While I have no doubt that being subjected to a full 24 hours of chimp-peeling G-Force action c/o some NASA spaceflight simulation suite would be kind of scary, and crossing the Niagara Falls straddling a tripwire with a rocket-propelled miniature unicycle strapped to your genitals might bring you out in a sweat, no earthly terror can compare (in the Shit Your Pants Right Off Your Body stakes) with the stairway to peril they call...La Pagode De Chanteloup.
Not bad handiwork for a 18th Century French ponce, say I.
But why, may you ask, should a 130 foot tall pretend pagoda be at all scary?
The ground floor is a piece of cake to negotiate (not in the literal sense, of course, as this would constitute architectural suicide): you just walk right in and marvel at the nibbled stonework supporting the entire structure before you risk life and limb by climbing up the bastard in your vêtements touristique et ridiculeuse.
Ascending the spiral stairway to the next tier, it's almost like being inside an English cathedral in that everything feels very sturdy and even if the spirits of the perverted dead were to appear, the arrowslit windows are impossible to hurl yourself through. Unlike in England, however, there is no uniformed Red Cross volunteer on hand. And no sign saying WHAT ARE YOU? STUPID???
By the second tier, the reassuring metal handrail spiralling alongside the stairs has been replaced by a piddly wooden bannister which, being exposed to the elements, is more rotten than a Slipknot lyric out-take. Clumsy fat bastards and acrophobics beware: if you fall to your left, you will die. Thankfully, my Kirk Douglas visualisation techniques paid off at this stage and I proceeded with all the gung-ho gusto of a man in middle-eastern skimpies with a peculiar dimple in his chin actively consenting to being filmed.
By the time you get to the third and fourth tiers, it feels like being inside the world's most rickety garden shed perched on top of a flagpole during the sort of gale that rips leaves from the trees before ripping the trees from the ground. There's very little solid stonework to hang on to as you make your way upwards, and the arrowslit windows have given way to flimsy wooden shutters perforated with holes made by blind bats, bees and formation squads of gnats. Clumsy fat bastards and acrophobics beware: if you fall to your left or your right, you will die. This is where I lost Kirk Douglas and got Tony Curtis in a bath of camel’s milk with Laurence Olivier.
The fourth tier was as far as I made it the last time I was here in 1995. I'm not bad with heights on the whole — I have, to my considerable credit, survived The London Eye and the clifftop walk round East Prawle in Devon — but there’s something so tangibly insubstantial about this weird old pagoda I'm surprised it isn't frequented by trainee doctors keen to bone up on stomach anatomy without having to chop anyone up. This time round, I got to the 5th tier and had to lie down. Further up, I’m told the final step emerges from between four puny pillars onto a two foot balcony but at this stage I had no desire to check for myself whether or not this was true — I merely wanted to live.
It’s holiday experiences like this that can make or break a man and although my later adventures were peppered with genuine near-death experiences such as nearly fracturing my entire hand on the dodgems, being dashed against a barnacle-covered rock by a huge surprise wave and negotiating a bowl of steaming soupe de poissons in which the chef who cooked it had probably drowned, La Pagode stands out as the Knee Buckler And Scrotum Shriveller Incarnate.
Terror! Pure terror, I tell you!