LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, BOYS AND GIRLS... welcome to the big top blog of Douglas McPherson, author of CIRCUS MANIA, the book described by Gerry Cottle as "A passionate and up-to-date look at the circus and its people."

Sunday, 8 December 2013

All the fun of Carter's Steam Fair

Gerry Cottle (left) and Dr Haze (right)
join author Douglas McPherson
at the Circus Mania launch party

Arriving early for the launch party for Circus Mania, I found myself with a little time to spare and wandered outside to the sunny square in front of the former Victorian power station that houses Britain’s premier circus school Circus Space.
Sitting at a table outside the Juggler cafĂ©, I spied two distinguished gentlemen of the circus - Gerry Cottle and Dr Haze, founder of the Circus of Horrors. Both being of the with it and for it temperament, they were there to help me promote the book and, being a man without pretension, Gerry’s first action was to buy a fresh round of tea for us all.
He then showed me a book of his own which he’d just collected from the printers - a glossy booklet about the vintage rides and lorries of Carter’s Steam Fair, which is run by the lady in his life, Anna Carter.
Fairs have always been closely allied to circuses, so I decided to interview Anna and her son Joby about life on a fairground that winds back time to the rock’n’roll years of the 1950s and even earlier wherever it sets up.

Carter’s Steam Fair Part One: 
Moving the Fair.

“Don’t ask me about lorries,” says Anna Carter, “I hate lorries!”

Yet this is a lady who owns and operates a fleet of more than twenty vintage Scammells, Fodens and Fords dating from the 1960s, 50s, 40s and even 30s. What’s more, she presses even the oldest of them into the sort of hard labour they were built for, hauling around the home counties the collection of beautifully restored dodgems, gallopers, chair-o-planes and other retro rides that comprise Carters Steam Fair.

That’s not to mention a fleet of 1940s showmen’s living wagons in which Anna, her sons and the other fairground workers reside - even when the fair is parked up for the winter on the edge of an airfield in Berkshire.

Until recently, Anna drove the fleet’s flagship, a 1932 Ford Model A that proudly bears the inscription Britain’s oldest working Fairground Lorry above its windscreen.

“I’m not sure which was the more long in the tooth, the lorry or me,” Anna quips. Either way, it was a lack of driver comforts that eventually drove her out of the 78-year-old cab.

“It was agony to drive,” the fairground matriarch winces. But, when she’s not selling candyfloss at the fairground, or sign-writing her immaculately preserved vehicles back at the yard, Anna is quite happy to take her turn behind the wheel of one of the fair’s more modern workhorses. The bulk of them date from the 60s and 70s - and even that was an era when the idea of cosseting lorry drivers had yet to occur to most manufacturers.

As Anna’s son Joby puts it, “They’re hard work on a hot day, or a cold day - any extreme, really. When you get out you really know you‘ve done it, whereas driving a modern lorry is like sitting in your living room, isn‘t it?”

Yet, having grown up in a wagon, and been serenaded in his cot by the sounds of vintage rock’n’roll from the waltzers and octopus, while his parents plied their trade from showground to showground, you’d never tempt Joby to swap his aging AECs and Atkinsons for the luxury of a new Mercedes.

Reluctant to pick a favourite from the venerable fleet, he says emphatically, “They’re all lovely. Every one has its own distinct character.”

Despite their age, the trucks also appear to be more than up to the job of moving the fair from site to site each week.

All the lorries are finished in Carters distinctive two-tone maroon and red livery and many, such as a 1944 Scammell, bear the slogan British & Best... & Still Going Strong. In fact, the fleet’s motto is perhaps encapsulated in a two-word sign bolted to the Scammell’s radiator grille: Why not?

Living the dream
The founders of Carter's Steam Fair live in
wagons to match their rides and lorries
“It’s good old stock,” says Joby. “It’s built to last.”

Of course, like any vehicles of their age, the lorries have their foibles and have to be treated with respect.

“Sometimes I’ll go off to book a showground,” says Anna, “I’ll come back from the site meeting and go, ’Oh, my God, there’s a hell of a hill.’ Because on a long drawn out hill the engines do get hot. The only thing you can do is pull in as quickly as you can and let the engine cool down.”

“You can’t put any driver into these vehicles,” Joby adds. “They have to know what they’re doing.”

But, when breakdowns do occur, Joby and his brother Seth are more than up to fixing them. Having grown up around dismantled engines and grease, they spend their ‘days off’ from moving and running the fair restoring to their prime lorries that others would find fit only for the scrap yard.

As a biplane buzzes like an angry gnat above the airfield Carters Steam Fair calls home, Joby reveals that he’s just painted the number 23 on his latest restoration, and he’s about to start work on another four that, after a bit of tender loving care, will be “coming into service soon.”

“My sons always liked Meccano,” Anna says proudly. “They can look at a pile of scrap and think, oh yeah, that can be done; we can restore that. They see it as a challenge.”

Click here for Part Two of the Carter’s Steam Fair story, in which we’ll look at how it all began.

And for a fictional look at life on a travelling fair, read the Fairground Girl and Other Attractions by Julia Douglas. Click here to but from Amazon.

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