SHAKE, RATTLE & ROLL
Rachel Ward on the unique appeal of the wooden roller coaster
‘Woodies’: that’s how they’re known among aficionados – or more accurately, coaster enthusiasts. It’s a niche subject, for sure, and just to be clear from the off, I don’t count myself among the initiated. As my years have increased, my interest in riding roller coasters has declined. Then, last year and against huge odds, the Grade II*-listed Scenic Railway at Margate’s Dreamland finally thundered back to life and my curiosity was piqued. Here was a wooden roller coaster that, beyond all of the hype and ballyhoo, seemed to inspire a genuine affection.
At just under 40 feet high and with a top speed of 35mph, the Scenic is not the fastest coaster you’ll ever ride. Largely limited to up and down motions, it’s no match for the speed, g-force and increasingly outrageous combination of loops, inversions and drops that its steel counterparts will throw at you. But even speed freaks would be hard pushed not to appreciate the exact craftsmanship of the hand-assembled timber frame, which moves and flexes as the train passes, the painted replica dragonhead carts or even the prophetic clickety-clack of the cable lift that elevates riders to the top of the first drop. Then there’s the brakeman, pre-eminently positioned part way between the three carriages and tasked with slowing the train if it gathers too much momentum, because – and this is the important bit – the Scenic is not attached to the track in any way. Suddenly, its double dips and turns take on a fresh frisson, the rattle and roll of the ride producing an entirely different thrill.
It’s also quite the underdog story. Despite being variously blown down, neglected, almost entirely destroyed by fire and now fully rebuilt, Dreamland’s Scenic can still claim to be the oldest of all UK coasters and among the top five oldies globally, since its footprint precisely matches that of the 1920 original. It’s not, however, the only one we have. Worldwide, a total of eight Scenics remain, which makes our small island nation’s tally of two all the more remarkable. The second, located at Great Yarmouth Pleasure Beach, opened in 1932 and has remained operational ever since. Clad in an undulating landscape of hills and valleys typical of the genre, it’s both taller (68ft), and faster (45mph) than Dreamland’s.
Of course, not all woodies are scenics. The UK has at least seven more to its name and while none are record holders, a few are gems. Anyone who has day-tripped to Blackpool Pleasure Beach will have likely walked through the Art Deco entrance of the ramshackle Grand National (1935) and boarded either of its twin-tracked duelling trains, but I wonder how many observe the illusion. One of only three Möbius loopers left standing, this style is particularly tricky to comprehend, which I guess is the point. Named after the non-orientable mathematical surface (bear with me), in practice this means you board from one station and disembark from the opposite, yet the two trains seemingly never cross paths. Then there’s the Megafobia (1996) at Oakwood Theme Park in Pembrokeshire, which is thankfully a little more straightforward. The first build outside of the US by the virtuosi at the now defunct Custom Coasters International, its twister design is regularly ranked among the top 10 in the world.
At 20 years old, the Megafobia is also still the newest addition to the UK’s collection, and it remains to be seen if this will always be the case. While it would be pleasing to see English Heritage grade more of these unique structures and to view the phoenix-like resurrection of Dreamland’s Scenic as symptomatic of a wider revival, might I make a suggestion: ride one while you can.
OUT OF TIME
Retrouvius has been at the forefront of the salvage movement for over 20 years. But how do they ensure that their particular approach to architectural search and rescue survives the vagaries of interior design trends? As co-founder Adam Hills explains, ‘We need to maintain the bigger picture, which is why this stuff has to be saved in the first place…'
‘It started out as a project, an exploration into how materials are discarded or re-used – it was never meant to last this long,’ says Adam Hills of Retrouvius, the architectural reclamation and design company he founded with Maria Speake back in 1993. It’s a disarmingly honest admission from someone who has spent the past 23 years trying to alter our appreciation of salvage, but then Retrouvius doesn’t do veneer.
