Yes, my knuckles were white

John Windsor braved the king of roller-coasters on a daredevil day at Blackpool Pleasure Beach

Been there. Done that. Up the 210ft steel tower of the Sony PlayStation in 1.5 seconds at 80 mph, clamped to a plastic seat, then down by free fall. Slowly up to the 235ft summit of the world's tallest and fastest roller-coaster, Pepsi Max Big One, then at 85 mph down the curves of its first drop, of the same height, at an angle of 65 degrees to the horizontal.

My daredevil day at Blackpool Pleasure Beach was not the kind of outing I would have chosen myself. It presented itself as a challenge, after the author/publisher Richard Savin had sent me a copy of his White Knuckle Guide, which contains pounds 150-worth of money-off vouchers. He and his 12- year-old son Charles gave me a couple of hours' training on the Flying Fish roller-coaster and the all-dark backwards roller-coaster X:\No Way Out at Thorpe Park, Chertsey, Surrey.

These rides, only 21ft and 42ft high - nursery slopes, according to coaster aficionados - were not scary enough to dent my bravado when the Thompson family, owners of Blackpool Pleasure Beach, invited me to this week's launch of the pounds 2m PlayStation-The Ride, first UK example of a new breed of hi-tech catapults.

Just watching customers being whisked skywards by PlayStation's compressed air, and listening to their post-ride remarks, put paid to my bravado: "Brilliant"; "Terrible"; "That's really taken the shit out of me." Especially as I had tried the Big One roller-coaster as soon as I arrived, and had come off it numbed.

What does the Big One do to you? You know you are in for it from the start, as the train of cars grinds inexorably towards the 235ft summit and people on the ground become dots. You are strapped to your seat, and there is a restraining bar clamped at your chest. As the track ahead disappears into blue sky, confused, split-second notions that what is about to happen is both safe and inevitable are mingled with sheer terror.

At least, that's how it was for me. The subsequent 65-degree dive, at 3.5 times the force of gravity, induced something like brain-death. But it is over in seconds, hardly time enough to feel frightened - until you approach the next drop, and the next bend, for about a mile. Do people really do this for fun?

There's a technique to riding, as I learnt while watching 94-year-old Doris Thompson, chairman of the 101-year-old family business and an intrepid rider since the age of three, being locked into shoulder restraints and fired to the top of PlayStation. At my side, while Mrs Thompson's legs dangled higher than Nelson's column as we waited for a helicopter with a camera crew, was PlayStation's designer, Rich Allen of the S&S Sports Power corporation of Utah, US. The first time you ride, he explained, you tend to be watching your own responses. "But the more you do it, the more you open yourself to the experience. You become less terrified and get a feel for it."

It made sense. The automatic camera shot of my ride on the Big One showed me with head down, gripping for dear life: that white knuckle thing is no myth. But the lads who ride it time after time wave their arms (against advice), shout jubilantly on the crests and look around, even down. Participate: that's the knack.

Upon descent, Mrs Thompson pronounced PlayStation "wonderful and smooth". Smoothness is the thing, these days. "Coasters tend to be harsh and bumpy," Mr Allen said. "This ride is safe and smooth, with no whiplash and no strain on the muscles."

It does help to shout - as I had discovered earlier, aboard the Pleasure Beach's coaster Revolution, which loops the loop forwards then backwards. I enjoyed that. But it was the 1933 wooden ("woodie" to enthusiasts) rattletrap of a roller-coaster that gave me real confidence: height a mere 61 feet, maximum speed 35 mph, with no straps, just a grab bar. I leant forward into the drops and bends and yelled. After the Big One, there was nothing to it, really.

Nowadays, the cheap thrills of speed and height are no longer enough. It's a bit like sex: ride enthusiasts seem to be divided into old-fashioned macho mechanics, and new-age sensualists. The sensualists are in the ascendant.

This became clear when, before visiting Blackpool, I spoke to Britain's foremost ride designer, John Wardley, 46-year-old "imagineer" of rides at the Tussaud group's theme parks: Alton Towers, Chessington World of Adventures, and Port Aventura in Spain. His background is special effects for plays and films; his Nemesis ride at Alton Towers - by no means the fastest or the highest - is consistently voted the best by members of the Roller Coaster Club of Great Britain and American coaster enthusiasts.

Riders of Nemesis are suspended beneath the track, with legs dangling. Mr Wardley says: "You get the extraordinary feeling that there is nothing between your feet and the ground - and then nothing between your feet and the sky.

"I'm not interested in the industry's blinkered view that the only way forward is through statistics of height, speed and g-force. If people get off one of my rides and say, `that was terrifying, I wish I hadn't done it', then I consider that I've failed. I'm not out to terrify people. I'm an entertainer. I want to exhilarate them. Rides should provide surprise, mystery, laughter, amazement." His latest ride, at Port Aventura, is Stampida, a woodie whose twin racing trains seem about to collide head-on after switching directions in a tunnel.

The second edition of the `White Knuckle Guide', price pounds 2.99 ,with pounds 500 in vouchers, is published on 23 June by Tideway Publications, PO Box 107, Guildford, Surrey GU1 4FQ. Send sae to The Roller Coaster Club of Great Britain, PO Box 235, Uxbridge, Middlesex UB10 0TF.

Blackpool Pleasure Beach, entry free, rides pounds 1 to pounds 4 (Pepsi Max Big One), Ocean Boulevard, Blackpool FY4 1EZ (01253-341033). Thorpe Park, Staines Road, Chertsey, Surrey KT16 8PN (01932 569393). Alton Towers, Alton, Staffordshire ST10 4DB (0990 20 40 60, or 01538-702200). Chessington World of Adventures, Chessington, Surrey KT9 2NE (01372-727227 and 01372-729560). Oakwood Park, Oakwood, Canaston Bridge, Narbeth, Pembrokeshire SA67 8DE (01834-891376, bookings 01834-891373). Drayton Manor Park and Zoo, near Tamworth, Staffordshire B78 3TW (01827-287979)

Roll on

Andrew Hine, founder of the Roller-coaster Club of Great Britain, says you are 2,000 times more likely to have an accident on a flight to the United States than on a roller-coaster ride. And that two hours of normal home life is 10 times more accident-prone. It is horrified health and safety officials who have forced pleasure rides to become even safer than public transport. Which is why, even though high-speed high-rides may horrify you, you may soon find them hard to avoid. Mr Savin, publisher of The White Knuckle Guide, has formed a company to promote "variable level rail systems" as safe, speedy and cheap public transport. Eight are already operating, including systems at Birmingham and Gatwick airports and nine more are planned. So why not find yourself a nice old-fashioned woodie and get in training?

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
tech
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
life
News
i100
Life and Style
tech
Voices
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: MI Developer

    £35 - 45k: Guru Careers: An MI Developer is needed to join the leading provide...

    Recruitment Genius: Fitness Manager

    £20000 - £22500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leisure organisation manag...

    Recruitment Genius: Visitor Experience Manager

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Delivering an inspiring, engagi...

    Recruitment Genius: Learning Team Administrator

    £17500 - £20500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are looking for a great te...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions