A Road Trip to Wicksteed Park – The UK’s Oldest Theme Park

The Summer Holidays are here and those great intentions you had were exhausted within the first fortnight.  Every great plan you had has fizzled out and the kids are driving you up the wall.  Let’s be honest, we’d be following them up there if we could only find the energy right?  Every year it’s the same, for me it is anyway and I know I’m in a slightly different boat than most parents being a Special Needs Mom, by the third week I’m fresh out of ideas and going stir crazy.

I think I might have found a pretty great option for parents and kids alike that require a bit of a road trip (probably) as it’s right in the middle of England.  I was offered a press trip to a theme park called Wicksteed Park on dates of my choice and given that I had a trip to Cadwell Park planned which isn’t too far away, we thought we could plan a pretty sweet week long road trip with Wicksteed Park right in the middle of it.  I had to do a little research prior to the trip because unlike all of the standard British theme parks that you’ve all already heard of like Alton Towers, Flamingo Land, Thorpe Park et al – I’d never heard a peep about this one.

Turns out Wicksteed Park is actually steeped in history.  I’ve never really given a lot of thought to how theme parks appeared or developed into the huge attractions that they are today after a little research it actually turns out that Wicksteed Park was the first.  The blueprint for all others.  It’s the oldest theme park on UK mainland and has been there in the same place since 1921 with the ethos that all children, whether rich or poor, should have a place to play with free access.  Pretty cool right?

So, we left Cadwell Park and headed straight for Wicksteed Park on the hottest day of the year so far.

Pixie Tenenbaum and son Plankton Tenenbaum arrive at Wicksteed Park, the UK's oldest theme park

Where is Wicksteed Park?

It’s in Kettering which is pretty much middle of England, you drive through one of the most beautiful villages ever right before you arrive, literally every single house looks like Kate Winslet’s cottage in The Holiday.  The place is just gorgeous.  As you arrive at Wicksteed Park the park is set up for several different types of access so you can either drive in and access the main car park which is used for daily access to the park, or you head on through and follow the signs to the campsite at the very back of the park if you’re planning on staying overnight or longer.

Oh so you can camp and make a proper trip of it?

Yes!  There are a lots of different nightly combinations available and prices are very reasonable when compared to other campsites we’ve stayed at, meaning it’s a brilliantly viable option for a family visiting the park.  For example, a Sunday to Thursday stay (or any combination of nights in that period) is £15 per tent per night and there’s a shower block on site as well as a dish washing station.  One of the best things about camping at Wicksteed Park is that it gives you a half price discount on second day wristbands.

The campsite is at the back of the park which closes pretty early so there are no ride noises late on a night.  It’s right on the edge of the lake too which has a cut through so you can walk around it on an evening.  We found it very quiet and peaceful when we camped, even with the mega lightning storm through the night.  Still loved every damn minute.

Why do I need a wristband?

Ok, so this is the part where you need to pay attention:  Access to the park itself is completely free.  Yes you read that right, it’s gratis, free, you don’t pay at all.  And it’s beautiful.  The park is a Grade II English Heritage Listed Park & Garden and it shows.  From the manicured lawns and trees to the rare cultivated flowers, the place is just gorgeous and you could spend hours exploring the grounds – which is exactly what they want you to do.  Wicksteed Park has been part of a huge regeneration project recently called the Heart of Wicksteed where the Trust are aiming to restore the central part of the park back to its former glory.  After completion they’ll move on to the boathouse.

If you’re feeling more adventurous and you’d like to experience some of the thrills and rides that Wicksteed Park has to offer, then you’ll need to spend some cash.  You’ll either need to buy tokens like the traditional seaside fairground – each ride or game has an equivalent number of tokens and you can either top them up as you go, or agree a certain amount with your kids if you’re on a budget.