Let’s start by deciphering that name. An esoteric mashup of the French verb retrouvée (to find, recover, retrieve) and Vitruvius, the Roman architect known for his seminal 10-volume work De Architectura, it feels like code for ‘not your run-of-the-mill reclaimers’. ‘We wanted a title that hinted at our architecture background – plus it sounds much better than Adam and Maria’s Salvage,’ says Hills.
The two met in 1988 while studying at the School of Art in Glasgow – although it was the city’s predilection for the wrecking ball that was to prove most formative. ‘Demolition is interesting because it’s quick and brutal – the opposite of architecture, which is a long, drawn-out process. It reveals what a building is made of in a very visceral way,’ he says. ‘In Glasgow, a city built on empire, many buildings were made of hardwoods, marble, bronze – and it was all being swept away.’
The belief that these materials deserve to be valued and re-used was, and still is, the driving force behind Retrouvius. ‘First, we would campaign for the buildings not to be demolished, but then we would just go and take things from ones that were being knocked down,’ says Speake. ‘We would unscrew doors and pull things out of skips, then store it all in our flat.’ Their subsequent transition from search and rescue to selling happened gently, although it wasn’t without its highlights: ‘You know the toilet scene in Trainspotting? That was one of our first sales – glamorous sanitaryware,’ she adds.
After four years in Glasgow, personal circumstances necessitated a move to London. ‘We didn’t think another salvage business was needed here as there were already so many good ones, but we soon realised that there was still masses of stuff being demolished and lost, so we reestablished it,’ Speake says. They set up on an unassuming stretch of the Harrow Road that remains nonchalantly immune to the sweeping hand of gentrification. Sandwiched between a shabby secondhand shop and a catering equipment supplier, Retrouvius, with its façade of perfectly patchworked, copper-framed mahogany-set windows, feels as if it’s hiding in plain sight. But then, you don’t just happen across this place – you seek it out.
A well-kept industry secret for many years, at some point the numbers doing the seeking began to rise. Hills, for one, thinks he can pinpoint when: ‘On the whole, there was a real lack of understanding or caring about where things came from. That began to change after the Lehman Brothers crash in 2008. Brands were suddenly keen to show their longevity and history. I remember a fashion chain contacted us looking for lights – it marked a turning point. Salvage or vintage is now in almost every high-street store’s visual merchandising.’
It’s a state of affairs that has pluses and minuses. ‘The visual merchandising side of things is great because people are less frightened of salvage, but it’s also fashionable and therefore transient,’ says Speake. ‘People hopped on the salvage bandwagon because it goes hand in hand with eco-consciousness, the make-do-and-mend philosophy, the desperate need for a patina and story – but it all feels a bit hip, a bit zeitgeist-y. We need to keep looking at how we make salvage seem interesting, relevant and fresh. We need to maintain the bigger picture, which is why this stuff has to be saved in the first place.’
When it comes to what Retrouvius salvages, there are no hard and fast rules. Neither Hills nor Speake are preoccupied with styles or whether something is 1960s, Brutalist or Art Deco – they focus on innate value. Understanding that things move in cycles, they often go out of their way to save what is deemed outdated, as these things are most at risk (which, by default, makes them the things that need salvaging the most). It’s an altruistic approach, for sure, and not without its pitfalls: ‘We often buy pieces that don’t work or that take a few years to sell,’ Hills says. ‘It’s all part of testing the market. Sometimes it’s a case of putting something in storage and waiting for the right buyer.’
By storage, he means out the back at Retrouvius HQ. Previously used for offices and stables, the space is much larger than outside impressions first suggest. Inside, it has been stripped back to its bare bones and materials swapped with reclaimed alternatives where necessary. Think barebrick walls, exposed ceiling beams and stair treads made from old iroko wood science lab desks. Set over the first two levels, the atmospheric warehouse-slash-shop is arranged into a series of bite-size spaces to render the ever-evolving, miscellaneous stock easier to digest. While like-for-like items tend to be grouped – shelves of light shades, stacks of mirrors, a mountain of wooden drawers – nothing is obviously staged or overly styled.
