Tourist on Board

Great Dorset Steam Fair

Line-up of showman engines

Content Tools

Morning line-up of showman engines at the 2002 Great Dorset Steam Fair in Tarrant, Hinton, England. This is only a portion of the engines on hand for this huge event.

I have been accused of spending too much of my ''spare' time on steam engine pursuits, but what better way for a steam nut to spend some time than to attend the world's largest steam event, the Great Dorset Steam Fair!

Last August, my sister, Barb Brodbeck, and I traveled to England and attended three days of the five-day show, and I'll say right off the trip exceeded our wildest expectations due in no small part to the efforts of Ross and Mike Lawrence of Somerset, England, who arranged accommodations, introductions and rides for us during our stay. I knew the event was large and encompassed a great deal, but nothing prepared me for the experience. My nine rolls of film might help explain the excitement.

Setting In

Upon our arrival in England we called Ross' cell phone, only to hear the wonderful sounds of organ music (there are some 100 organs at the show) and whistles in the background. Ross told us to follow the signs for the show (the Dorset Fair is situated on a huge 500-acre site in Tarrant, Hinton, just a bit northeast of Blandford Forum in south-central England off the A354 Highway) and stop at the administration area. After identifying ourselves, we were told to 'take the far lane (one of five!), past the Ferris wheel to the hedge road, turn right and then left, and at the top of the hill is the 'playpen.''

Intrepid travelers Beth Vanarsdall (left) and her sister, Barb Brodbeck, with Ross and Mike Lawrence's Wallis & Steevens, 'Lord Louis,' named after Prince Charles' favorite uncle, Lord Mountbatton. Most every engine has a name, and most every name has a story behind it, as well. Tending to polishing chores is Ania Legg, who also enjoys time behind the boiler running the engine.

Fowler 16 HP plowing engines 'Dreadnought' (left) and 'Victory.' Built in 1925, they were originally shipped to a sugar refinery in Scotland.

About two miles and many pictures later, we arrived at the top of the hill, and our attention was riveted on a huge number of steam trucks, steam traction engines and steamrollers zooming around in the playpen. The playpen (officially known as the Heavy Haulage Ring) is a fenced area where engines are free to drive around or pull one of many wagons and trailers up and down the hills. They have their choice of pulling an engine (awaiting preservation) loaded on a low loader (we'd call it a lowboy), another heavy trailer with a large locomotive boiler, and trailers with large rocks, logs and other items.

Ross and Mike made arrangements for us to ride and drive a vast array of engines, and ride we did. We also had the pleasure of spending time on Ross and Mike's Wallis & Steevens traction engine, and it was fun to explore British engine design, comparing and contrasting it with what we're familiar with in the U.S.

For one, their boilers do not have our traditional steam dome from which to draw dry steam. Instead, the steam chest, complete with cylinders, is mounted directly on the boiler. Their engines also have a large manhole in the side of the boiler, a nice feature for inspecting the barrel. Additionally, most of the platforms are enclosed, and the only engine we saw equipped with the familiar rear water tanks and side tanks was Les Searle's McLaren, the Boadicea.

We got to watch the Boadicea at play, as it and two other engines hooked on the low loader and pulled it around the playpen. I was fascinated by this engine, listening to it pull the low loader up the Watford Gap (the steep side of the hill in the playpen) and then trying to hold it back going back down. In the course of our ride on the Boadicea, I discovered why it sounded so good going up the hill it has a lever similar to the 32 HP cross-compound Reeves that lets the engineer switch from compound to simple. On our second trip around, Les was generous enough to allow me to push it in and encourage the Boadicea to 'talk.' Les just finished installing an essentially new boiler on the engine, and it was carrying 210 psi.

We also had the privilege to ride and steer various Foden wagons (steam trucks), and steering from the left took a bit of getting used to. These wagons have hand brakes for descending hills, and we were surprised at how fast these engines can move.

Another feature of the show is cable plowing, and the lack of dead furrows is a definite advantage to this system when the plow gets to the other end, they simply flip the opposite side down and back it goes. The huge spools on the plowing engines, as well as the huge wheels, attract a lot of attention. Looking at one of the plowing engines, I was puzzled by the sight of a huge radiator where the smoke stack should be. It turned out this particular engine and a sister engine were converted to diesel in the 1950s. Unfortunately, our schedule did not allow us to watch them plow, which would have been great.

1926 Wilder 12 HP plowing engine 'William' was built using early Fowler components. The cable spool is clearly visible under the boiler, and note the tool box attached to the front axle.

Showman engines powered several organs and stage shows, and the air was filled with music from the 100-plus organs on hand. The organs ranged from full size (with an accompanying stage show) to medium size, as well as some that appeared to be models. Many of the organs are' ornately decorated and painted, and the majority appeared to be running scrolls, as we did not see any played manually.

The music was wonderful, and it was equally wonderful to watch the evening shows powered by the engines. The engines, well lit by light bulbs ringing their canopies, glowed from the light reflecting off all of the brass, itself meticulously polished throughout the day. I noted that in place of wearing gloves, most crew members had cloths in their hands to wipe the engines down and handle the hot duties.

The line-up of showman engines was an impressive sight during the day, but even more so at night. About 25 engines lined up and powered the fair rides, including the Ferris wheel, several gallopers (merry-go-rounds) and yacht rides. The showman engines are equipped with dynamos, and the lines running from the dynamos looked like welding cables it was great fun listening to the engines work as the rides started up.

