Hidden deep in the Cornish countryside, on the site of a former lead mine, is a small gauge steam railway and no-frills adventure park from the 1970s. And in the 40-odd years since it opened, it hasn’t changed much.
Visitors to the Lappa Valley Steam Railway and Leisure Park in Cornwall, England will find electric cars (but no helmets), a pond with pedal-boat swans (but no life jackets) and acres of low-tech, totally indestructible steel playground equipment. There is a grassy bank for rolling down, and a clear, shallow stream for dipping your toes. It is a place where kids can run free while the grown-ups enjoy a glass of wine or a beer at the café.
On one hand, the old-fashioned atmosphere of the park ignites every helicopter-parent cell in my body. The 1970s was a decade of nicotine-stained ceilings, devil-may-care parenting and lead paint. Do I really want to go back there?
On the other hand, “the kids are all right” attitude at Lappa Valley is – even I can admit – magical. The enchanting, low-key level of family fun – not to mention the absence of loud, machine-powered rides or loud electronic games – forces me to reassess my perception of risk. And that’s more fun for me – and the children.
My husband, who grew up in the nearby seaside resort of Newquay, visited Lappa Valley as a child in the 1970s. It felt “hidden” back then, he tells me, even though it was only 10 kilometres away from the town. “I spent my teenage years wondering if it had been real, because I couldn’t figure out where exactly it was located, or how to get there.”
Now, as our borrowed car twists through the narrow country lanes with 10-year-old Lucy and 5-year-old Michael in the back, I understand his awe. How could a popular family attraction be located so deep behind the hedgerows? More importantly, how high are the chances of us colliding head-on with a tractor before we get there?
Remarkably, considering that Lappa Valley sees more than 72,000 mostly-British visitors a year, we do not meet a single oncoming vehicle, arriving safely at Benny Halt Station where a miniature train on a 15-inch gauge track awaits.
The final leg of the journey to the park is just over a mile through a light-dappled forest. As the train turns the corner, its coal-fired engine, Zebedee No. 1, lets out a steamy toot-toot and we are faced with a fairy-tale scene: a tall stone tower and building, abandoned like the ruins of some ancient castle, looming over a shallow pond where a flock of fiberglass pedal-boat swans bob serenely in the water. The views here are breathtaking – blue skies, gentle green trees and rolling hills interrupted only by puffs of steam as the next locomotive approaches. Dotted across the landscape are random pieces of old-fashioned playground equipment, including one that appears to have been teleported straight from 1967.
“That’s the Baby-Go Round,” says Keith Southwell, owner of Lappa Valley, as he points to the contraption: four sturdy chained toddler swings, attached to a central column. “It’s indestructible.”
Much of the play equipment is retired from school or neighbourhood playgrounds, some forged by Wicksteed, a manufacturer that has been around since 1918.
“You can’t buy what we’ve got now,” Southwell says.
Little Michael (tall for his age) runs over to the Baby-Go-Round and tries to squeeze into one of the chairs clearly made for a toddler, ending up perched in the swing, half in, half-out. A parent we don’t know smiles and gives him a push. No one blinks an eye.
But the origins of Lappa Valley would make any helicopter parent sweat. This surreal Cornish landscape was formed in part by the East Wheal Rose lead mine where, in 1846, 39 miners died after the ground collapsed in a flood. Now, in front of the abandoned Victorian engine-house (the one that looks like a castle), there is a water-filled shaft that is 160 fathoms, or 293 metres, deep.
In 1973, rail enthusiast Eric Booth bought the land from British Railways and transformed it into a tourist attraction. Four years ago, the property was sold to its second owners, Southwell and his wife, Sara.
Southwell has exactly the personality you’d expect in an amusement park owner. Gregarious and slightly nutty, he is the Willy Wonka of Cornwall, jumping from this train to that, buying ice cream for his small guests, even singing his own version of Happy Birthday to visitors of all ages on their special day: “Happy Birthday to you/You could have gone to the zoo … ”
His laid back approach is contagious – and why shouldn’t it be? With the absence of screaming roller coasters and bouncy mascots, Lappa Valley is the kind of place where a five year old can hop into an electric car and drive around the loop helmet-less, happily bashing into fellow motorists as he goes. It’s the kind of place where the kids and I can jump into floating fiberglass swan – no lineups, no tickets! – and aimlessly paddle around the small pond without the constraints of a bulky personal flotation device. When I ask Southwell about the absence of life jackets, he smiles, shakes his head and says, “Who needs life jackets in a knee-deep pond?”
Soon we hear the “all aboard” call for our next adventure – a rail journey along a 10¼-inch gauge track leading to a “picnic and paddle” area. There’s not enough room for all of us in one carriage, so we dispatch Lucy into the care of another family we’ve never met (why not?) and chug up the line to the next stop – a playground and paddling area. Although it is nothing more than fields and a clear, cold, babbling brook, Lucy and Michaels’ eyes widen with delight as the train slows down.
At the stream, which is flanked by two small signs urging visitors not to leave children unattended in the water, we chat to locals Sam Camps and his brother Matthew. Their young children, Daisy, Holly and Oscar, are playing in the water, while the dads sip local hard cider from a brightly labeled bottle and munch on Cornish pasties wrapped in paper.
“It’s perfect for the kids their age,” says Sam, as he takes a gentle swig of cider, “It’s like a hidden world where you can you do whatever you want … the kids, you can just let them run free. There’s no real sort of dangers here.”
Lulled by the low-tech approach, our day ends at the Whistle Stop Café, where we gorge on Cornish pasties and cheesy jacket potatoes served with a healthy side salad, followed by a thick slice of homemade Victoria sponge cake. The food is delicious and well-priced compared to most theme park restaurants. On principle, the easy option, chips (French fries), are not on the menu.
As I sip my beer, I realize that both my children are out of sight, but I’m not worried in the least, and nor should I be. Southwell has taken Lucy to drive a train (she returns, grinning, with a complimentary can of Sprite) while Michael, I later discover, has squeezed back into his seat on the Baby-Go Round and persuaded another stranger to give him a push.
I think that most parents, visiting an unfamiliar theme park in a far-away country, would instinctively turn up the volume of their inner alarm-system: “Be careful, slow down, watch for danger.” Instead, Lappa Valley muffles mine and offers a liberating alternative: “Calm down and have fun … 1970s style.”
The writer’s admission fee was paid for by Lappa Valley. It did not review or approve this article.
Lappa Valley is open daily from April to October, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission price for a family of four is £43.00 ($74.00). It has a robust accessibility and inclusivity promise and is wheelchair friendly. Discounts are available for disabled persons and their carers. lappavalley.co.uk
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