The antithesis of Pimlico’s gallery-like showrooms, here picking things up and turning them over is actively encouraged. Time, patience and light snooping will be rewarded as subtle details pop out. Look up to discover a ceiling hung with bentwood stools, peek behind an 18th-century verdure tapestry to find a museum-worthy Renaissance door or stop and take in a table top of mismatched objects arranged into an artful still-life. ‘We want people to wander and roam, and feel like they’ve found something for themselves,’ says Speake.
A playground for ideas, the space is key in demonstrating how some of the more unusual materials might look in situ. Current standouts include rare Derbyshire fossilised limestone salvaged from the façade of a 1950s building in London’s Farringdon. These clad a wall, some in their raw, weathered state, others smoothly polished to give a different take on its Festival of Britain vibe. Elsewhere, a series of solid hardwood tapering poles, possibly used for laying railway track, are reincarnated as a partition, although they would be equally well suited as table legs or bed posts. It’s a prime example of Retrouvius’s ability to take something unloved and give it prominence.
Then there’s an installation of fluted columns ‘liberated’ from the once-iconic Lewis’s department store, Liverpool’s answer to Selfridges. These come with an anecdote about how its pioneering owner, David Lewis, installed a zoo on the roof and once flooded the basement to showcase new wares from Venice that could only be viewed from a gondola. Suddenly, the terrazzo they’re made of appears richer. ‘The story of a piece can completely change someone’s attitude towards it,’ says Speake. ‘People have their own associations with things – some good, some bad. One client was desperate to include glass panels rescued from the Unilever building in his home because a favourite aunt used to be the financial director there. Another associated parquet with boarding school and couldn’t look at it without getting anxious. It’s fascinating.’
These days, Retrouvius operates as two separate entities: Hills runs the salvage side of the business; the design studio is Speake’s domain. ‘We used to agonise over the different aesthetics,’ says Hills. ‘Then we just decided to stop worrying. I can’t copy what Maria does – that would just be a bad copy.’ They needn’t have concerned themselves: their philosophy and aesthetic are so in sync it all appears seamless.
The studio, which is located in the upper echelons of the building, was born out of a frustration with the traditional way in which the materials they were scrupulously saving were being used. ‘We couldn’t believe how cautious our own profession was in using and specifying secondhand materials,’ says Speake. ‘We had to make a market for things. Now, if I use timber in a house, more starts getting salvaged and saved. Soon, we will be going into buildings from the 1980s and 1990s. I’m already thinking about how I will make those materials look relevant.’
What goes into each design depends on what is available, of course, but materials gradually get pieced together and layered up through careful discussion. ‘That’s what’s so great about the warehouse space – clients can physically start showing me what they are drawn to,’ says Speake, who clearly gets a kick out of educating and empowering people to use this stuff. ‘Many builders and contractors want [everything] vacuum-packed and clingfilm-wrapped – they deem a lot of our stuff bonfire worthy. You go through this bizarre coaxing process, but by the end many are converts. They take so much pride in polishing things up to look a million dollars.’
Projects are both residential (they could easily namedrop if they weren’t souls of discretion) and retail (most recently Lyn Harris’ Perfumer H boutique in Marylebone and Bella Freud’s Chiltern Street shop), and can take up to two years. It’s a timeframe that’s indicative of the attention to detail that their work requires – this is no quick-fix business. As a result, the studio (which is due to move to new premises a few hundred yards up the road after outgrowing its current location) regularly declines more jobs than it takes on. So how does Speake choose which to accept? ‘The type of building can be interesting – particularly if it’s one I’ve not worked on before,’ she says. ‘But also the people. I love getting immersed in their worlds. Adam says it’s like I’m having love affairs.’
So what’s next? So far they’ve resisted the urge to design their own range. ‘We want to be part of the solution, not the problem,’ says Hills, before proffering an interesting proposition. ‘I’m not a complete Luddite; I realise new things will be made, but we have such a fat existence in the West, I’d love to see an embargo on production until every chair in the world has been sat on.’ Amen to that.