There was a time, not long ago in fact, when every major historical British monument could be found at Christchurch. The site of this cultural cynosure was the Tuckton Golf and Leisure Park off Stour Road, and the monuments formed part of a model landscape dubbed ‘Tucktonia’ – occupying four of the site’s twenty-one acres, though ‘Tucktonia’ is the name by which the entire leisure park tends to be remembered. A few years ago, I wrote a series of columns for Christchurch Eye on the history of Tucktonia and, given the interest generated by these articles, we have decided to re-run them for residents on Christchurch and the surrounding areas again.
The site’s origins were rooted in the Tuckton Golf School, opened in 1932 by Arthur Vine, an affable cove in plus-fours, who laid out a driving range on the low-lying meadowland here – adding a set of floodlights in 1956, making this the first floodlit golf course in the UK. In 1961 the freehold was purchased by Harry Stiller, a young motorsports fanatic, who had become Arthur’s business partner after arriving in Bournemouth three years previously. One of Harry’s first acts was to secure a drinks licence for the site’s clubhouse, which was promptly renamed The Golfers’ Arms, with a racing car built into the wall and sixteen ales on draught at any one time. The business then ticked over while Harry focused on his Formula Three career: he was British champion three years in a row, but retired from the sport in 1968, after two successive accidents test-driving tyres.
It was at this point that Harry turned his efforts to transforming the club into a full-blown entertainments complex, the one thing, he felt, that the Bournemouth area was lacking. The Golfers’ Arms was assigned to Watney’s Brewery on a 99-year lease, partly to fund the new attractions; these included an outdoor swimming pool, a miniature railway, crazy golf, a 35-ft. fun slide or ‘Astroglide’, and a go-karting circuit run like a mini-Indianapolis (there was no age limit, so long as the driver’s foot was capable of reaching the brake pedal). These features in place, the site reopened as the Tuckton Golf and Leisure Park in 1972, though Harry was still looking for a special ingredient to catapult the site to attention. It so happened that, around that time, a business acquaintance suggested he visit the Madurodam model village in The Hague – ‘and the moment I set foot there,’ says Harry today, ‘I knew this was exactly the sort of thing I wanted to bring to Christchurch.’
The result was the miniature landscape, Tucktonia, assembled on the flood plain at the back of the site: this had to be raised by more than 2 ft. to gain planning consent, which meant draining the area, filling it with 18,000 tons of hardcore and 2,500 tons of concrete, then topping it with 12,500 tons of earth. This took place after numerous clashes with the river and town planning authorities, which resulted in Harry selling the site to Grand Metropolitan Hotels Ltd. – though he agreed to stay on for a year as consultant in the project. Harry’s idea was that Tucktonia would embody ‘the best of British in miniature’, incorporating models of Stonehenge, Hadrian’s Wall, the Tower of London, St. Paul’s, the Palace of Westminster and the cream of Britain’s industry, with cars tootling along the miniature motorway and Concorde taking off hourly from Tucktonia Airport. Everything was built to a 1:24 scale, right down to the pigeons surrounding Nelson’s column, or the graffiti on the model railway station wall.
The grand opening of Tucktonia took place on 23 May 1976, with Arthur Askey presiding – an inspired choice, as even he towered over most of the exhibits. As the years went by, further fixtures were added: in 1978 an army helicopter was brought in to lower a 26-ft. model of the Post Office Tower, the site being so densely packed by this stage that there was no other way of putting it in place. That particular model cost £7,000 to build and, like its life-size counterpart, was equipped with a rotating restaurant section, turning at a rate of eight revolutions per hour. Inevitably, the cost of maintaining the models was high, and the site would close each winter to allow the work to be carried out – though the indoor amusements palace remained open, generating a trickle of income.
Despite such overheads, Grand Metropolitan insisted the business was still solvent when they sold it to a new local company, Tucktonia Ltd., in 1983. (Peter Arnold, who had been running some of the rides as a sub-contractor, was appointed managing director.) This company did its best to turn the leisure park into an all-year-round attraction – it was Peter, for instance, who installed a haunted house under the fun-slide stairs (‘I put my mother-in-law in charge of it’) – but it ran into several difficulties, such as resistance from the local residents’ association, and limited room to expand. The company therefore decided to relocate and sold the site, for a reported £10 million, to Costain Homes, pending the 130-home residential development known as The Meridians. Site clearance began in October 1986, the Tucktonia flag – a chirpy robin, with a Union Jack breast – fluttering above the debris at half-mast.
Attempts at re-establishing the leisure park at various other locations never came to fruit, not least because most of the Tucktonia models were destroyed in a warehouse fire at Verwood in 1990 – though Buckingham Palace escaped the flames, and is now on display at the Merrivale Model Village in Great Yarmouth. Tucktonia Ltd., meanwhile, was dissolved on 19 February 1992, and even the Golfers’ Arms eventually succumbed to the wrecking-ball. Since then, the days of Christchurch’s only leisure park have become a fond but increasingly distant memory. Over the next few weeks we will be tracing the rise and fall of the site here in the pages of Christchurch Eye Online, and interviewing some of the key figures involved in bringing this remarkable attraction to our doorstep.