Anyone who lives in the UK will recognise the name Alton Towers almost purely on principal. The premiere theme park in the UK and located in Staffordshire, England, is built on the grounds of an actual 15th century castle near the village of Alton, the Alton Towers of name. Converting to a full amusement park in the late 1970’s, it acquired the Corkscrew rollercoaster in 1980, the first in Europe to have a double corkscrew inversion, making a statement as to its future ambitions. It’s gone on to become bigger and bolder over the years, bringing in many top class attractions and world’s firsts, including Oblivion (the first coaster to feature a vertical drop), and The Smiler (the first with fourteen inversions). For the horror fan, it’s strangely homely, as it features a splattering of rides with dark and sinister theming.
Along with the ghost train Duel (a ride combined with a blaster game, where you shoot targets on ghouls and zombies to score points against your friends), many of the coasters are also horrifically themed. Th13teen is the principal coaster of the Dark Forest section, an evil woodland come to life, Wicker Man is a wooden coaster built around a sacrificial effigy in a similar vein to the film of the same name, and Nemesis is themed to be a ride forged from chains made to hold down an unearthed alien entity.
One of these rides is Hex, a flat ride located inside the towers itself. Hex is part walkthrough, part ride, where riders eventually sit either side of a large platform which moves in conjunction with the room, to create a disorienting experience where one eventually finds it hard to distinguish if they are moving, or the room alone, or both, or neither, or in which direction. What many people may not actually know is that the tree in the story of the ride is a real tree, and the story based off actual legend.
Traveling back home to the towers in the 1840s (though some say in the 1820’s), the Earl of Shrewsbury finds an old woman at the side of the road. Stopping the carriage, she asks him for a spare coin, to which the Earl promptly huffs, dismisses her, and travels on. As the cart pulls away, the old woman turns, points a finger at him, and calls after him, that whenever a branch should fall from a nearby oak tree, a family member of the Earl should die.
Sometime later, when the curse is all but forgotten, a storm kicks up. The winds batter the walls and howl in thenight, and in the darkness, a branch is ripped free of the tree and crashes to the ground. The curse soon comes true as a family member (a son in some versions of the tale, a daughter in others), falls ill and passes on. In some versions, another branch falls and someone else dies later again, but in all accounts, the Earl soon orders great chains to be forged. The chains are wrapped around the tree, lashing the branches to the trunk, in an attempt to avoid any future tragedy.
Where reality falls and tales begin is hard to distinguish, because the chained oak is a real tree, and there was a carriageway that ran close to it. Hollyman and Kelsall’s article on the story also describes a similar tale involving a fortune teller appearing at a banquet in exchange for shelter, and casting a similar curse when he is dismissed. We don’t actually have any idea as to how old the chains are, or when they were wrapped around the tree. Added to this, the Towers’ version of the story is embellished for the ride, adding in the Earl of Shrewsbury performing experiments on one of the branches to find a way to lift the curse. When you combine this with a lack of historical documentation for the woman in the road, chains being made, etc, you have a story which is likely created over time through whisper and rumour. At the same time, there’s nothing saying that the story couldn’t indeed be true.
It’s certainly interesting to see local folklore like this being brought to a wider audience through a theme park ride, even more that parts of it are true, if not the actual curse bit. Stone steps lead up to the real oak, rotting and degrading, like an altar. Though nobody in the current Earl’s family passed away when sections of the tree fell away a few years ago, the spookiness of it remains. A visit to the area may be a nice pilgrimage for all you horror hunters if you ever visit the park, though of course, careful not to break any branches off it whilst you’re there.
-Article by Kieran Judge
Hollyman, S. & Kelsall, G., 2008. The Legend of the Chained Oak. [Online]
Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20130430220927/http://www.altontowersheritage.com/heritage/article.asp?articleid=99
[Accessed 02 05 2020].