2011 Lookback: Three Men And A Pier – The Lolocaust Roadtrip

When I found out that fellow Lolocaust member Nerfie was planning on coming up to visit, I knew it would be worth trying to extend his stay with the tried and tested combination of bribary and kidnap. Fate was on our side as he always packs an extra set of clothes in case he ‘falls in a river’ or something to that effect. Messages were sent to Scarred Star who had spent a weekend in London, seeing some classic film at the IMAX and meeting up with folk – as well as eating in a swanky London establishment where they wrap you in plastic – informing him of the news and soon enough we were planning a road trip.

Now usually we would only be going on a road trip to something big, like Eurogamer, Retro Fusion or the day before they empty the bins outside Billy Piper’s house but this time we were heading for a far off, off-kilter location that until my mother spotted it on a coastal tour I was entirely unaware of. It would be a day filled with a lot of driving, a lot of laughing and a sense of guilt that I couldn’t shift until I got on Google. We were off to Suffolk to see one of the world’s most interesting arcades. Kind of fitting that a ‘gaming lifestyle’ blog should want to go see something like that, eh? Well it was fitting in my mind at least, Star and Nerfie didn’t really have much of an idea of what we were going to travel to see, but they must have trusted my taste in destination as we were soon on our way to Suffolk in Nerfie’s car, but getting there would be a challenge in itself. It all started off quite oddly with the SatNav deciding to send us the ‘scenic route’ to Kings Lynn – essentially through a council estate, some orchards and some farm land before getting us onto the A47, surely a left turn would have done that? Ah well, it was nice to see the sights of my home town but soon enough a rougue piece of farm machinery did it’s best to end our journey with, literally, one foul swoop:

With Star’s paraphrasing of Alan Partridge ringing in our ears we stopped for fuel – of both varieties – and witnessed two generic truck driving stereotypes sauntering about… well, the camp trucker sauntered, whereas the burly one was most certainly staggering. Once the car was topped up we pulled around the corner to make use of McDonald’s excellent facilities, namely a table that wasn’t soaked in filth and a food stuff that wasn’t entirely produced by marrying two cows to two Norfolk farmers and harvesting their off-spring. Or at least I think I am correct in that assumption. As we headed in Nerf and I commented on the ‘Height Restriction’ measures that were in place. To the untrained eye they resembled a series of ball-gags hanging from a metal bar, sadly Star had missed the visual key and misheard the comment as something to do with ball-bags hanging and as such managed to amuse us greatly when he later pointed out the ‘red noses hanging up there’ – Silly sod. Brunch was ideally timed and despite almost leaving my camera and my bag behind we left without any incidents involving straw casings, anti-capitalist frenzy or an embarrassing situation involving any gherkins. All in all a success on all fronts. So off we went again, living in constant fear that we may bump into Norfolk’s Anti-Cambridgeshire Vehicle Device (namely the wobbly tractor thing) and becoming hypnotised by the sheer length of the A47. Now I love a bit of scenery, but to be fair the morning we travelled on was not one that was great for taking in a view, unless you have a thing for views of foggy mist. Which you might have, many people do, but not I. Instead I found myself clamouring for the slightest thing of note, if only to have something interesting to write here. Sadly this did not happen. Well, not until a lot later, when we happened to pass the Tobar building. Then we something excellent and troubling in equal measure. Tobar Toys are a Suffolk-based company that are rapidly expanding thanks to their lines of more traditional toys (think cup and ball, magnetic frogs etc…) and their selection of novelty gifts coupled with their High Street stores ‘Hawkin’s Bazaar’. As a result of this expansion a larger building was required and it was this building that we passed on the way to Southwold. Now I’ll be honest with you, in hindsight the panic and concern that struck me seems silly, but at the time I felt genuinely gutted that we did what we did. Guess I’d better explain. Right. On the side of the Tobar building was a GIANT clock, not a normal ‘large’ clock but a GIANT one. On top of the clock was a guy in a reflective jacket but there were no harness cables, cherry pickers or ladders.

