In an age of sophisticated theme parks and electronic thrills, Carters Steam Fair is a nostalgic slice of Victorian fun.
With a hiss of steam, the Victorian merry-go-round whirrs to the sound of the pipe organ. Drop a coin into a penny-slot machine, lose your lunch as the steam yachts swing to an almost perpendicular angle, or wield a mallet to test your strength on the Mighty Strikers. But you’ll find no bearded lady or bear in chains. Contrary to appearances, the year is still 2015.
This is Carters Steam fair
The UK’s most enduring vintage travelling fun-fair, run by 67-year-old Anna Carter
The attractions, some from the 1800s, have been restored using traditional crafts such as sign writing, coach painting and woodwork. Where others have converted rides to diesel or electricity, steam remains king at Carters. The overall impact is so effective that the fair remains a favourite among film-makers, providing a backdrop to movies such as The Krays and The End of the Affair.
But while it may offer Victorian thrills to its customer, the fair is very much a modern-day enterprise, with present-day costs and bureaucracy. Rents have doubled since the onset of the last recession, and councils now charge not just for weekends but for build-up and pull-down days. Anna describes it as “19th century work in the 21st century”, and most people ask her why she hasn’t retired.
The fair remains the legacy of Anna’s husband John Carter, who died in 2000, aged just 58. Without his vision and Anna’s drive, many traditional fairground rides would now be on the scrap heap or behind glass display cabinets. Anna has turned her business into the market leader in vintage funfairs, capitalising on the fact that the general public love nostalgia.
“We’re a village on wheels—an antidote to the digital age,” she says. The description is accurate, describing not just the period rides and traditional showmen wagons, but the Carters’ way of life. One might argue that John had his foot so firmly in the past that the turn of the next century was too much for him to stand.
“John was really fascinated with anything old,” explains Anna. “He collected vintage vehicles, enamel signs, period postcards, horn gramophones, slot machines…”
He even found himself a patron among the landed gentry in the form of Sir John Smith, founder of the Landmark Trust. The concept of Victorian patronage was the perfect fit for John Carter, who looked the part—belted and braced, with a long 19th-century-style beard. Sir John allowed them to move into a Medieval hunting lodge on his land in Berkshire.
“He sort of rescued my husband,” explains Anna. “He said, ‘I have a house you can live in; it’s pioneering living.’ And it was. It was all wattle and daub and had a moat two-thirds of the way around it.”
And so the Carters moved in and began promoting vintage car and steam rallies.
Stepping Back In Time: The Big Decision
Back In 1976, when John went “mooching”—a term he used for locating collectable items—he found an ancient set of Victorian gallopers. (The Carters don’t like the term “merry-go-round” or the American word “carousel”, which “goes the other way around and has pastel colours. We design gallopers in this country. Gallopers go clockwise”.)
The discovery of the gallopers came at a time when the couple had just completed a successful show at Alexandra Palace in London. “We had taken some money for a change,” says Anna. John presented his wife with
an unusual dilemma: “Shall we get a deposit on a house? I’ve seen this set of gallopers rotting in a park in Burnham Beeches. What would you rather do: gallopers or house?”
Anna explains: “I’d done the house thing with my first marriage [both Anna and John had been married before, and have seven children between them]. I was bored just living in a house with small kids. I thought the gallopers sounded like much more of an adventure.”
It was a decision that would lead to Carters Steam Fair. Neither John nor Anna knew much about renovation but decided to learn on the job. “We spoke to old people who knew stuff—there aren’t many of them left.”
By tapping local knowledge and studying old photos, they returned the gallopers, built in 1895, to its former glory. At its centre is a 46-key organ, dating from around 1900.
John next acquired the Chair-o-Plane, likely imported to Britain from Germany in the 1920s. Anna painted it and added chains that reputedly came from the decks of the Royal Yacht Britannia. Further stalls were acquired and restored in the garden of their rented house. The gallopers only just missed the gutters as it turned.
“Our house was in the middle of a working dairy farm,” Anna remembers. “The farmer hated the way we lived. He didn’t understand the collecting thing. He put pressure on Sir John to kick us out, so we wintered on the side of the road, living in vans. But Sir John was amazing—he found us some sheds on an airfield and we ended up renting those from him.”
Unperturbed, the Carters began to expand. They discovered some 1921 steam yachts, intricately carved but disintegrating in a Glasgow scrapyard. The restoration process was expensive and included two new yachts built
to the original pattern, with timbers imported from Canada.
“At the time showmen didn’t want this stuff; they wanted teenage rides. The fairground business had changed from being a family-orientated destination to just thrill rides. Collecting was totally out of fashion.”
By the late 1990s, they had also amassed probably the largest collection of vintage slot machines on a travelling fair. Then, in 2000, John died, shortly after being diagnosed with Burkitt lymphoma, a rare form of cancer.
A new Family tradition
Until this point, the Carters had kept traditional roles. Anna cooked for the staff and “swagged-up” (put up the prizes) on the stalls. In the winter she painted the equipment.
“John and I were a great team. My strengths were his weaknesses and vice versa.”
Anna knew she wouldn’t get outside support. The Showmen’s Guild had previously refused the Carters membership. “Because we’re not born and bred into it, we’re not totally accepted. Traditional showmen tend not to marry out—they’re a very closed society. There’s still animosity.”
But Anna decided she’d carry on if her children wanted to, and they did. “If they hadn’t wanted to, I wouldn’t have tried to persuade them because it’s such a hard life. Today it’s sunny and the ground is dry, but imagine the mud coming over your wellies. Imagine having to winch a truck through it. We’re so weather dependent. You put in all the work, the men have to be paid, all the bills have to be paid, and then it rains. It’s a very risky business, and a very stupid way to try to earn a living in this country.”
And yet Anna carries on, aware that the risks are countered by the rare freedom her nomadic lifestyle affords her and her children.
“My kids are the last generation that did things,” says Anna. “My children’s upbringing was much more like my childhood. We had that freedom. We used to build camps, go tadpoling, catch newts and wander about the
districts in groups. My kids had that sort of childhood. They would meet up at steam rallies and go off exploring, whereas my grandchildren have an electronic childhood.”
The youngest of Anna’s children have lived in the fair their entire lives, foregoing TV, enduring taunts of “gypo” and missing out on regular school during the first few summers. “In the early days I would run them to school, sometimes 25 miles. By the time I got to the site, I had to go back and collect them.”
But eventually they found a rhythm. On days when the fair was located too far away, Anna’s mother would have the kids overnight. They did well, all achieving eight O-Levels or GCSEs despite helping to run the fair, and nearly all of them remain involved today.
A Steam Fair in an Electronic Environment
But the modern world is catching up. “I think children have lost touch with reality,” says Anna. “They live in a very strange world. I look at them when they come to the fair—you’ll see a group of teenagers just sitting in a circle with their mobiles out.”
And her own family isn’t immune: “One of my granddaughters had her own iPad at 22 months. My grandson, who’s 17, doesn’t even ride his bike to school. It takes away their freedom. Everyone thinks their child is about to be snatched if they peddle out of the gate. We’re an antidote to that.
“I expect my own children will carry on the fair, but I don’t know about the next generation. When you can earn heaps of money sitting in front of a screen, would you really want to be out here in a howling gale at 1am?”