A ramble down pre-millennium memory lane. What was your first job?

What was your first job? Asked a friend recently, we were enjoying a ramble down pre-millennium memory lane. A time when life was innocent and opportunities endless, or so it appeared to those of us who did our growing up in the ‘90’s. 

She admitted to being a cute as a button child model, primarily for clothing catalogues. She was not alone, around here others had interesting introductions to the world of work. More models, a dancer, a film extra and my favourite, a mortuary assistant in a hospital. 

A world away from my own first job which whilst less glamorous was infinitely more exciting.

In the corner of North Yorkshire where I grew up, many if not most local youths spend a season or two working at The Valley. That’s Lightwater Valley to the uninitiated.  Forget Alton Towers. Forget Blackpool Pleasure Beach. Lightwater is the Theme Park in the North.  Over the years it has provided first jobs for many local teens and others. We all learned a lot, not only new skills, in my case opening a huge catering sized baked beans tin – I was a particularly hapless 15 year old. But making friends and being treated as an (annoying) equal with older ex sixth formers from school – now university students, who appeared effortlessly cool and worldly.

And the most important skill of all; how to avoid being thrown in the lake on your last day or birthday or any reason really. This being a Lightwater staff tradition, you learned to pick your way back to the minibus point carefully, going the long way around even if it meant catching a later bus back.  

By the time I started, its metamorphosis from family fruit picking farm with a few gentle attractions for the kids to bona fide Theme Park was complete.

The Rat, The Soopa Loopa and of course The Ultimate –  at one point the longest rollercoaster in England were all open, manned by an army of teen and student staff, overseen by permanent managers.

The rat ride always provides a talking point. “What a rollercoaster based on a sewer rat? Is that for real?” Friends down south will say. Clearly, southern theme parks didn’t have such an exciting attraction. The rat was and is in its reincarnated form as the Raptor, the true jewel in Lightwater’s crown.

The one and only rat ride. The best rollercoaster ever.

It needed a special kind of mind to dream up the concept up a rat rollercoaster. The ride itself was accessed through a small rounded entrance; those over 5ft having to bend almost double to pass through. The punters would carefully pick their way down the dark tunnels. You needed to tread carefully, the only light came from the ‘red eye’ lights in the fake stuffed rats, clouds of dry stars in your eyes mist would rise up randomly, accompanied by a special eau du rat. I have never smelled anything like it since, nor do I wish too.

The rat always attracted long queues, even on quieter days, stretching down into the more pleasant landscaped park areas, with handy vending machines to keep the queue happy and ensure they kept spending.

An army of workers and maintenance staff ensured the rat ride ran smoothly.  Each morning, they would make their way from the clocking on shed and descend deep into the Yorkshire soil, emerging at the end of the day as pale as miners and smelling of the unique rat stench.

The Rat Ride was truly a feast for the senses, not only the visceral  thrill of hurling around underground in a carriage that looked like a rat (4 riders per rat only)

And after all these thrills, rat riders would exit through the kiosk, named RAT ICES. Its main purpose was to flog photo mementos, The punters usually declined this opportunity. After a ride on the rat, all they wanted was a cone of chips. Sadly, the Rat Kiosk didn’t sell fries, cold snacks only! The customers needed to trundle off, park map clutched in hand, on an endless quest for their fries.

Kiosk staff quickly got used to the question “Do you sell chips?” Especially on busy days. Chips only available in the larger kiosks, such as the Fort and later the large conservatory that was built in the early 1990s. You learned to flip a deep fat fryer at an alarming pace, to meet demand – and that was just from staff.

One Lightwater summer, I spent much timein the Burger Bar (again a chip free zone) mainly with a friend, Rachel.  This little shack, could barely squeeze in 2 people, never mind the extra staff needed to keep up with burger demand on a busy bank holiday.  Like the rat, it had its own unique aroma; nothing smell like a cheap frozen 1990s burger. Luckily, the reconstituted onions that looked more like slop , had no smell or taste. A foreshadowing perhaps for the poor Covid sufferers in 2020 who can no longer smell or taste.

We learned to ignore the thumps and muffled yells from the hell slide, which stopped mere feet from the burger bar serving hatch. A terrifying attraction . This ‘slide’ was a simply a high vertical drop. They were popular in 1990s attractions. Hell Slide attendants, got used to the wafts of smelly feet – for obvious reasons Hell was a shoe free zone. Sometimes vomit, particularly if visitors paid a visit to the burger bar before hurling themselves off the top and lots of preventative safety measures. It really needed the Centre Parc traffic light system…

We laughed a lot that summer, Rachael and me, locked away in burger towers and became rather attached to our little smelly shack. Others felt the same about their area. The model boat operator was never anywhere but on the model boats. Rat boys liked being on the rat. Go kart kids, (alarming how many go karts would break out of their safety straw bales sailing down the main path) liked go karts. Amanda’s coffee shop workers liked Amanda’s – nothing to do with the canisters of squirty cream, that were meant for scones.

Nobody liked operating the weird gyroscope things. Perhaps as they didn’t attract many ‘visitors’ or car park duty.  Or being stuck on the Fort adventure playground on a quiet day. 

On the whole, staff moved around the park, never knowing from day to day where you would see your name on the rota. You could be litter picking one day, getting splattered in bin juice, or wondering how to get your hands in the pig’s mouth bin that ‘gobbled’ rubbish, cleaning windows in the pet shop, donning waders to rescue kiddies out on the boating lake. Lightwater provided a life lesson in being adaptable and sucking up the more unpleasant jobs.

It also gave many of us catering staff a lifelong aversion to donuts. Making up ‘fresh donuts’ from huge sacks of packet mix, and watching it drop into the boiling fat lives on in my memory 30 years on.

Many former workers have fond memories of their formative seasons at the Valley. All the fun and the endless laughs as someone said, working at Lightwater was like having your own private fairground in your back garden, with all your friends as shareholders in the fun. Each generation of workers have certain songs that take them right back. In particular, music played by the Lightwater Valley mobile roadshow. “Coming to you from the heart of Lightwater Valley.” Rhythm is a Dancer always does it for me.

Of course, it was hard work, at times, like any other jobs. But they were happy days and memories from a simpler more innocent age. Many of us now have our own teenagers trying to dip their toes into the working world in this age of limited opportunities and zero hours contracts. It is a much harder time to be a jobseeker.

Thrills in the Valley indeed and for all the staff past and present as well as its customers, LWV long may you reign, supreme in the north.

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