For all we knew he was trapped there, on his knees, seemingly holding on for dear life. I figured we should probably turn the car around and go back to see if he was in trouble, but we didn’t. Instead we tried to settle on the concept that someone else would stop, or the simple fact that he was on a giant clock in a busy industrial estate would ensure a rescue. Luckily (as I mentioned before, a Google saved my conscience) it turned out that the clock was actually supposed to have a man on it, a model one – not some poorly paid actor sitting astride a giant clock. There would be something else weird to tell you about the clock, but I’ll get to that soon enough. So, giant clock guilt left behind we found ourselves going over some rolling green hills and seeing the sea. Oh yes, we played that game. I won. Well, actually Star did, but he cheated. He couldn’t actually see the sea, but he did say it first… Cheating beggar. Regardless we were now faced with the ACTUAL SEA and a pier so we pulled over in a residential street and saved ourselves some parking money, money that would soon be disappearing into greedy coin slots soon enough. So this is where we were:

And this is why we were here:

The Under the Pier Show is part art installation, part comedy genius and part knowing nod at the history and evolution of the Seaside Entertainment world created by engineering artist Tim Hunkin. Hunkin for the uninitiated was behind a great Channel 4 television series in the late eighties and early nineties called ‘The Secret Life of Machines’ as well as being the guy behind the Observer’s Rudiments of Wisdom cartoon strips/features. He was also part of the team that created and manufactured the inflatable animals to be shot out of cannons on Pink Floyd’s Animals tour as well as creating the amazing mechanical clock at London Zoo.

Needless to say he is exactly the sort of artist that I strive to discover and to actually play with some of his machines in their actual natural habitat was worth the trip. We only found out about it after my Mum went on a tour of the coast and accidentally found it. She knew I’d be impressed with it, but I think she had underestimated how brilliant I thought it was. So, bit of a background to the pier itself – garnered from what I have been able to find out thus far – originally built as a landing point for tourist steamers coming up from London it suffered numerous storms, sections and sea mine strikes until by the 1970’s it was only 60ft long. In 1987 it was bought privately and in 1999 work began to revitalise and rebuild the pier and in 2001 it was standing out at 623ft. In 2002 it was named Pier of the Year (an award Carol Vorderman will NEVER win) and stands as Britain’s only 21st Century Pier. It is currently owned by the Bournes family and is run as a family business, and this really shows. Hunkin has been involved in the pier for a while but it has evolved over the years from a couple of machines to the Under the Pier Show that is there now, as well as having some devices on the pier itself and he has also designed and produced the various pier decorations (noticeboards, signs, bins etc…). Another rather interesting thing we noticed about the pier were the dozens of little plaques adorning the hand rails, all a result of a donation to the pier’s development. A brilliant idea that also instils a feeling of Britishness throughout. Heck this one made me smile on it’s own:

So we headed down the pier and arrived at the water clock just in time to see it ‘perform’. Performance is something that a lot of Hunkin’s creations do, mostly on account of them being classed as automatons, essentially a robotic device engineered to perform a set task/series of tasks. Some of his early works, Goliath and the Barman in particular perform general tasks while still remaining unique and interesting to the viewer/user. The water clock on Southwold Pier is no different, featuring a number of moving parts and culminating with a twice hourly performance involving some rather cheeky urinating gentlemen.

We timed our visit perfectly actually – I blankly refuse to make a caught short joke here, if you insist on thinking one up, go right ahead, we’ll wait.

All done?

Good, now let’s continue. So we witnessed the water clock passing it’s water and noticed a few collection buckets surrounding the base of the clock so a good handful of coins was deposited somewhat skilfully in each of the buckets before we moved on to the end of the pier to have a look at Hunkin’s Quantum Tunnelling Telescope. Inspired by a conversation concerning the pointless nature of those seaside telescopes that look out at pretty much nothing whatsoever, Hunkin set about creating a device that would guarantee something interesting to look at, and the Quantum Tunnelling Telescope was born. The base of the device houses a series of small scenes that can be viewed by moving it around, all the time speakers on the telescope provide a soundtrack to the scenes on show, ranging from a shark attack to an under-sea rave. A great device that all three of us shoved our faces into, emerging with wry smiles and chortles.

So telescope used we headed back down the pier to the main body of the show, housed in a small structure on the pier that belies the scale and quality of what lies within. Our eyes flicked around to see machines that allow the user to go on holiday, get a workout (while laying down), future proof your life with zimmer frame lessons, walk a dog, see a chiropodist and experience an eclipse and more.

We kicked things off with a frisking, an eclipse and deciding the fate of a lamb before Star found his calling at the Nuclear Fusion machine, successfully avoiding a meltdown and winning some edible nuclear waste.

The game itself was brilliant, combining a robotic arm with some pellets and a reactor core. Once you get the hang of the robotic arm the game is possible if you have concentration and patience. I didn’t when I played, so I caused a nuclear meltdown, a literal Nuclear Lolocaust if you like.

After all the stress and strain of saving the world from a Nuclear apolcalypse Nerfie needed a holiday so I chucked some coinage into the nearby Microbreak machine – built on the bare bones of a former Sega Space Harrier arcade machine – so he could enjoy all the thrills of a trip to some generic European country.

