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Elf Express and Santa's Grotto Experience back at Scotsdales - where it has entertained 150,000 children


By Paul Brackley


Santa and the ride at Scotsdales Garden Centre, Great Shelford. Picture: Keith Heppell. (5728734)
Santa and the ride at Scotsdales Garden Centre, Great Shelford. Picture: Keith Heppell. (5728734)

It has been a mainstay of family festive fun for a quarter of a century.

The Elf Express and Santa’s Grotto Experience is up and running once more at Scotsdales Garden Centre in Great Shelford, where it has already delighted an estimated 150,000 children.

Visitors this year can again enjoy a walk through a winter wonderland of animatronic penguins and polar bears before embarking on the Elf Express ride that takes them to Santa’s grotto.

David Rayner with the Santa ride at Scotsdales Garden Centre, Great Shelford. Picture: Keith Heppell. (5728760)
David Rayner with the Santa ride at Scotsdales Garden Centre, Great Shelford. Picture: Keith Heppell. (5728760)

Some of them will be the children of those who enjoyed the experience in its early days.

David Rayner, 90, the Swaffham Bulbeck farmer who acquired the original nursery business at Great Shelford in 1968, told the Cambridge Independent: “We hired a ride to start with, which we were very disappointed in. We thought, ‘We could do better than this’.”

“We decided to make one. We were lucky on the farm. We had the help of Dennis Harvey, who was a good engineer and had an insight on how to build it. Our carpenter Steve Jarvis also helped.”

Converted from a farm cart, the ride features a painted canvas that revolves down the sides to give passengers the illusion of riding along, pulled by the reindeer at the front.

Santa and the ride at Scotsdales Garden Centre, Great Shelford. Picture: Keith Heppell. (5728738)
Santa and the ride at Scotsdales Garden Centre, Great Shelford. Picture: Keith Heppell. (5728738)

Epitomising the ethos of the family-run garden centre business, it was David’s sister Betty Hunt, now 96, who used her artistic skills to paint the beautiful scenes that scroll past those on the musical ride.

Hung up in a barn in Haslingfield, the canvas took weeks to complete - and is still going strong.

David, who is a father of five, grandfather of 17 and great-grandfather of one, said: “The ride has stayed more or less the same, although the area at the front with the reindeers has been improved.

“We’ve got mums and dads who remember the ride when they were children.

“It’s wonderful really. Some children are very forthcoming and get to the front of the carriage and sing along, but each child is different. They all love it.”

Up to 16 people can enjoy the ride at once, including two in wheelchairs, and the experience is now open every day until Christmas, although some days are fully booked already.

Betty Hunt, sister of David Rayner, who created the artwork for the Elf Express at Scotsdales. Picture Jill Marshall (5758641)
Betty Hunt, sister of David Rayner, who created the artwork for the Elf Express at Scotsdales. Picture Jill Marshall (5758641)

Today, David remains chairman of Scotsdales, but it is run by his daughter Caroline, who joined in 1979 and, as managing director, has helped it grow into a group of garden centres.

David said he still loves to see the delighted look on children’s faces as they enjoy the Elf Express ride.

And that sense of fun appears to have rubbed off on his family - for his 90th birthday, they bought him a flight in a Spitfire from IWM Duxford...



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