It was my birthday yesterday and when husband asked what I would like to do, the only possible response was “go to the North Chapel Steam Working Steam Show”. So that’s what we did, accompanied by elder daughter who really only came in case there was a stand selling homemade Fudge (sadly there wasn’t). Incredibly the weather was fantastic, a lovely sunny day, which was a miracle in itself given all the unseasonably wet weather we have had this summer. We arrived at the showground about 45 minutes after the event had opened, the car park was filling up fast and was very dusty; what a good thing I had made husband drive, saved my car from getting dusty and a bit muddy!
At the entry gate there was another stroke of luck as husband managed to persuade the gatekeeper that we should go in as a family (which we are) instead of 3 adults, thus saving us a couple of pounds, one of which we spent on a show guide and programme. This is the first of a new format for the North Chapel Steam fair and the emphasis is firmly on working engines, and to reinforce this at the entry was a delightful little engine called Old Bob (they all have names) who was busily powering a rock breaking machine.
Turning through the gates onto the showground we were greeted by an impressive line up of superbly shiny gentle giants steaming quietly away. The smell of the burning coal, the steam combined with grease, oil and polish makes for a heady mix of nostalgia. Now I have been to quite a few steam fairs (they used to be called steam rallies years ago) over the years and I have to say that I don’t think I have seen such clean and shiny engines as the ones at North Chapel. Obviously these engines are in restoration and used for show purposes, but they can also work, and do also work and it is natural that they should get grubby, but these engines were gleaming, even those who were working, a real show of pride in ownership and none more obvious than the owners of the delightful Victoria Empress of India, a Marshall Traction engine built in 1866.
Victoria Empress of India
Marshall Steam Traction Engine built 1866
Walking round there was a positive feast of beautiful engines from the humble road roller – I remember regularly seeing a huge blackened steam road roller in the village where I lived as a child working on the roads, rolling the newly laid tarmac surface flat. These majestic machines, so imposing and elegant have found a special place in English history and in many people’s hearts; they may not be working in the jobs for which they were originally built anymore, but those which have survived can’t fail to impress, even if it is by sheer scale alone. Weighing in at around 1o tons, these gentle giants were a mainstay of British agriculture and industry from the mid 19th century until the 1960’s when modern engines and vehicles took over. Sadly so many were then sold as scrap metal or simply left to rot quietly in a corner of a field or barn. The lucky ones were rescued and taken into preservation, restored to their former glory and available for us all to marvel at events around the country such as the North Chapel Steam Show.
a few more gentle giants
Of course many of the engines on display were originally constructed as tractors or engines to drive machinery such as threshers in fields or for rolling road surfaces. There are other even more beautiful engines and these are the showman’s engines. Easily identifiable by their bright coloured livery, lots of ornamental twisted gold metal, gilt and lights, these goliaths of the fairground not only pulled the travelling show rides from place to place but also provided the all important power to drive the rides; one of the most popular being the Gallopers. Golden horses rise and fall gracefully as they whirl, racing round and round, everyone loves the Gallopers! Early examples were driven solely by steam but later the steam powered electricity to drive the rides and power the lights.
Burrell Showman’s Road Locomotive built 1904 – Lady Pride of England
The engine above was originally built for W Buckland who travelled the roads with his Gallopers. It was put into store from 1907 to 1920 when it was sold to George Billings, a Leicester showman who used it until 1946 when it was sold to a farmer who used it for threshing until 1957 when it was sold for scrap, although fortunately it was rescued and preserved.
Towards the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th century steam powered commercial vehicles were a common sight on our roads and in our streets. The Foden company built many such vehicles which although slow, were able to haul the very heavy machinery and goods which were evident everywhere in those Empire days.
Foden Steam Waggon circa 1920/30
Because of the declining number of unrestored engines available today and the enormous sums of money required to own one of these majestic machines (£25,000 would be cheap) it is becoming very popular to build a scale working model. Usually 3, 4 or 6 inch scale they are exact copies of their bigger brethren in every way. these mini engines are robust and can haul remarkably heavy loads. A first for me however, was a replica engine powered by a diesel engine! Beautiful and shiny though Molly was, I couldn’t help feeling it was a bit of a contradiction in terms to build a steam locomotive powered by diesel! There’s nothing to beat the smell of the steam and coal and the shrill toot of an engine’s whistle!
