The OTHER Secret Garden at Alton Towers

Alton Towers Gardens,Green Grass, Blue Sky, Orange Leaves
The Alton Towers Gardens on Hot Summer Day

The biggest secrets are often hiding in plain sight and this is spectacularly true at Alton Towers. I’m talking about their Secret Garden; no, not the restaurant downstairs in the hotel, the OTHER, real garden that sits bang in the middle of the Theme Park but usually gets roundly ignored by 99% of visitors.

The pandemic and delayed opening has, by necessity, made the gardens the centrepiece park attraction again for the first time in more than half a century. So, are they worth a special visit and what about when the rides re-open and we head back towards normality? What about then? Are we unintentionally missing out on the park’s oldest secret weapon? This post won’t give you a detailed guide (there are plenty of those already out there), but it will hopefully make you think about the gardens differently – and remember that they are there in the first place!

I can understand why most people ignore the gardens. Until 2018 when we wandered down to the conservatories, I hadn’t been in them myself since about 1975. In recent years, short opening hours and reduced throughput on the rides mean that it’s hard enough fitting in all the major coasters AND lunch when the park is even half busy. Add in the fact that pre-booked day-tickets for a family of four can cost nearly £140 before parking, drinks and food, then spending an hour or two strolling round some gardens starts to look like a poor return on your money.

Which means very few visitors really pay much attention to the gardens – they are more likely to be skirted through on the path to Forbidden Valley for another coaster fix or looked down on (metaphorically and literally) from the SkyRide.

“What’s that down there Dad?”

“It’s the Gardens and the fountains.”

Oh…OK…. What shall we go on next then?”

But are they worth making time for?

On a normal ride day with short opening times where you have paid gate price, online price or two-for-one price I am going to say no – unless you like horticulture as much as rollercoasters or want something to do whilst everyone else rides. By all means use the paths from Mutiny Bay to Forbidden Valley and maybe take a look at The Orangery and Conservatories on the way. And don’t ever make the mistake of thinking the cross-valley path is a nice shortcut route from Nemesis to Thirteen – unless you are fit and like a testing hill hike that will really eat into your energy and time. 

The Towers Across the Gardens
The Towers from the Prospect Tower. It’s twice as far as it looks (and it looks a long way) because you are going to a long way down into the valley and a long way back up again!

If the weather is nice and you have sandwiches, you could also find yourself a nice spot and eat in the gardens. But I don’t think it’s worth giving up ride time to explore further when there are plenty of cheaper National Trust sites you can visit.

But what about the current lockdown deal where you can visit the gardens for £12 each or £1 each with a Season or Annual Pass? Or in normal times, if you don’t live too far away or are staying in a hotel for a night or two and can visit using your pass?

Well, then the time:value equation starts to look a bit different and a garden visit a lot more worthwhile.

Firstly, the current lockdown deal with or without a Season Pass is simply a brilliant opportunity. If you have the time and the weather, it is well worth taking advantage of this once in a lifetime chance. You will see the park from a completely different perspective and deifinitely see parts of the gardens you have never seen before. Parking is free and right next to the entrance where at the moment they will check your temperature as well as your ticket.

We went about a week and a half ago and were lucky enough to get some decent weather. However, during the current lockdown deals all the on-site eateries are closed except for a little kiosk in Mutiny Bay – which is also the site of the only open toilets. If you don’t want to dine on Pringles and pop, take a packed lunch. And go for a wee before you venture into the valley!

It is easy to socially distance on such a big site. You can either follow the self-guided walk on the app or turn it into a bit of rambling unguided adventure and see what you stumble across. If you are going to follow the guide however I recommend downloading and printing out the map and instructions before you go. We found it a bit fiddly to use and read on a mobile phone screen whilst we were there.

It was so relaxing to walk around the gardens in the warm sunshine without that little devil on my shoulder whispering “Nemesis… Smiler…”. It was also great to explore the tangled web of paths and get up close to features like the conservatories and the famous Pagoda Fountain. There is an incredible heritage in the valley and genuinely something different to see around every corner. I think kids especially will enjoy the sense of adventure and exploration along the twisting turning paths, across bridges and stepping-stones, round old fountains and even past the odd deserted house and out-building, which really fire the curiosity. I love that sort of thing and its great for photography.

Eating our sandwiches on the sunlit terraces, just taking in the lush verdant atmopshere was actually like stepping back a few decades to a slower pace when there wasn’t constant pressure to rush everywhere and always be doing something. It reminded me a bit of my first ever visit which, in an old review, I briefly talk about here. It was great to have the time to be able to wander aimlessly and just stand in the tranquility and look around.

I wonder why AT don’t open just the Gardens on all those early spring and late summer season closed days in April, May and September? Imagine the different colours, views and atmosphere  at different times of the year.

Gothic Prospect Tower - Alton Towers
The Gothc Prospect Tower Nestles in the Trees. What would this view be like in the Autumn?

I also ticked a personal box by finally getting to take a close look at the old Swiss Cottage Restaurant. I remember years ago planning to take my wife there for a nice meal during one of our before-kids park days. But it wasn’t to be – it had closed the season before and disappeared off all the park maps. So on our recent garden visit I made a point of following the path up and having a peek through the windows. I had wanted to do this for ages but could tear myself away from the rides….

From the look of the interior I don’t think my wife is going to get her posh meal there anytime soon – although it could be used as a great “small group” scare attraction or escape room without too much work! The Swiss Cottage is a tangible example of the untapped potential of the gardens generally.

Swiss Cottage Interior
Swiss Cottage: 80’s Time Capsule

So the current lockdown deal is great – if you have the opportunity just go, and take the kids for some proper old-fashioned family time whilst you can get it. A picnic in dappled sunlight in a lovely setting whilst the kids amuse themselves exploring. Brilliant!

It appears the lockdown has made Alton Towers realise that they do indeed have something of a forgotten secret weapon. The gardens offer space and tranquility amongst the madness inside (and outside) of the park but they do seem to be a bit of an overlooked asset – by both management and visitors.

It has actually made us re-think how, as things move towards some kind of normality, we might visit the park in the future to incorporate some chill-out time in the gardens.

If you are a regular visitor with a Season or Annual Pass (or have a couple of days in a hotel) I think it’s perfectly feasible – and worthwhile – to occasionally visit the park and split your time between doing a few rides and taking in the gardens. The pass means that it’s not costing you a chunk of cash and you won’t feel as though you are wasting valuable ride time because you can always go again and concentrate on the coasters as usual.

It’s actually a really enjoyable and different sort of park experience; rather than running yourself ragged chasing yet another ride on The Smiler, you get some relaxation and recovery time. Your sense of well-being will thank you for it. And afterwards you’ll be properly raring to go for the next coaster!

 

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