The Fair comes to Bruton


The Herbert Family Fair has just opened in a field on the edge of Bruton.  I’m posting an interview with Stephen Herbert, who runs the dodgems. I originally wrote it for the (late, great) Fosse Way Magazine.

The fair tours the South West every autumn, but as Stephen explains, the numbers of travelling showman like himself are dwindling as the life becomes harder each year.

Herbert Family Fair

I was born into a travelling community.  My parents were brought up in the business as well.  It started back in the 1890s.  My grandfather had 18 children – seven7 girls and 11 boys, so it’s a big family – most of those aunties and uncles, they’re not around now, but most of their children are still in the business.  So there’s quite a few of us around.

I enjoyed it as a childhood, very good childhood, really.  When you’re younger you enjoy it more.  When you get older you start understanding the responsibilities – the work that’s involved – but as a child it’s a very good life to be brought up into, a free kind of life.

The fair is mainly a family concern.  We only travel the West Country.  Each family fairground has kind of got their own area where they go, so you don’t really tread on other people’s toes.  I’ve been coming to Castle Cary for about 25 years, but some of the sites we go we’ve been going since I was a child and longer, before I was born.

We’re based in Dorchester.  That’s where I was born in 1964.    We got our own property and a big yard where we store the equipment in the winter months.  We travel from April to November, each season, and have five months off.  You say five months off, but you got to do all the repairs and everything then and all the jobs that need to be done for the next season.  We do all our bookings in January, February time –write to the councils, the landowners, and all the sites are organized well in advance.   We get all our contracts, all the regulations –so everything is done in a professional type of way.  A lot of people do think that fairgrounds just go out, see a piece of nice field and think that’s a good place to set a fair upon – pull on there and just invade it kind of thing.   Not the case at all, not at all.

We used to go to school in the winter months at Dorchester.  And then during the summer months, some sites, my mum would go to the nearest school and see if they could put us up for a week, but by the time you went to school on a Monday, settled in, Friday was there and you didn’t really learn nothing because it took a week to settle in.  In the end it didn’t work.    And so me mum used to teach us at home, and me dad, in the summer.  These days it’s a bit easier because a lot of the authorities put a bus on that will come out to you, bring the teachers to the site where we’re to, and the children will all go on the bus and learn there, which is a lot better.

I’ve got two brothers.   You do what you can from about 10 / 11 years old.  Time you get to 13 / 14, teenager, you’re around all night packing away.  We open the site from Wednesday to Saturday.  Saturday night when you finish, about 10/11 o’clock, pack straight away.  So you’re working till 3/4 o’clock in the morning, up again at 7, probably only get two hours sleep Saturday night, up again at 7 to move off the site Sunday to get to the next one.  Sometimes we’re setting up again on a Sunday evening actually, very exhausting. Then start again Monday morning, Tuesday finish off and you’re open again Wednesday – till Saturday and then Sunday do it all again, move again.

Some people think we’ve got a lot of rest, got an easy life.  It’s a nice life, the fresh air and all that, moving from town to town, we do enjoy that, sometimes!  If you get the rain and the wind then you get the mud and all that.  They don’t come to the fair if the site’s all muddy and you find it hard then to make a living.   Financially there’s very little money in it these days, not like it used to be.

The dodgems were my grandfathers, originally bought in the mid-30s and then when he retired and that it was passed down to me dad.  Dad retired about seven years ago and it was passed down to me. I took over the running of that and the sites and everything, but as I say, back in the 70s you’d see the fair packed, which is a rare occasion these days because there’s too much, too many other things to do – theme parks and that’s not helped.

It is a dying trade, I think.  I mean, most children brought up on the fairground do tend to marry back into it, but my children, whatever they wanted to do, is up to them.  I got two daughters, so maybe next year we might have a son.  We’ll see what happens.  If he wants to carry the business on – if it’s still running then – he’s welcome to do so, pass it down again.  But if they want to do something different, it wouldn’t bother me, because I think, maybe 20 years time, there’s not going to be many travelling fairs left – apart from the real big ones, they’ll probably survive – but not the little family businesses like we run.

One of the most enjoyable things actually, is seeing everybody come to the fair: family people, mums and dads, bring their children to the fair, when they’re on the rides smiling, laughing – I love that.  With the music and that playing and you see all the children laughing their heads off.  It’s brilliant.  That’s one of the most rewarding things about it.  Long may it last, but we shall see.


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