Off to the Fair!

Memories of Bonfire Night (1950s)

Memories of Midsummer Picnics

Memories of Pancake Day
(Shrove Tuesday) 1950-ish

Memories of Easter Time

Memories of Christmas Past

Off To The Fair!

One of my earliest memories is of being with my sister at the fair that had set up on the waste ground opposite our house. I was four and I loved it - until she took me on the dodgem cars where I banged my head rather badly and had to be taken home. It didn’t put me off though. Ever since then, fairs - the lights, the people, the smell, the colour, the noise and the excitement have fascinated me. It was - and is - thrilling!

It was always exciting when the fair came to town. Sometimes we’d spot the big trucks and trailers pulling in the night before and a whisper would go around the community - “There’s a fair on the common!” Sometimes we’d go down to watch them set up all the rides and other stuff. The large fair at the beginning of August was called the Lammas fair, and it always set up on the "fairground" a paved section of the common. That area has a history of fairs extending back to the middle ages. We knew there would be many attractions - rides for both children and adults, and sideshows with tests of strength and skill.

The traditional English fair is something akin to what is called a carnival or exhibition in North America, although in Europe, a carnival is a procession, which may or may not be accompanied by a funfair. The large fairs had a lot of market stalls offering goods - particularly crockery - and food for sale.

When I was a kid, someone would take me on Saturday afternoon to have a few rides and a candyfloss. If Mum came along, we’d go to the stalls selling crockery. It was great to watch the men as they loaded a whole dinner service into a basket, shouting out their banter about the bargain you’d be getting. Later, I’d go with my friends on a Friday or Saturday night. The fair at night is a whole different world. You could say it lives! The stalls blaze with light as fairground barkers entice the customers with their banter. Bright lights pierce the darkness. There’s loud music, and people screaming, shouting and laughing. I remember the smells of diesel (from the large generators) and candyfloss. They played all the top hits of the day - "Livin’ Doll", "Donna", "Dianna" and lots more. There was no atmosphere quite like it. Great memories.

The rides almost always included a merry-go-round (carousel), dodgems (bumper cars), a big (Ferris) wheel, a "cake walk", flying chairs, and waltzers. But there were many other ways to spin people at high speed, accelerate, and throw people around! I only went on the big wheel once and got scared because my brother was rocking the car and it really didn't feel safe. The waltzers always had paintings of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe on them. The fair lads wouldn't stop spinning the cars - you could hardly stand up when it stopped! Anyone on the outside end of the seat got squashed every time it swung around! I loved them, but that probably had something to do with the boys that worked there. For the children, there were smaller, slower versions of the adult rides, train rides, and slides. Some rides were for everyone. The swing boats, for instance - they did go quite high for young kids but were sturdy and felt safe. At the top of the helter-skelter, at night, before you started your whirling slide down, it felt like you were poised between worlds. Below, all was colour and light and movement; above the blackness and stillness of space and the twinkling stars. Then there was the caterpillar where a huge hood came up over the top of you. It was quite scary! The ghost train could be scary for youngsters too. All of the rides had to be dismantled and packed into the trucks and trailers for transportation, so there was a limit to their size.

There were always lots of sideshows. Years ago these would have included animal menageries, and freak shows, but I never saw either of those - except for a "Bearded Lady" and a "Tattooed Man" when I was quite young! I do remember a wax works exhibit, and a stage show with a juggler, a contortionist and a comedian. The young men would try to impress their friends - and the ladies - by taking on the boxing "champ"- three rounds for fiver (they never made it), or "ringing the bell" by striking a metal plate with a hammer. The most traditional stall was the coconut shy in which one throws a ball at coconuts balanced on posts. Anyone managing to dislodge a coconut wins it. Other stalls allow you to try to hook rubber ducks from a bath of moving water, fire a rifle, arrows or darts at a target, or play Hoop-la! Most of these look deceptively easy. The hoop-la ring fits neatly around a wooden block, but it’s almost impossible for the customer to achieve the perfect angle - which, of course, the barker (attendant) effortlessly demonstrates. Some are blatantly rigged! Basketball in which the ball cannot fit inside the oval rim which looks round from the front, and cannot be viewed from the side because of the netting and prizes. Archery, and air rifles, are easy games to rig with misaligned sights etc., and showmen often price their games above the value of the prizes.

Prizes are known as swag among fairground people, and are supplied by a swagman. One traditional fairground prize was a goldfish in a small plastic bag, but (luckily for the fish), these have fallen out of favour. Many stalls offered cuddly toys - popular for establishing teenage romances.

The stalls sold food such as brandy snaps, gingerbread, toffee apples, hot dogs, burgers, baked potatoes and, in the Midlands where I come from, hot peas with mint sauce - I can taste them now. Best of all though was the candyfloss (cotton candy) which you watched being made in a big revolving metal drum. Then the server would hold a stick down into the drum and the stuff would somehow magically wind itself around it.

I usually spent all my pocket money, but we always left with lots of stuff - a coconut, cheap ornaments and stuffed toys. My brother invariably won a goldfish in a bag. Other people never seemed to have much luck with fairground fish, which usually died after a few days, but ours thrived and lived out their lives in a tank in the living room.

Many fairground travellers descended from the medieval strollers and players, who have followed this way of life for generations. They have a distinct lifestyle and their own culture based on their nomadic existence. They often travel much the same routes from year to year as did their fathers and grandfathers before them. Their sense of community is strong and few marry "outsiders". Showmen are proud of their heritage and even have their own language, (a mixture of Romany, cant, slang and Parlyaree, a derivative of French, Italian and Pig-Latin).

Fairgrounds aren’t so popular as they once were. I hope that future generations continue to experience them. I know they were the source of many wonderful memories for me.

By Sylvia Richards July 2010