If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ll know I am something of a theme park fan. Heading out to a theme park to ride roller coasters is a great way to spend a day. When it comes to fairgrounds though, I am generally not as keen. In recent years, typical fairground rides have become more extreme and intense than I am comfortable with, so I tend not to visit as much. So, when Carters Steam Fair comes to town, it’s something that is far more tailored to suit my enjoyment levels. Here are my thoughts on the vintage fairground experience of Carters Steam Fair, which comes to my hometown of Reading twice a year.
Disclaimer: I was a gifted ride passes when I visited Carters Steam Fair in Reading, however all views, opinions and photos of the experience are my own.
Carters Steam Fair is thought to be the largest travelling vintage fairground in the world. Family owned (by the Carter family, if you hadn’t guessed) the fair started its life in the mid 1970’s. The family purchased their first ride – the Steam Gallopers. At the time the ride was in a fairly dilapidated state, and the family meticulously restored the ride in its traditional style before taking it out on the road. Thinking it would be more profitable to tour with a couple of rides, John Carter also purchased the Chair-o-Plane ride. More rides followed, while the fair expanded over the years. All rides, vehicles and stalls seen on the fair are hand painted using traditional methods to create how they would have originally looked. This gives the fair a very authentic feel.
From April through to October, Carters Steam Fair tours the south of England on their highly decorated fleet of lorries. Traditionally the fair visits Reading twice a year, so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to go along and soak up the atmosphere, ride some of the vintage rides and eat some candy floss.
We visited twice during Easter Week. The first time on a Monday where the fair was open until 8pm. The second time on the Saturday, where closing time was at 10pm. There was also a fireworks display at 9pm, once darkness fell. Arriving at a vintage fairground at dusk is the best experience. The buzz of the crowd. The hundreds of twinkling light bulbs. The hiss and smells of the steam engines. The screams of joy and fear from the riders. The sweet smells of candy floss. All of these things create the perfect atmosphere for a balmy spring evening (thanks to the Easter 2019 heatwave). We wandered through the fair, checking out the rides and stalls available. For a fairly small space, there was so much crammed in.
As you would expect from a vintage fairground, there are a collection of rides and attractions to suit everyone. Whether it’s thrills for the older kids, tame rides for the toddlers or the ‘test your strength’ attractions for the testosterone filled teenagers trying to show off their brute strength (usually unsuccessfully), Carters has a little bit of everything. For me, I was looking for some thrills, without too much spinning. Here’s a sample of the attractions on offer.
The first ride purchased by the Carters and centre piece of the fairground, the Jubilee Steam Gallopers was originally constructed in 1895. Having been repaired and renovated over the years, it’s a much loved ride, which can be clearly seen by the intricate details on the paintwork of the ride. All the horses are the carved of woods and of the same design, but decorated individually.
Fun fact: The Gallopers is not a carousel, as you may have assumed. A carousel is an American ride where the ride turns in an anti-clockwise direction, whereas the Steam Gallopers turn in a clockwise direction.
The pair of Steam Yachts owned by the Carters is one of only three that have survived since the start of the 20th century. Built in 1921, this ride is a swing ride where the Yachts swing to an almost vertical position, powered by Yorky – a 1901 Savage steam engine. It’s definitely not for the faint hearted or for people with motion sickness. Where today’s equivalent Pirate Ship style ride will have some kind of restraints, instructions when riding the Steam Yachts are to wrap your arms around the back bars of the bench and hold tight! The ride is beautifully decorated and one of my favourites at the fair.
The Chair-o-Plane is a traditional chair swing ride, and the second ride in the Carters portfolio. It started touring in the 1980 season along with the Gallopers. This history of the ride is vague, although it is thought to have been built in Germany in the 1920’s. It was then shipped across to a British showman. The ride decoration and details we see today were painstakingly painted by Anna Carter when the family purchased the ride. It may not be as thrilling as many rides we see at modern theme parks and fairs today, but it’s a really enjoyable ride for all the family.
Popular in Britain in the 1800’s and the early 1900’s, these traditional swing boat rides were always a staple attraction in a vintage fairground. The boats seat two people who sit opposite each other and use ropes to power the swinging motion. They may not be the most thrilling attraction in the fair, but have always been part of line up. The original boats were rotten and a new set was created using the original designs, to try and keep them as authentic as possible.
As well as all of the Carters owned attractions, there are usually some guest attractions on the line up. Some of those include a Ghost Train, Hurricane Jets (where you have a pedal to power the Jet up and down as you spin) and a Whirl-A-Round Twist ride. This is sometimes known as a Scrambler, a high speed spinning ride where the cars rotate on separate arms, whizzing past each other at high speed.
If rides are not your thing, then there are plenty of stalls to try your hand at winning some prizes. You can have a go at Hook-a-Duck or a range of shooting games if you feel the need for another soft toy at home.
The transport vehicles and living wagons are also on display around the fair. As with the rides and attractions, these are all beautifully renovated and shouldn’t be missed.
There’s no better way to end your night out at fairground than with an epic fireworks display. Carters Steam Fair at Reading ended their Saturday night with a great display which impressed quite a large crowd that had gathered in Prospect Park.
Carters Steam Fair tours from April through to October, you can find the latest dates and locations here. The fair runs a token system for rides where you can buy in advance online or at the fair. Where ride tokens are purchased in advance online, extra free rides are offered. The bigger the ride token bundle – the more free rides!
As previously mentioned, as well as being touring vintage fairground operators the Carter family are effectively a team of artists. Their talents and craftsmanship can clearly be seen by the level of artistic detail on their rides and attractions. The current fairground owner Joby Carter runs intensive signwriting courses. These cover all aspects of traditional signwriting including layout, design, brushwork and shading.
Over my twenty-ish years living in Reading I have often visited Carters Steam Fair when they come to town. It’s a fun evening out, and for someone like me with an interest in art and creativity, it’s wonderful to see the artwork on display. The fair is well organised and well run and if it’s coming to town near you, why not pop along.
Have you visited Carters Steam Fair or any other vintage fairground?
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