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?

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