Above left: Molly the diesel powered scale model steam traction engine
Above right: Scale model steam powered steam traction engine
Of course events such as this don’t usually just feature engines and this event was no exception. Other things to be seen included a ploughing match by a whole brigade of vintage tractors, more preserved military vehicles than are (probably) currently in use by the British Army (!) a host of stationary engines made by esteemed companies such as Lister, Amanco, JAP, Fowler and Wolseley many pumping water from one tank to another and a couple powering light bulbs. The earliest being a Hercules O/C built in 1911 and the latest a Model D Lister built in 1945.
Side shows there are a-plenty at steam and country fairs and in addition to the fun fair there were various trade stands and demonstrations. Some of the items for sale on the trade stands were peculiar to say the very least, I mean who would want to wear a pair of second hand bright blue vintage rubber flipflops? There is something a bit not quite right about wearing someone else’s shoes and flip flops, well hmm…. Older daughter was in seeking-out-the-fudge-stand mode but was sadly disappointed, although there was a squeal of joy when she spotted the cupcake stand which quickly turned to a less-than-joyful moan when closer inspection revealed the cupcakes were in fact soap! A vintage style rally attracts vintage vehicles for sale and this includes toy vintage cars, but I couldn’t help feeling that the paint faded and battered Noddy car for £85 wasn’t really a bargain! The Sussex Woodturners from Amberley Working Museum put on a good display of fashioning useful items from wood, I bought a pair of salt and pepper cruets and admired the cute basket of wooden mice!
A selection of things to marvel at (including vintage blue flip flops)
After enjoying a fabulous 99 ice-cream we had seen pretty much all there was to be seen (have-a-go archery, birds of prey, a beekeeper as well as various parades) it was almost time to leave. The way out took us past my favourite things – vintage cars and motorcycles! I love vintage vehicles, there is something satisfying about sitting in a really old car, the smell of old leather seats, the solid clunk of a closing car door and the deep growl of the engine. Even though the vintage cars were relatively few, there were some notable examples including the sweetest Austin 7 Ruby, an amazing 1935 Ford V8 Cabriolet (imagine the wind blowing through the hair on a summer’s day cruising through the countryside), a truly amazing Vauxhall DX built in 1937 complete with a fabulous original art deco bonnet ornament, various British classic sports cars (Austin Healey Frogeye Sprite, several representatives from the Triumph stable TR4, Spitfire, Vitesse and a Dolomite Sprint), a Ford Granada estate once owned by the Queen and used on the Sandringham Estate and a superb Chevrolet Pick Up (very American Graffiti!)
Last but not least was the line up of vintage motorcycles. I have to confess to having a soft spot for motorcycles as I used to ride one when I was younger. In fact I learned to ride and passed my test before I learned to drive, and I often yearn for those days bowling down the road on a sunny afternoon on my Honda 400/4. However time goes by and life moves on and I have to content myself with looking wistfully! The machines on display were mainly British in origin, and while the British motorcycle industry led the world once, riding a British bike is not an altogether pleasurable experience. I can almost feel the numbness from riding on a Triumph Trident T160 with blown exhaust pipes! And don’t even mention reliability… everyone knows that British bikes breakdown – a lot. Still, we do love them – nostalgic lot that we are. I was amused at the caption accompanying the 1972 Triumph Tiger 650 ( a real beast of a machine) which never really caught on as by the early 70’s the Japanese were making serious machines such as the Kawasaki Z900 first launched in 1972; I mean who wanted a twin cylinder single carb thumping beast when you could have a 4 cylinder, 4 carb sleek growling leopard of a machine – poor old Triumph didn’t stand a chance. Still there was an impressive line up of BSA Bantams much beloved by the Army during the war for despatch riding and used by police forces nationwide.
The best of British!
Oh I do love a vintage vehicle and steam fair, long may they continue, there is something peculiarly British about an event like this – English Eccentricity at its best!