Hold on tight: Britain's amusement parks are closing fast...

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... but their historic white-knuckle rides are being rescued. And just in the nick of time

No trip to the seaside is complete without hurtling down a 70-degree incline at death-defying speeds with cheeks shaking, body rattling and white knuckles gripping the safety bars in grim determination.

The clattering of a roller coaster and the shriek of terrified screams is as much a part of the seaside soundscape as the cry of gulls.

But Britain's amusement parks are closing at an unprecedented rate. Nineteen have closed down in the past decade, with rides destroyed or sold off on eBay. The latest was Barry Island Pleasure Park, last year. Another two or three are expected to close this year. On Wednesday, the Institute of Field Archaeologists (IFA) conference in Southport will hear that vanishing with the parks are hundreds of historic rides that have little or no official protection. Such is the mounting concern, English Heritage will visit Blackpool Pleasure Beach this week to assess some of its rides. The park, which opened in 1896 and is still one of Britain's biggest tourist attractions, has some of the world's oldest rides still working.

This week will mark another change in fortune for the vintage rides. The IFA conference will also be told that work on turning the closed Dreamland park in Margate into the world's first home for working vintage rides will finally begin. The project has raised £12m over the past seven years – including £3.7m from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and has rescued many rides from around Britain which it will restore and rebuild.

According to Jason Wood, former Professor of Cultural Heritage at Lancaster University, and now a director of Heritage Consultancy Services, the work is beginning in the nick of time.

"So many amusement parks have closed in the last decade," he said. "It started with the property boom of the late 1990s. They didn't go out of business. The land became very valuable and they were sold for development. The irony is that many of these sites are now derelict because the property firms that bought them have gone bust."

He welcomed English Heritage's decision to inspect the rides. Throughout Britain only two rides enjoy the protection of listed status – Margate's Scenic Railway and the Water Chute at East Park in Hull. "It is a new field in heritage and archaeology and it's something the professionals ought to be getting to grips with," he said.

"Amusement parks are just as significant as cinemas and theatres, but they don't get recognised for their historical significance. Dreamland will be the first park of its kind in the world. There is a surge of interest in amusement parks because of the threat."

Britain's best roller coasters

Captive Flying Machine, Blackpool

A gentle but exhilarating ride – when it turns, centrifugal force throws the cars out at an angle, giving the impression of flying. The ride was designed by Sir Hiram Maxim, who invented the machine gun. Only three were built – at Crystal Palace, at Southport, and one at Pleasure Beach, Blackpool, which opened in 1904, and is the only one to survive.

Grand National, Blackpool

Themed on yesterday's big horse race at Aintree, two carriages race each other along twin tracks. Built in 1935, the ride is a Möbius track loop roller coaster – which means the carriages switch sides on each run. It also has an Art Deco station – designed by Joseph Pemberton – and is one of only three in the world.

The Big Dipper, Blackpool

A classic roller coaster built in 1921 by American William Strickler and redesigned in 1934. Marlene Dietrich lost an earring trying out the ride. It was found 70 years later,

during restoration work.

Scenic Railway, Dreamland, Margate

The oldest roller coaster in Britain will form the centrepiece of the new Dreamland heritage amusement park. Built in 1920, it is Grade II listed, and is the only listed roller coaster in Britain. A quarter of it was destroyed in a fire in 2008, but it is expected to be fully operational by 2012.

Noah's Ark, Pleasure Beach, Blackpool

Not so much a ride as a walk-through themed fun house. Blackpool's Ark opened in 1922 and was revamped in 1934, also by the American William Strickler. It was famous for its unexpected bucking donkey, which would force the visitor to step back and grab a rail carrying a mild electric current. It is one of only two left in the world, the other is in America.

Wild Mouse, Pleasure Beach, Blackpool

A compact roller coaster in which a single car takes four people around a tight circuit, threatening to smash at speed into walls before turning, at the last second, through hair-raisingly sharp 90-degree bends. Blackpool's was built in 1958 and is one of only three wooden ones left in the world.

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