they will come up with an interpretation of the wonderful Art Deco-style cinema on the sea front.
The first half of Dreamland’s 1940s was, of course, dominated by the war effort on the home front and overseas.
The arrival of the 1950s marked a new era of hope and of leisure after the austerity of the war years.
Seen by many as the golden era for Dreamland, the 1960s were very much a classic time for the site.
Dreamland began the 1970s under new ownership, in the shape of the rather uninspiring-sounding Associated Leisure Entertainments Ltd.
Dreamland gave Margate yet another iconic structure in 1980, in the shape of the new Big Wheel, which stood proud of the clock tower at 180-feet high.
Dreamland got its rightful name back in 1990, when the Bembom Brothers decided that a minor revamp would be best promoted by the name...
Rumours of closure, demolition and a potential change of owners were all rife as the new millennium was ushered in...
After many years of campaigning to save the Dreamland site from redevelopment, and successful funding bids to the Heritage Lottery Fund...