The sawmill area had several interesting mills to watch, and one in particular was so old the rollers on the carriage were wood and there were no dogs to hold the logs. Instead, they wedged the log onto the carriage and then literally pushed the log through the blade by hand. The other mills, at least compared to mills traditionally seen at shows in the U.S., were quite unique in design.

Next to the sawmill section was an extensive collection of steamrollers, and their exhibit area included a demonstration of road building complete with a rock crusher supplying crushed stone for the road base. Crushed rock was rolled and compacted with the rollers, then sprayed with tar.

The threshing displays were also a great learning experience. The two threshers on display were hand-fed, and their operators demonstrated how grain is separated and then how good straw is separated out for thatch. These separators have what looks like a second story where the 'good' straw is separated for thatch, and a gentleman on hand used the separated thatch to build thatched huts. I was also drawn to some crane locomotives, engines with cranes built onto their fronts. They really caught my eye as they maneuvered around with their hooks hanging out front, and I would like to have seen them in action.

Les Searle's 6 HP 1921 Burrell crane engine, 'His Majesty.' This engine has been in the Searle family since 1964.

The show also featured exhibits by British publications Old Glory and Vintage Spirit, as well as the National Traction Engine Trust, which produces the quarterly publication Steaming. The Old Glory tent featured a German engine awaiting preservation, with a great sign on the smoke box door reading, 'Okay, Salvage Squad, You've got 10 days.' The crankshaft was sitting next to the engine and many other parts appeared to be missing.

The Vintage Spirit exhibit included a nice 1931 Foden Six Speed Wagon with what looked to be a polished aluminum cab. Pictures on hand showed the wagon, which had been restored from the bottom up, in its 'before' and 'after' state and it was quite the wreck when they started. Vintage Spirit is a new British magazine, and like Old Glory it highlights stories about our hobby.

While enjoying the obligatory cup of tea, we spent quite a bit of time talking with members at the National Traction Engine Trust exhibit, including the Trust's vice president, Mrs. Sylvia Dudley, one of the first women to own a steam engine and be involved in the Trust. We exchanged stories and discussed the importance of the Trust's role in steam regulations, for in addition to crafting show regulations the Trust also involves itself with over-the-road regulations. Steam vehicles operated on English roads well into the 1950s, and they continue to be driven in and to rallies. The Medina incident was, not surprisingly, a hot topic, and everyone agreed that common sense must rule whenever you are around steam.

Mrs. Dudley kindly provided me with a copy of their Code of Practice for Traction Engines & Similar Vehicles. The code, which the Trust adopted in the spring of 1997, covers operation and maintenance; driving conduct on public roads and at public events; transport and storage; mechanical inspection; repairs; and numerous other items. It is very informative, and I have passed it along to our people in Ohio and Michigan who are involved in the legislative process.

The Trust also recognizes the importance of both feeding an interest in steam in people at a young age and providing them with quality instruction, and they kindly shared a copy of their apprentice program with us. Their apprentice program offers classroom instruction and hands-on experience (thanks to generous engine owners), and it is a program we should all consider.

While we didn't have time to take in every part of the show, we did briefly cruise through most of it. In addition to the playpen, steam plowing and organs, there were two tractor areas; one for plowing and another for pulling a weight transfer sled. I was amused that I traveled all of the way to England to see their selection of tractors, and what do I see? OilPulls, John Deere, Fordsons and Farmalls!

There were also displays of World War I and World War II military vehicles, antique trucks, antique cars, steam cars, models, gas engines, crafts, heavy horses, dressage horses, modern fair rides, and a huge flea market there was simply too much to see. Thanks to the Fair's catalog, I was able to identify almost all of the exhibits in my numerous photos. The catalog lists the history, registration and serial numbers of the trucks and engines on hand. The histories detail repairs on each piece of equipment and what they were constructed for, and it was interesting to note which engines were built to haul munitions or build airstrips for the war or where an engine was delivered and later converted.

Another interesting element was seeing how engine and truck owners protect their equipment at night. Most owners have custom tarps or canvases for their equipment, and canopied engines have hooks to hang protective canvases from, with their corners literally stitched together. Not only do they protect the engines from the weather, they also provide a semblance of security.

This 1920 Aveling & Porter, 'Whippet,' was listed for sale. No price was indicated, but showman engines are said to sell as much as $500,000.

The nightlife had to be experienced, of course. There were at least four organized entertainment tents, including a beer tent with 100 different ales in addition to some bottled alternatives. The beer tent is where Dr. Busker and the Steam Fair Choir entertain attendees with bawdy sing-a longs, and it was always packed beyond its limit.

1921 Burrell showman, 'Earl Beatty,' languished in a scrap yard for years before being rescued in the early 1960s.

With an attendance approaching 250,000, this is a really big show. Even so, out of sheer luck I made contact with Francis Orr from Minnesota! Francis and his friends from New Zealand (they shipped five engines over from New Zealand in 2000) were camped behind Mike and Ross Lawrence, and when Mike and Ross heard his American accent they asked if they knew me. The rest is history.

While we were obviously impressed by extent of the exhibits, the kind welcome we received was outstanding. We did not feel like visitors, but one of the gang. The steam crew really is universal. With luck, I'm heading back again this year for The 35th Great Dorset Steam Fair to see what I missed last year!

Contact steam enthusiast Beth Vanarsdall at: 9749 Head O'Lake Road, Ottawa Lake Road, Ottawa Lake, MI 49267, or e-mail: