Corrie's Ken Barlow discovers family links to Alton Towers
CORONATION Street legend William Roache swaps the cobbles of Weatherfield for the altogether grander environs of Alton Towers tomorrow night as he reveals his family connections with Staffordshire in the BBC's hit genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are?.
The actor, aged 80, who's played Ken Barlow for 52 years, talks openly about how he used to spend holidays at what was then a grand stately home in the 1930s before it fell into dereliction.
Originally from Derbyshire, Roach's grandmother Zillah Waddicor ran the Alton Towers Café in the 1920s and 1930s.
Even though it would be several decades before the estate became a theme park, the house was a popular attraction. Thousands would flock to enjoy the grounds while the infant Roache, at the invitation of Zillah, played inside – his grandparents lived in rooms in the house.
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"I remember her having the Alton Towers Café," he says. "As a child I went there. I can only remember little bits of it. It's an amazing building. It was massive, and that was their home."
Invited to tour the ruins – the first time he's been back in more than 70 years – he tells the programme: "I hope it hasn't changed too much."
Roache is filmed wandering through the theme park, now a very different environment to the one he enjoyed as a child.
"It's funny," he says, looking at the crowds, "because I was here as a child and my family were running it.
"I feel quite possessive," he adds. "I feel everybody's an intruder – all the people out there."
Inside the once grand rooms, meanwhile, memories come flooding back. "I remember oak panelling," he says, "and I remember very broad floorboards that I would pedal on on my little tricycle. I remember a suit of armour I used to pedal past."
While Roache believed Zillah to run a fairly small enterprise, he's shocked to discover his grandmother was a trailblazing entrepreneur who in fact not only ran a thousand-seat restaurant at the Towers but also bought an old mill in Alton village itself and turned it into Ye Olde Mill Café. "She was," he's told, "one of the leisure entrepreneurs of the period."
But Roache, pictured below, who now lives in Wilmslow, recalls Zillah, who, despite her business success, suffered a turbulent personal life, more for her human qualities. "All I remember of her was she was a very lovely kind and wonderful woman," he says.
"Seeing Alton Towers brought back memories for me," he concludes. "It was lovely to think it was the family home."
Certainly he's delighted to have reacquainted himself with grandma Zillah. "There's no doubt about it," he says, seemingly unaware of the pun, "she had a towering personality."
Who Do You Think You Are? is on BBC1 at 9pm, Weds.