Keeping the fun of the fair alive

FANCY a day out on the dodgems? Or a chance to learn about signwriting?

The March coronavirus lockdown hit travelling funfairs hard, with all their spring and summer bookings cancelled.

But one Berkshire funfair family wasn’t prepared to sit back and do nothing over the long summer months, especially having spent years restoring a fleet of 1960s dodgems to pristine working condition.

Joby Carter soon found his traditional signwriting skills were in demand online – and when lockdown restrictions started to ease, the family launched a unique dodgems experience at their base near Maidenhead.

Restoring the worn-out 1960s cars has been a long labour of love for Joby and his team: a restoration process that has taken 25 years of on-and-off work.

“We were determined to finish them in time to reveal them at the first event of our 2020 tour but the COVID-19 pandemic meant that this was not possible,” he says.

The dodgems track was built in the 1960s by Supercar of Warwick and had spent its entire working life in an arcade until it was bought by Carters in 1989. But the original set of Supercar dodgems bought by Joby’s late father John in the 1990s were too worn out to operate.

“It’s believed to be the last traditional round-ended dodgem track that Supercar built,” says Joby. “There is no other dodgem set like this in the world and that’s why we are so excited to open our dodgem experience to the public.”

Unlike at the fair, visitors to the funfair’s base at White Waltham get exclusive access these original 1960s Supercar Italias for half an hour as a group, allowing them to enjoy the dodgems experience in their chosen bubble, with friends watching if they wish.

All 18 cars have now been restored, although the family managed to finish a few in time for them to enjoy a bit of Hollywood fame with the launch of the award-winning movie Rocketman about the life of Elton John.

“We managed to finish a few cars last winter in time and they looked fabulous on the big screen. We’ve worked on them even more since then to get the whole set perfect,” says Joby.

He was just 18 months old back in 1977 when his parents, show promoters John and Anna Carter, bought their first ride – a set of 1890s Jubilee Steam Gallopers that they could take to steam rallies and fairs.

As their passion for vintage fairgrounds grew, they added more rides to their collection and soon Carters Steam Fair became known as specialists in vintage fairground rides, with the artistic talents of Anna Carter put to good use restoring rides to their former glory.

In 1999 they found a new yard to house the fair during the winter months, but were shocked when John Carter was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma and died the following year. His enthusiasm and vision had been a guiding force for the fair, but his children had inherited his love for the fair and what it stood for.

After a very difficult few months, it was decided to get the fair back out on the road and continue what John had started.

Joby and his wife Georgina took over the managing of the fair from Anna a few years ago, and are heavily involved in the travelling, maintenance and restoration of the rides.

The fair has since gone from strength to strength, with Joby, Anna, Seth and Rosie Carter and their families all personally involved, and with many friends and supporters working hard to keep it on the road.

The original Gallopers were lovingly restored, most of the horses having been carved from wood by Andersons of Bristol around 1910, and all subtly different to one another. They are all named after friends and family on the fair.

The 46-key Gavioli organ (c1900) was bought from Roger Daltrey in 1979 and provides that unmistakeable fairground atmosphere.

But with rides and sidestalls dating from the late 1890s to the 1960s, the collection includes everything from the steam-driven yachts of the 1920s to a 1910 roundabout featuring an eclectic collection of creatures from running cockerels, to hungry-looking pigs and curious Lord Kitchener centaurs.

From a coconut shy to duck- and fish-hooking games and test-your-strength “strikers”, the funfair has all the traditional elements of a country fair that would have delighted our Victorian and Edwardian ancestors and it provides fascinating insights into British social history.

“When a ride comes into our care, we research as much as we can and try to trace its ancestry,” says Joby. “If we’re lucky, we can even find photos of it from its heyday.”

Skilled painters then work on restoring the ride back to its former glory using traditional sign-writing techniques and making sure that everything is accurate to the era.

Traditionally everything in the fair is moved around the country using vintage heavy lorries and magnificent showman’s living wagons.

Like the rides, each of the fleet of lorries, some dating from the 40s, 50s and 60s, has been lovingly restored to its former glory and repainted in the distinctive red Carters livery.

Every bit as impressive are the beautifully decorated living wagons with cut-glass windows, lace curtains and premium wood and veneer inside, each with their own story to tell and many previously owned by well-known showmen or circus owners.

The emphasis on traditional signwriting techniques is important to Joby, and it’s another skill which came to the fore during the Covid-19 lockdown, when he was able to offer online courses to people around the world.

In an interview for BBC South, he says: “Funny thing is, I can remember my dad saying to me it would good to have a skill to fall back on. Little did he know that I could stay at home in my garage, teach people around the world and that would actually be saving the fair.”

The collection of rides and side stalls makes Carters the largest travelling vintage funfair in the world, but fans will have to wait until 2021 to see it in its full glory.

Fair spokesperson Mercedes Lavin said: “The Dodgem Experience was intended to be for July and August but due to its popularity we are planning to open it on the weekends after August.

“The fairground is hoping to return in 2021. We usually begin touring around Easter time and travel the country until Bonfire Night. The tour dates will be published around February time.”

Carters dodgems experience at White Waltham runs until August 31 and then at weekends in September.

Details of Joby’s online signwriting courses can be found here.

All the images in this article are reproduced with the kind permission of Carters Steam Fair and more information about the fair’s history and the background to individual rides, sideshows and vehicles can be found on their website.

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