The Bryan family’s £30m fairground attraction
He’s in charge of a ‘little city’ which never sleeps, with a lifetime of unforgettable memories behind the scenes of one of the UK’s most popular and enduring tourist spots. Colin Bryan has lived and breathed Drayton Manor Park, near Tamworth, from his days as a toddler following mother Vera around the site. He has cooked chips, served teas, mended park rides and fallen out with father George over a steam train’s efficiency and coffees for the Women’s Institute.
At the age of 18, he met his future wife Lynn, then a 15-year-old zookeeper looking after the monkeys and snakes in the park. Now 68, he has seen it grow into an international tourist attraction pulling in well over a million visitors a year, with a £30m annual turnover. Drayton Manor has, quite literally, been Bryan’s life.
The story of Drayton Manor is a 65-year plus saga of a family-owned business which has resisted overtures from would-be buyers to cement itself as a key West Midlands economic asset with 1,000 full and part-time staff, and an enviable reputation in the tourism sector.
But it all began in humble circumstances back in 1949 when George, Bryan’s late father, took the gamble of a lifetime to splash out on 80 acres of derelict land at Fazeley, near Tamworth, where Sir Robert Peel – the former prime minister and the man who invented the police force – once ruled the roost on his private estate.
Bryan recalls: “My father paid £4,000 for 80 acres, which was all that was left of Sir Robert Peel’s estate. That was in May 1949 and we moved here on 16 October 1949. He had to borrow £4,000 from his father, £4,000 from his father-in-law and he came out of the Army with £4,000 after serving in Egypt in the Second World War.
“After that he had no money left and he went to see the bank manager at Tamworth who was taking his dog to the vets at the time. They stopped in the street and shook hands on a loan for £1,200, which he needed to put the water supply in. It was all done on a handshake in the road in Tamworth town centre.”
That historic Tamworth town centre bank loan deal was a gamble that has paid handsome dividends for the Bryan family, the local economy and ultimately for the regional
tourism industry. It was also to provide millions of happy memories for generations of youngsters and their families who have enjoyed action-packed days out in South Staffordshire through the decades.
“My mother Vera started cooking food at the park in the 1950s and selling jugs of tea in China crockery,” says Bryan. “I think I started to get noticed from the age of two – there are old photographs of me and my mother in the park.
“When I look back the sun was always shining in the summer, but of course it wasn’t. I remember that we were always working and we never had any time off. My birthday parties as a child were very busy: they were always held in the park and I was very popular with my school friends.
“I knew I was going into the business from the age of 10. My father said to me: ‘What do you want to do when you are older?’ and I said: ‘I’m going to take over your job.’ There was never any doubt in my mind from that time on.
“I started work cooking fish and chips with my mother and the ladies in the kitchen. I was around 15 at the time and was at school at [the now closed] Wylde Green College in Sutton Coldfield. When I came home I helped mother pre-cook the potatoes and cut them into chips – this was before the days of frozen chips. I would help cook 2,000 portions of fish and chips every Saturday in the Tower Suite ballroom.”
For the Bryans, and everyone else associated with Drayton Manor, the theme park of 2016 – now covering 280 acres – is a far cry from the early post-war years when an exhausted nation was looking for diversion and entertainment following six years of bloody conflict against Hitler.
“There would have been no more than ten full-time people working here then, including gardeners and electricians. Today we have 1,000 full and part-time staff, including a full-time health and safety specialist, and a full-time food inspector.
“We had 25,000 to 30,000 visitors in the first year, it grew to 100,000 coming through in the 1960s, in the 70s and 80s we had 300,000 to 400,000 and by 1990 we had the first million. We are about to welcome our 50 millionth customer since we opened. From March 2015 to February 2016 we had 1,214,000 visitors, a record.
“This has been a way of life to me, and my attitude to my work is that I’ve never had a dull day. The high point was when my boys decided to follow in my footsteps. That made me very proud, as I never pressured them to come in. I’ve had my downs, particularly with the death of my father.
“That was my lowest point – I was not here, I was away on holiday but I knew he wouldn’t last. I lost him five years before he died because he didn’t know who he was. He’d suffered with dementia. That upset me more than his death.
“He didn’t leave office until he was 85. I worked with him for over 40 years, and we had plenty of arguments, but what family doesn’t? We had one argument where he said: ‘Why have you not served the coffees when we’ve 400 people waiting for a Women’s Institute lunch?’ The argument was that I should have bulk-brewed the coffee, so after that I went out and bought an American bulk-brewing coffee machine.
“Our creed is that we look after our customers, they pay our wages. If you are kind to the customers and they enjoy their day, you will ensure that their stay is a good one.
“I don’t think that there’s anything I would turn back the clock for. I’ve made mistakes. I bought a steam train once and my father said to me: ‘That’s never going to go around the track, it’s not got enough steam.’ So I sold it at a profit.
“One of the happiest memories was meeting my wife Lynn. She worked for us as a zookeeper looking after the monkeys and snakes. She was 15 when I met her in 1966, and I was 18. It was love at first sight. We married when I was 23 and she was 20.”
In an increasingly corporate world, Drayton Manor has stayed steadfastly true to the family ethos which has served the business so well since that crucial £1,200 bank loan back in 1949.
“We never stand still,” says Bryan. “I’ve had various offers for the company but we are much larger now than when I was first offered money.”
Today Bryan describes himself as semi-retired, even though he still works four days a week as chairman. Son William, aged 43, is managing director, and his other son George, 40, is a fellow director.
A man with his finger on the pulse of Drayton Manor past and present is well-known West Midlands journalist Fred Bromwich, a former business editor of the Birmingham Post, who penned the history of the park in his book ‘Drayton Manor: George and Vera Bryan’s Memories of a Family Fun Park.’
Now he’s compiling a follow-up publication, as the park prepares to welcome its 50th millionth visitor. “The Drayton Manor story is definitely in need of an update,” says Bromwich, “especially since the Bryan family continues to forge ahead as the inspiration behind an enduring enterprise which is one of the UK’s top five inland leisure destinations.”
Since the original book was published, the theme park has built its own £20m four-star hotel, invested millions of pounds in new rides and essential maintenance, opened a new site in association with the Camping & Caravanning Club, won a host of awards and, in probably the most significant development of all, launched Thomas Land for over £7m.
“In terms of visitor appeal, Thomas Land has taken Drayton Manor to new heights,” says Bromwich. “It’s been instrumental in boosting the park’s popularity with young families. In fact, Thomas Land at Drayton Manor, the only one in Europe, has a connection with the latest Thomas Land which has recently opened in America – as the new book will reveal.”
Bryan adds: “Drayton has become a little city which is operational 24-7 – it never stops. We are here every single minute of the day, from security to the chefs preparing breakfast at 5am to events going on to midnight and beyond.”
But that personal touch which has defined life at Drayton Manor Park for 65 years remains as crucial today as when Bryan’s father insisted that the Women’s Institute should not have had to wait for their coffees all those years ago.
He adds: “This is still a Bryan family business above everything else. And I would hope that Drayton would always be in the Bryan family. We have a new generation coming through. I have five grandchildren and my sister Jane has five as well. There’s plenty of scope for
Published: 14 June 2016