Tourist on Board

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This 1914 Burrell road locomotive, ''Duke of Kent,'' originally carried troops and provisions in World War I.
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Most engines are buttoned up for the night, wrapped in canvas tarps to keep them dry in the event of rain.
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A half-scale Foden steam wagon shares space with a full size Sentinel.
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Les Searle (left) and his McLaren, ''Boadicea.''
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''Boadicea'' (middle) and helpers pulling a low loader in the ''playpen.''
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Wallis & Steevens ''Advance'' road roller.
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Another road roller, this time a 10-ton 1925 Burrell, ''Ventongimps.''

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

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

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

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

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

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.
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

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

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