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New Season For Carters Steam Fair

March 25, 2014
by the gentle author

Joby Carter

In Berkshire, the blossom is on the thorn and the chestnut buds are bursting – reliable indicators that it is the season for Carter’s Steam Fair to leave the yard in White Waltham on the outskirts of Maidenhead where they overwinter. Traditionally, the season for travelling fairs ends in November with Bonfire Night but now, after months of repair and recuperation, the members of the Carter family and their entourage are eager to set out again, for their thirty-eighth consecutive year on the road with the world’s largest vintage travelling funfair.

Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien & I took a trip down to visit Carter’s Yard on Sunday to record the final preparations before the column of haulage trucks set out on Monday morning for Battersea where Britain’s only steam fair may be found for the next two weekends – 29th & 30th March, 5th & 6th April.

Arriving at the end of the village where the lane became a dirt track as it reached the fields, we discovered Carters Yard – an enclosure surrounded by tall fences of corrugated iron. Stepping through the gates, we entered another world. In a courtyard, surrounded by a diverse array of sheds, were innumerable trucks, wagons and mobile homes, all painted in differing tones of the Carters’ colours of Oxblood, Scarlet, Cardinal Red and Butter. Men ran in different directions carrying cables and signalling to lorries, as they manoeuvred vehicles from their parking spaces out into the lane where a column was lining up ready for departure.

Inside the paint shop, Anna Carter – who started the fair with her late husband John Carter when they bought the steam-powered gallopers in 1977 – was touching up Britannia’s breastplate with Chrome Yellow upon a decorative panel as a means to distract herself from the drama of heavy goods vehicles being shunted around the yard outside . “I like going,” she admitted to me with a open-hearted delight undimmed by four decades on the road,” but I am anxious about the weather – If it’s too hot you don’t get anyone because they all go to the beach, if it’s too wet they don’t come and if it’s too cold they don’t come.” Given the vagaries of the English climate, Anna’s comment filled me with concern and cast her act of setting out in defiance of meteorology as one of astonishing bravura.

Anna handles the organisation and paperwork while her sons Joby and Seth supervise the crew – transporting, setting up and taking down the rides. Struggling with ever-growing bureaucracy is Anna’s bugbear, along with escalating rents as councils try to earn more from their parks and open spaces. In one instance, Anna quotes a figure of £35,000 for a week’s rental in 2005, now increased to £100,000, which more than justifies her anxiety about the weather – since the fair needs to earn its week’s takings in around seventeen peak hours at the weekend.

Yet with a large extended family all involved and living in touring mobile homes, Carters Steam Fair has acquired an unstoppable momentum and it is Anna’s extraordinary achievement that through her strength of character she has kept the show on the road for all these years. “It seems like a lifetime,” she confessed to me, thinking back fondly over the epic journey.

Maintaining the steam fair with its nineteenth-century rides in tip-top condition requires constant maintenance and restoration. Consequently, the job of painting and repainting never stops, and the seductive aroma of gloss paint followed us around the yard as we explored. We discovered Frank, Carter’s mechanic of thirty years, preoccupied with welding in a shed. “He’s the only one who knows how it all works,” Anna whispered to me.

In the next yard, we met John Todd and his wife Shelley, just putting the finishing touches to the gleaming paintwork of the Dive Bombers and the Penny Arcade. “I’m really looking forward to going out again.” John confided, “We’ve got it all looking nice, and now we can’t wait to go out and show it off.”

Returning to the paint shop, where Anna was just completing Britannia’s breastplate, I asked her what sight would give her joy in the coming months and, “A really crowded fairground with everyone happy and enjoying it,” was her immediate reply. “I work with my daughter Rosie, running the candifloss stall and I see it all from there, in the middle of the candifloss,” she concluded with a blush, “That’s what I’ve come down to, and I quite like it.”

John Todd  has been working in the fair since the age of fourteen – “I’m really looking forward to going out again. We’ve got it all looking nice and now we can’t wait to go out and show it off.”

Newly repainted pillars by John Todd and his wife Shelley

Frank has been working with Carters for thirty years as a mechanic

Anna & Frank –“He’s the only one who knows how it all works.”

Anna Carter prepares Chrome Yellow to repaint Britannia’s breastplate

Anna interrupts her painting to show us around the yard

Aaron paints a new set of hand rails in the traditional style

In the paint shop

Aaron repaints the front of a steam organ

Newly cast horses from the originals on the gallopers, awaiting painting

The open road awaits Carters Steam Fair

Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

Carters Steam Fair can be found in Battersea Park for the next two weekends – 29th & 30th March, 5th & 6th April. And you may expect Carters in Clissold Park this summer.

Learn about Joby Carter’s Fairground Signwriting Courses here

You may also like to read about

Anna Carter of Carters Steam Fair

Colin O’Brien at the Fair

8 Responses leave one →
  1. March 25, 2014

    They put a lot of hardwork into their fair, so hope they have good weather for their season start. Great that they are preserving a part of history and tradition like this. Valerie

  2. Eileen Coleburn permalink
    March 25, 2014

    Most interesting, thank you. Lovely to see saffy again Anna, she’s looking great!

  3. tanya permalink
    March 25, 2014

    Wow! Great to get a glimpse from behind the scenes at the fair. Thanks.

  4. March 25, 2014

    Affectionate artwork in every detail. And many childhood memories!
    (A little pity: not a single of the painted horses to be seen …)

    Wish you all a good thirty-eighth season!

    Love & Peace

  5. March 25, 2014

    Whoa! This is truly amazing, getting a glimpse of how it’s all done. Actually, I’m sure a lot of people will be able to further appreciate the actual fair (including me!), now that we’ve seen all the hard work that went into it. I do hope it turns out to be a huge success.

    Thanks for sharing this article, as it opens up another fascinating portion of the London culture and history that will surely be of great interest to many expats here.

  6. Jonathan Rickard permalink
    March 26, 2014

    This long-time art director/creative director applauds Carters’ knowledge of and appreciation for the old arts of lettering, drop shadows, and graphic brilliance, nearly lost arts in much of the world. Cheers!

  7. Pete Shuttleworth permalink
    May 8, 2014

    Fabulous article and gorgeous pictures. I’m up north so unless the fair heads up here one day I have to admire the skills and the vehicles from afar. Also now I can add to my list of Carters admiration’s!!! Frank must be a Scammell and Steam Jedi and Saffi (whose name I just learned) is a total deadringer for my dog Willow. Black on Brindle with white chin and chest and long snout, like Staffies of old! I wonder if Saffy has alternate black and white toenails too?
    Thanks blogger and have a brilliant season Carters.

  8. March 5, 2016

    Would love to see more of real thing but I live in Newcastle got six or seven model carters lorrys.

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