Have all the fun of the fair in your own back gar­den

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gran­diose; fair­ground op­er­a­tors would com­pete over who had the posh­est wagon,” says Willem Mid­dle­miss, a steam en­gines spe­cial­ist from Ch­effins’ auc­tions team. “They evolved with the era, too: in the Twen­ties they re­flected the art deco trend, then the min­i­mal­ism of the Thir­ties, while the For­ties and Fifties saw larger vans, as lor­ries could tow them, rather than horses or trac­tion en­gines.”

To­day, it’s not only col­lec­tors of vin­tage steam en­gines who are look­ing to buy show­man’s wag­ons, but city types who want some­thing a bit dif­fer­ent, says Jeremy Cur­zon, di­rec­tor of vin­tage auc­tions at Ch­effins, which sold three wag­ons for be­tween £7,000 and £13,500 in its April sale, and another for £11,600 in the sum­mer.

“Peo­ple buy them for per­sonal use, but also to rent out through Airbnb or on glamping web­sites,” he says. “One buyer in Cam­bridgeshire got one to use as a poker den at the bot­tom of his gar­den. But you have to think about get­ting them in place. A lady spent £1,000 cran­ing one into her gar­den as a Wendy house for her chil­dren.”

A show­man’s wagon hit the head­lines in 2003 when Bon­hams auc­tion house listed Jools Hol­land’s 1921 model for a guide price of £11,000 to £13,000. This is av­er­age for re­stored vans, says Cur­zon, al­though larger ones can cost £15,000 to £25,000. He knows of one that sold for £40,000: “That one was full of pe­riod fur­ni­ture and re­stored to all its former glory.” Bar­gains can also be found; last year, a 100-year-old wagon in need of some at­ten­tion was listed on eBay for 99p, even­tu­ally sell­ing for more than £5,000 fol­low­ing mul­ti­ple bids.

You can find these wag­ons at steam­fair auc­tions (Ch­effins’ next vin­tage sale is in April), the Great Dorset Steam Fair ev­ery Au­gust – Glas­ton­bury for liv­ing wagon en­thu­si­asts – or through a steam-en­gine dealer such as Pre­ston Ser­vices, run by Michael List Brain. He points to a cou­ple of lead­ing brands in vin­tage show­man’s vans: “There is Brayshaw & Sons of Leeds, and also Or­ton & Spooner, a com­pany from Bur­ton upon Trent, who made some of the most ex­pen­sive ex­am­ples.”

The vans can be sym­pa­thet­i­cally mod­ernised with dis­creet wiring, plumb­ing and sewage, for per­sonal use or hol­i­day rentals. John East­wood, a farmer who rents out a beau­ti­fully re­stored 1894 show­man’s wagon over­look­ing Bo­diam Cas­tle in Sus­sex (from £338 per week via mul­ber­rycottages. com), spent around £25,000 in­stalling all the mod cons in­clud­ing a bath­room with hot shower, Wi-Fi, tele­vi­sion and a music sys­tem. “It’s very pop­u­lar, with a charisma all of its own,” he says. “But you have to in­vest prop­erly to let pro­fes­sion­ally, in­clud­ing heat­ing, in­sur­ance, gas and elec­tric cer­tifi­cates, plan­ning con­sent, and in­su­la­tion in the floor and walls.”

Gre­ville Wor­thing­ton, an artist and cu­ra­tor, has in­stalled two wood­burn­ers in his 30ft-long wagon, The Mol­ly­croft, which sits in bam­boo gar­dens at his home in Tun­stall, North York­shire. “I bought the van on eBay for £4,000 in 2005 and re­stored it, in­su­lat­ing it with sheep’s wool,” he says. “It was built in 1946 for the White fam­ily on the Glas­gow cir­cuit – one day Chris­tine White came down to see it and told me she grew up in it.” It is avail­able for £95 a night through canopy­and­stars.co.uk.

But you can’t just park your show­man’s wagon in the gar­den and ex­pect it to pros­per, ad­vises List Brain, who owns three him­self. “They need reg­u­lar main­te­nance and ven­ti­la­tion as these are del­i­cate ob­jects that are sus­cep­ti­ble to the weather.” Less ro­bust than the shep­herd’s hut, ad­mit­tedly – but so much more fun.

A 1925 liv­ing van, be­low, was sold by Pre­ston Ser­vices and has been used as ac­com­mo­da­tion at Glas­ton­bury Festival

The artist Gre­ville Wor­thing­ton with his wagon The Mol­ly­croft, main and be­low right; this show­man’s wagon, be­low left, was used by Lord and Lady Leicester

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