Scarborough’s North Bay chairlifts transported holidaymakers to the town’s Marineland and Zoo (later Marvel’s Amusement Park) between 1972 and 2002. Although the Zoo opened in 1969, the chairlifts took a little longer to arrive. When they did, the first passengers embarked at a small station close to the beach, and paid a small fee to ascend (or descend) the hill behind the Open Air Theatre in Northstead Manor Gardens.
Above: The North Bay chairlift route (source)
At the summit were animals – dolphins, bears, parrots and more. When the site was renamed Marvel’s Amusement Park in 1984, the zoo was replaced by a multitude of rides, and in the mid 1990s a second chairlift departure point was added at Peasholm Gap – squeezed between Water Splash World (later Atlantis) and the entrance to Manor Gardens.
Above: The new chairlift route is mentioned on the right (source)
Local businessman and Scarborough Zoo creator Don Robinson was the man behind Scarborough’s chairlifts. Indeed, cable car rides had become a popular addition to UK seaside resorts from the 1960s, and after the zoo opened in 1969, Robinson was keen to capitalise on this. Yet in order to understand their appeal and development, it is necessary to look even further back.
Above: The first chair lift at Sun Valley, Idaho, with designer James Curran (source)
Airborne cable car systems were originally designed for skiing enthusiasts. The development of ski lifts, which began in the 1930s, enabled skiers to travel to the tops of mountains more efficiently and effortlessly than was possible on foot. Funnily enough the single rider lift was based on devices that unloaded bananas from cargo ships! The first functioning design was, according to the sources viewed, designed by American James Curran, and was installed at Sun Valley – a resort town in Idaho (US).
Above: Examples of cargo conveyer devices upon which the first chair lifts were based (source)
These new chairlifts were typically installed at ski resorts, and it was not until the 1960s that they became more widely popular, largely assisted by new ‘gondola’ designs that enabled several riders to board a single lift. These new developments occurred in the late 1960s, by which point chairlifts began appearing across the UK at various resorts and tourist destinations.
Above: One of the early chair lift models at Alton Towers in the UK (source)
Alton Towers had chairlifts from 1963, and the company that provided them – the London Company of British Chairlifts Ltd (a subsidiary of British Ropeway Engineering Company Ltd) – also supplied a number of popular tourist destinations, including many of the Butlins camps. The camp at Filey, only a few miles from Scarborough, also boasted its very own set of chairlifts.
Above: Former chairlifts at Butlins in Filey (source)
The popular chairlift systems were thought to add an exotic, sophisticated and perhaps continental flavour to British resorts. Certainly these airborne cable cars conjured up images of Alpine (or American) adventures, stunning panoramas and dramatic heights. However, whilst Scarborough’s views are certainly worthy of great praise, the hill ascended by its chairlifts was far removed from the mountains of Switzerland for instance, or even some of the dramatic routes taken by other UK-based chairlift systems.
Above: An impressive view from the chairlifts at Butlins Pwllheli in the 1970s (source)
It is not known if the British Ropeway Engineering Company Ltd supplied Scarborough’s original system, although it has been reported that the structure and cable cars were constructed in Sheffield, before being transported in pieces and re-assembled on site. Furthermore, the cabin styling and colouring changed several times during the duration of the attraction.
Above: The early chairlifts were similar to the ones above, pictured at Alton Towers (source)
This initial, box-like design gave way to a more minimal, curving structure – similar to the Skyride at Pleasureland, Southport and the system at Butlins in Skegness.
Above: The former Skyride at Southport (source)
Below: Similar designs at Butlins in Skegness (source)
Like those pictured above, Scarborough’s chairlifts were initially multi-coloured. The Marvel’s rebranding of 1984, in line with its American theme, gave the cars a red hue. The newer alternative route – introduced in the 1990s – was painted green.
Above: The red route at Scarborough (from the author’s personal collection)
The UK still boasts a number of operational cable car systems, suggesting that there is still a demand for this kind of ride, particularly when impressive views are involved.
Above: The cable cars in Llandudno are still in operation (source)
Dreamland, in Margate, collects, restores and re-imagines former rides and paraphernalia – its collection includes the chairlifts from Pleasureland in Southport, which were similar in design to Scarborough’s own. It is reassuring to know that projects such as this are working hard to preserve the rich heritage of UK attractions. Sadly it is too late for Scarborough’s chairlifts, and the rides at Marvel’s, which have long gone following the park’s closure in 2002.
Above: The site shortly after most of the main structures were cleared (source)
The mild hill behind the Open Air Theatre makes any potential resurrection of the chairlifts an overly optimistic endeavour. Even back in the 1970s, Don Robinson noted that the novelty of riding them seemed to wear off quickly, with many passengers opting to walk back from the attraction, rather than take the chairlift both ways. Yet it is the chairlifts, or rather the remnants, that endure today, the rusting structures still standing tall against the North Bay skyline.