From the trolly dolly jumping on a passenger to the near-psychotic driving of the shuttle bus driver (scarily accurate) culminating in a tilt back of the chair and the lamp on the telly flipping back to reveal a heat lamp. To be honest I think Nerfie was having the best holiday ever, but we had other machines to fiddle with, and be fiddled with by, so we dragged him back to the reality of a wind-swept pier on the North Sea coast of England and stuck his hand in a cage with a mad dog.

No, really.

Well, not *really* but it was a cage and there was a ‘dog’ in there.

The ‘Test Your Nerve’ machine features the head of a vicious-looking dog and a big red button. The aim of the game is to hold your hand on the button as long as your nerve will hold. The dog will growl, bark and snarl to try and make you move, but the genius in this machine is the misdirection afforded by this concept. You see while you expect the growls and barks you don’t expect the warm drool to drip all over your hand, Nerfie certainly didn’t and broke into hysterical laughter as he endured a dribble-covered fate. Star didn’t last the duration. The wimp.

Speaking of wimps I decided to brave the Crankenstien machine that required me to turn a wheeled handle repeatedly to resurrect the monster in the cage. It took a lot more effort than I though it would, and eventually the struggle to carry the backpack and camera – as well as a giant pocket of change – meant I ended up on my knees cranking away when it finally came back to life with a roar.

Oooh, spooky, still brilliant though.

Over the next hour we would spend time having our feet inspected by a papier mache chiropodist, watch a piece of corn get popped, have a health check, witness a disgusting spectacle and more. Nothing touched the collective genius of the Expressive Photobooth and the Bathyscape though.

The Expressive Photobooth is a masterwork in terms of what it aims to do. You sit in the wooden photobooth and certain effects will affect your expression as each photo is taken. I sent Nerfie and Star in first with this result:

Shortly after I jumped in alone and got this selection of shots:

Brilliantly I turned up as the reincarnation of a little girl and her dad when they had a go, and I got to spend half an hour with a kid going ‘Look Daddy, it’s us in another life!’ which is a depressing for her dad as it was amusing to me. I won’t go into detail as to what happened in the booth as if you do visit it may change your reactions, but suffice to say it was simple and brilliant (if you are desperate to know visit Hunkin’s website and look the machine up, he has a lot of information on there about the machines, and their creation. Well worth a read).

The Bathysphere was the one attraction I had been desperate to try before arriving after hearing good things from my mum, and I was not disappointed. Dragging Nerfie into the pod and closing the door – leaving Star outside to gurn through the portholes – we soon began our dive beneath the waves of the North Sea witnessing such sights as estate agent fish, Robert Maxwell’s travelling skeleton, a shoal of poo and the horrific sight of nuclear waste barrels having sex.

The whole thing was played out through the main viewing window within the bathysphere – showing a film made in a fish tank – and was very funny, showing that Hunkin has the sense of humour to match his engineering abilities. Suffice to say the trip doesn’t go according to plan and soon enough we were under attack and the bathysphere was damaged in a battle with a deep sea leviathan, with water dripping on our heads we quickly resurfaced and exited the ride with broad smiles.

These two attractions really encapsulate why we travelled across a few counties to visit a small seaside town, we wanted to see something new, something funny and something unique. With Hunkin’s Under the Pier Show we got that in spades. (I could go on for hours about the different attractions, but I will leave you with a selection of photos of our day at the end of this piece, as well as some links to find out more.)

After we exhausted my wallet and had a go at pretty much everything that was on offer – some twice or thrice – we decided to wander back up the pier and investigate it’s more modern arcade. It was a pretty good example actually, with a few machines I’d never seen in the wild – the Blazing Angels machine in particular – and we spent a good half an hour gaming before finding out an incredible fact about Lolocaust  member Nerfie. You see he also grew up beside the sea-side (beside the sea) yet he had never, I repeat, NEVER played air hockey! Incredible!

Air Hockey – for the uninitiated – is a table based game for 2-4 players with an air flow system generating a sort of hover effect for the puck. The game of choice for over-competitive uncles to destroy their infant nephews and nieces at it is synonymous with amusement arcades as much as it is of hand injuries. I have spent weeks of my life playing air hockey against friends and relatives and the fact that a close buddy had never played it seemed unreal to me.

I questioned him on this, and got confirmation that while his town had an amusement arcade, it didn’t have air hockey, shame on you Sunspot Amusements.

So we set about immediately to amend this fault in the universe with a few games. I trounced both Nerfie and Star in four straight games – not that I’m smug about it, but I did make myself a trophy when I got home out of a kitchen roll tube and an old sock – and it was clear that I was best to quit while ahead, secretly as they were cracking onto my general technique, so we strolled off and headed for a lighthouse I’d spotted while on the pier and fancied grabbing a photo of before we left. The sun was slowly setting so I headed down onto the sands to grab some photos of the waves hitting the groynes – OH! I forgot to show you this photo:

SO MANY JOKES!