The alternative to tokens is a wristband.  Wristbands give you access to most rides but not everything, there are some things which come with an additional charge such as Clip n’ Climb, Zip Wire and Bag Jump.  Wristband prices vary depending on the time of year but in peak season (which is when we visited) a child wristband is £17 and an adult is £14.45.  Yes, you read that right, it’s cheaper for an adult than it is for a child.

Zip Wire you say?  I like the sound of that!

Man it’s good!  Definitely worth checking out whilst you’re there.  There was an offer on during our visit meaning each zip was £4.50 instead of £9 – something you can’t knock back.  Basically, if you’re unfamiliar (where the hell have you been?!), you’re given a full safety briefing on the ground that’s full of humour and gags as well as the important stuff before being strapped into a harness and helmet.  You then climb 15m up inside a wooden tower so you never get the opportunity to look down and feel that pang of regret.  Once you’re at the top, Wicksteed Park’s friendly team of staff talk you through the safest way to step off and on to the wire.  Plankton and I did ours side by side and whilst he needed a little coaxing to step off, he later said it was his favourite thing about the entire trip.  It’s pretty quick too, because of the length of it it whips you up to 30mph before bringing you in at the lakeside.  Definitely one to add to your agenda if you visit the park.

And the Clip n’ Climb?  Was that any good?

Dude, Clip n’ Climb is awesome, hilarious, terrifying and amazing all at the same time!  Firstly it’s a treat for the senses, you find it over by Wicky’s Playbarn; we struggled a little with the location of this one but got there in the end.  When you first walk in it’s like sensory overload.  Because each individual climbing wall has to reach a certain height, the ceiling is real high and they’re all brightly coloured like a ginormous living game of Tetris.

An image of the new Clip n' Climb attraction at Wicksteed Park in Kettering. Brightly coloured clibming walls for children and adults alike!

Again, you step into a container for a safety briefing with your designated Clip n Climb Session Leader and you’re given instructions on how the session works.  There are only a few golden rules to remember:

  • If a purple mat is on the floor, never walk over it
  • If you want to climb, find a purple mat in the ‘up’ position and stand next to it.
  • Never walk over the orange egg

Plankton spent most of the session shaking and climbing to around 12ft off the ground then refusing to come down and Bo aced every single wall in the place in record time.  I guess that means the kid is not a chip off the old block.  In terms of fun, Clip n’ Climb has it all, there are walls a plenty and each one has three challenges.  Walls range from easy to insanely difficult so if you’re thinking this one is just for kids, it really isn’t, some of these walls have been designed to mimic cliff faces and some have under and over hangs too so this is one the whole family can enjoy.  The Instructors in there are all experienced climbers too so if anyone gets stuck, runs into trouble, or just needs a little motivation, they’re more than happy to shimmy up alongside you and give a helping hand with no judgement whatsoever.

You must have worked up an appetite!

We really did!  Luckily for us there are food vendors on site, which is good because leaving the park in the middle of the day is probably a bad idea as it’s not that close to much.  Food prices on site are actually pretty reasonable, the most expensive food retailer is the ice cream shop – it’s also the busiest.  For dinner we had fish and chips from a proper little fish and chip shop on site.  Portions were good and we were pleasantly surprised at just how good the food was. At £7.95 for fish and chips (ours was included in our press trip), we thought that was comparable to high street prices.

The ice creams at Wicksteed Park are definitely worthy of a mention because I’m willing to bet that you’ve never seen anything like them before.  These badboys are the size of Olympic torches and that’s no exaggeration.  Sure you can get a regular ice cream for a regular ice cream price, but you can get those anywhere.  If you’re there and you’re buying ice cream, make it the biggest one and when you realise and accept how awesome it is, remember it was me who told you about it.  If Carlsberg made ice creams……. Just saying.

And the rides??  Tell me about the rides!

