Pat Coulter visits Devon’s Fairground Heritage Centre
For me, as a youngster back in the 60s, the treat of visiting the annual travelling fair on my local village green was as eagerly anticipated as Christmas. Dad would be trying his luck at the shooting gallery, knocking down metal ducks with a satisfying “clang”. I’d be jumping up and down in glee claiming his cuddly toy prize, and that was long before TV’s “Generation Game”!
My mum’s favourite was the hoopla stall. Many a live goldfish was bagged in success, stocking our ornamental pond at home. Though none of us ever managed to knock that elusive coconut off the shy.
Oh! The sights, sounds and aromas. What seemed to me like a million, colourful flashing bulbs, the hum of generators powering the rides, the beat of 60s music, lip-smacking hot dogs and frying onions. Pink candyfloss sticking to my nose and crunchy toffee apples sticking to my teeth!
I drove my first “car” at the fairground – the electrifying dodgems – long before passing my test. Friends from way back then would say to this day my road sense is still fuelled by those bumper-car rides of yesteryear!
Imagine my excitement when I discovered I could relive those candyfloss days of childhood. That’s just what I’m going to do at the Fairground Heritage Centre near Okehampton in deepest Devon. Come along with me for a nostalgic ride.
Turning off the main A30 route into the south-west and just a pleasant five-minute drive down country roads, I find myself heading down a narrow track, happily reassured by the wellsignposted way.
Parking up, a stone barn snuggled into a dell belies my expectations of a typical fairground site. Through the entrance, like Jonah swallowed by the legendary whale, I venture into the cavernous interior.
All of a sudden I’m that excited six-year-old again and a big grin spreads across my face!
I’m greeted by Roger Alford, one of the Trustees and early devotee of the Fairground Heritage Centre, fondly known as “Dingles”, since its inception in 1986. He confides there’s an astonishing 45,000 square feet of fairground rides and attractions.
They’re all undercover in agriculturalstyle buildings, which seem to me large enough to house a fleet of jumbo jets.
Thinking about it, it’s the perfect venue for keeping the kids amused indoors on a soggy day any time of year. Unsurprisingly, it’s a popular attraction open seven days a week with around 20,000 captivated visitors a year.
“The trust was set up to protect everything to do with Britain’s fairground traditions,” manager Roger says. “And what we have here is a working museum and attraction.”
The boyhood enchantment with the fair grew into a lifelong passion for Roger. He gets the chance to live his dream every day, the lucky chap. Roger is supported by fellow trustees and a band of like-minded volunteers, many retired, some of whom bring their own special skills to keep the project running smoothly, including a handy electrician.
Despite being well supported by a tight-knit team there’s always the opportunity for newcomers to join the enthusiastic fairground devotees.
VISITorS all have their own special reason for coming. “Some just come for the rides, of course,” Roger says. “Others enjoy the mechanics, the hand-painted artwork and the original stalls. Some visitors whizz round in an hour, while others happily stay all day.”
I begin my nostalgic journey into yesteryear marvelling at the opulent showmen’s wagons. Rather grander than our family Bluebird caravan, a home from home where I spent many a summer holiday on the road with Mum and Dad.
It’s a reminder that for these fairground folk their itinerant work entertaining the masses from town to town was a way of life, and they were determined to live their life in resplendent comfort and with huge panache.
Some say an Englishman’s home is his castle, well these beautifully liveried wagons have been described as “palaces on wheels”.
Peeking inside the gold and burgundy painted wagon with its
Pat Coulter rediscovers all her favourite childhood rides at Devon’s Fairgound Heritage Centre . . .
Muffin the Mule.
Hook a duck, win a prize!