Anyway, after scrambling around on a groyne or two – noticing that they were firm but slippery – I got the shots and attempted to head back up to the road, but there were no steps. Literally no steps, no ramp, not even a ladder. I was trapped with a choice of a ten minute walk back down the beach or an undeterminate walk onwards risking another ten minutes and still being trapped. I went for option c, scramble up the side of the sea defences with the grace and dignity of this camel:

So yeah, not my greatest moment, but we soon made it across the town to the lighthouse, spotting a lovely little local shop – which we didn’t venture into for fear of being killed as we were not ‘local’ – and a brewery that smelled like EVERY pub of the late-seventies, early-eighties.

Southwold is a curious town as it is the least tourist-friendly place I’ve ever been – I’m not talking about the people, they all seemed charming – but the town itself seemed like the local council had issued a checklist of ‘seaside town essentials’ and the people of Southwold had grunted in mild approval and built the pier, the arcade and put some benches out. That’s pretty much it. I liked that.

Many seaside towns are nothing more than sand-covered prostitutes seeking to give you a cheap thrill and empty your wallet, but Southwold seemed too middle-class to lower itself to that level (bravo), so as we ambled around the residential streets and church yards were were constantly aware of the eyes following our every movement.

Still it gave the neighbourhood watch something to do I suppose. Soon enough we were back at the car and our day of frivolity was almost over. Asking Star and Nerfie their views on the day I got this (slightly sweary) response:

With that on record we headed off home – after Nerfie nearly lost a wheel doing the fastest u-turn in history after his John Cleese-infused sat nav tried to send us down a garden path, literally – with one more sight for our childish eyes to behold, the village sign at Wangford.

Snigger!

WANGFORD!

Oh come on, you giggled as well.

Gotta love those little town names, eh?

So yeah, giggling like children with a dictionary, “Look Stuart, it says ‘shit’!” we headed home under a rapidly darkening sky, happy and content that none of us could have imagined a day out like that. We probably won’t see anything like it ever again, but we will try. We have already chosen the location of our next Road Trip… Keep tuned for that one…

So, as promised here is a gallery of images from the day out, we hope you enjoyed reading about our day as much as we enjoyed it.

Epilogue:

After getting home I Googled that clock and discovered that it was a giant backwards clock designed to reflect the Tobar company’s biggest seller, the Backwards Clock – or at least was as the company sadly went into administration recently – and the giant version was designed by none other than the object of our quest, Tim Hunkin himself! Brilliant.

Epilogue 2:

A few weeks later I was up on the London Eye with my wife and a friend after deciding spontaneously to have a ride, and spotted a familiar sounding hospital from the skies above London. A quick check on my iPad – that helpfully was still holding open a window detailing the locations of Hunkin’s creations gave me a shiver of excitement as the hospital in question was one of two in London that features a creation by Hunkin in the form of a collection box game. Naturally the bug had bitten by now and we simply HAD to go find the machine. It’s odd walking into a hospital with no relatives to visit or appointments to keep, but we figured that if we found the machine and put a fiver in, we would be helping in the long run. Using logic – the game featured lifts, so we headed there first – we found the machine and it was stunning. Simple and understated it didn’t have the gaudy appearance that befits a seaside arcade, instead sitting in a nice cabinet in a quiet corridor.

The aim of the ‘game’ is to correctly guess which elevator will arrive near the patient first. There are three to choose from and a number of variables mix things up nicely. We spent a good twenty minutes endeavouring to see all of the win states – we saw two of them and a lot of the other possibilities – before deciding to visit again another time to hit number three (and we most definitely will be). Yet again I was able to share the magic of Hunkin’s creations with other people and I have it on good authority that the word has spread about that particular machine thanks to an email I sent shortly after. All very good. I didn’t take many photos of the machine – it felt a little bit wrong considering the fact that we were in a hospital, but I did grab this shot of the machine one of it’s win states:

So where next? Well there are a few other machines out there to track down, and a return visit to Southwold Pier is definitely on the cards later this year, hopefully it will have retained the charm that we experienced on that first visit, and maybe we will get lucky enough to bump into Hunkin – who often is found at the arcade – and ask him some questions for another feature at another time. We will also shoot some videos for you, a major oversight on our part there. So I hope you’ve enjoyed this article and it’s epilogues, we loved the trip – and the subsequent mystery Hunkin – and wholeheartedly recommend the Pier and it’s amazing arcade to you.

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