Well remember that Wicksteed Park is the oldest theme Park on UK mainland and a huge part of their appeal is that they try their hardest to remain true to their heritage.  Founder and developer Charles Wicksteed was an Engineer who built and developed the rides and play equipment in the park and so a lot of it may seem quite basic but after reading about it, I thought that was quite appealing.  So, what’s there?  There’s a mixture of amusement park type rides and attractions such as bumper cars (although there is a VERY strict no bumping allowed rule), a kids race track with mini petrol cars that circles the Thrill Zone of the park, as well as more typical theme park attractions such as flume rides, a short click clack coaster and a pedal mono rail.

You’ll also find that Wicksteed Park have introduced some more modern initiatives such as crazy golf, a treetop rope walk and a laser tag arena for kids looking for a little more stimulation.  Personally one of my favourite things on site was the bird aviary – a dome housing some amazing tropical birds which fly and hop around as you walk through, they really do get up close too!  All three of us found this super interesting.

As with most British theme parks you’ll find stalwarts such as a carousel, teacups and a swing boat.

You mentioned a lake earlier?

Ok yes there’s a lake, so rewind, maybe start by hopping on the train.  We did this at the end of the day but in retrospect it’s probably a great way to start your visit and give you a good look at the park in all its glory.  If you like facts the track was actually hand laid!  Anyway, it’s a circular track with no jump off points, the station is right next to the park entrance and the loop of the park doesn’t take too long, on a sunny day it’s beautiful.  The train takes you around the periphery of the park, you’ll pass the field where the archery sessions take place before approaching a tunnel, this section runs alongside the lake.

Once you’re clear of the tunnel you’ll get a clear view of the lake and the different boats available for hire (all included if you have a wristband), the lake is actually a decent size in comparison to say, Lightwater Valley.  The train crosses a small bridge over the top of the lake so you’ll be able to see all the different access points, if you pay attention, you’ll notice that you’re actually allowed to swim in this man made lake if you approach it from this South side.

A quick walk back down to the boathouse will take around ten minutes and you’ll find small boats you can hire with lifejackets included.  We opted for a Canadian kayak and were accompanied by all kinds of huge glowing dragonflies on our peaceful trip out on the water.  In the days following, this was one of the things that Plankton talked about the most – he paddled and there was something about the water, the sunshine and the lack of time constraint that seemed to make him more relaxed than I’ve seen him in a long time.  If the weather allows then this is a must do (leave your bag and cellphone behind though as they’ll get soaked).

So what did you think of it?

Wicksteed Park is weird and wonderful.  We all really enjoyed it and would definitely go back as paying customers.  It’s not like any other theme park I’ve ever been to where they concentrate on packing rides in and it can become very quickly like a trailerpark fairground and lose focus.  Wicksteed Park is different, I love the history to it, the background and the fact that the Trustees have stayed true to that original ethos.

An image of green space an manicured trees in Wicksteed Park. The UK's oldest theme park, found in Kettering. Plankton Tenenbaum running across an open field to the pavillion building

The thing that I really loved though was the open, green space.  There are huge expanses of grass and no signs stopping people from walking on it.  Wicksteed Park is far from formal, but its gardens give off a vibe of richness.  It’s a hard place to describe but it has a most excellent feeling of community about it, the staff for example are friendly and helpful and you can tell that they enjoy working at Wicksteed Park.  Barbara in the coffee shop had no idea we were there on a press trip and made time to chat to us as if we were old friends, speaking about her love for the park.  The Manager of the ice cream shop told us she’s having her wedding reception in the park because she loves it so much.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s genuine.  Sure, it’s not as extravagant as Alton Towers when it comes to thrill rides.  But what it lacks in huge rides it most definitely makes up for in character.  Wicksteed Park provides free access to beautiful green space where children can burn off energy in the Summer Holidays.  Throw in a laser tag neon maze and some fun rides, a tree top walk, a zip wire and an awesome camping trip and I’d say you just made your kid’s week and gave them an awesome news story for their first week back at school without blowing the budget.


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