Millions go hopping mad

Europe's largest travelling fair, the Hoppings, is a week of frenzied activity. On a roll, Esther Oxford joins the revelry in Newcastle

High above the hedges, fairground rides twist and turn like angry octopuses. Diesel engines roar and piercing shrieks are emitted from upside- down heads. The sounds come in waves sometimes soft as the flying people spin off into the wind, then rising to a crescendo as the carriages come hurtling forward. Neon lights flash frenetically; house music pounds a harsh, mindless beat.

Usually these fields have cattle munching away on the grass. But last week the cows were driven out (stomping and lowing in protest) and 500 families from 20 different fairgrounds around Britain converged and moved in. With them came 40 state-of-the art "rides" (some need five trailers to move them), several hundred caravans and 1.5 million visitors. It was the start of the Newcastle Hoppings - the largest fair in Europe.

From afar the fair resembles a sprawling animal kicking its feet in the air as it snores. Inside the Hoppings is a maze of innards - a jungle of slithering carriages, cages, cars and changing bass beats. Queues line up for the fashionable rides. The owners of these are brash, snappy. Elsewhere booths stand empty and folorn. "Take a look round, lassie," says a crumpled old woman hosting one of several Halls of Mirrors, "you don't have to pay."

The people who run these stalls have been coming a long time. So has the Hoppings. It started life in the 17th century as a horse-racing festival - fun for the men, but not a place for respectable people. By the early 1880s, the Hoppings had such a reputation for drunken behaviour and general bawdiness that change was demanded. The turning point came in1882, when the fair was re-named The Temperance Festival.

Nowadays drinking and gambling are very much history. There is Coke and there is Ribena, but alcohol is banned. There is an air of naive, good honest fun. Groups of men still hover around, but in the Hoppings of the 1990s they wear fake Armani T-shirts and push buggies loaded with crowing infants. Yes the Hoppings is fun. But it is spanking clean fun. Family fun.

The charm of the Hoppings, say the regulars who attend year after year, is the mix of the old with the new. It is not in the same league as John Carter's Steam Fair - a splendid collection of rides dating from between 1895 and 1950s, which tours the Southeast. But the Hoppings has all the ingredients of an old-fashioned fair. It's not just a fun-fair, a pale shadow of the modern theme park. There is a boxing ring, a freak show and old-fashioned rides such as the Victorian merry-go-round and helter- skelter. It also has time-honoured games - coconut shies, skittles - but no goldfish prizes these days ("we had too many complaints about the dead 'uns", explains one stall owner).

The appeal for the young lies with new technology. The Hoppings is also famous for hosting the most high-tech rides on the travelling fair market - notably The Terminator (Italian made) in which about 20 people are arranged into two rows of golden coloured seats before being tossed into the air by a spectacular pair of mechanical "arms". For this, teenagers are willing to leave the computer games, videos and televisions and venture out into the fresh air for a "family day" (as long as they can walk 30 paces behind their parents, a far enough away to disown them).

It doesn't take long for age to melt at a fun fair, as most people revert to their childhood. "Mum: pounds 3 please. Dad: Give me 50p. Mum: Wait! Dad: Watch!" Anyway, the rides are only a tool of the fair, the main purpose is to provoke these cries, evoke these emotions.

"That were wild!", pants a lad who has spent the entire three minutes gazing forlornly at the sky and feeling his brain tossed about. "Where's the sick bowl?" "Why do you do it?" I ask his friend, who is queueing for his turn on The Terminator. "Because when I die I want to die on a glittering throne!" he says, before barging up to the front to get his desired seat.

Those who run the fair - the locals refer to them as gypsies - are hardened. Two years ago a young girl was thrown from one such ride at the Hoppings. According to Colin Noble, co-ordinator of the Hoppings, she was "larking about". "She might as well have stepped off a bus when it was steaming along at 40mph", he says.

"Anyway", says Mr Noble, "I'm sick of the negative publicity given to fairground rides. You are more likely to get injured in a car accident on the way to the fair." But those interested in accident figures might like to know that between 1981 and 1992 there were 26 deaths and more than 800 injuries (many serious) at fun-fairs, according to the Commons Fairgrounds and Showman's Committee. Most were caused by drunken behaviour and ill-trained attendants. Ride machinery was rarely to blame, as Mr Noble is quick to point out.

The customers didn't seem troubled by the prospect of an accident. "This fairground looks safer than most", says Pete Robey, 26, a local builder, there with his girlfriend. "I've been to fairgrounds where the rides are rusty and balanced on bricks. But here it all looks above-board. I've no worries. Have you?"

His girlfriend, Anne Bell, 19, is a little more cautious. She chooses her rides according to "how clean the owner's hands are ... some of these characters look dodgy to me", she says, stroking a pig-tail thoughtfully. He boyfriend looks at her askance, then shrugs his shoulders and thrusts his hands firmly in his jeans. "She is a manicurist", he explains under his breath, to no one in particular.

It's not all clanking machinery, moving around at frightening speeds, designed to churn your stomach and spin your head off. Some traditional fun-fair games have an enduring appeal. In a quiet corner of the fairground a group of boys and adults are sedately bashing hippopotamuses on the head. The aim is to bonk their foreheads with a mallet as soon as they pop up.

"I'm winning! I'm winning!" yells one of the smaller tykes, who has a Save the Whale badge pinned on his sleeve. Seconds pass. More frantic hippo-bashing - then the score: 270, 120, 160, 230, 70. The noisy one looks bewildered, crestfallen until he spots the Bash the Slivery Newt competition and dashes off to exercise his wrists. They probably did not bash hippotamae in the 1880s but no doubt something similar went on.

Another example of continuity is the freak show, or the Museum of Oddities as it is now called. "Two-headed Cuban", one sign promises. "Elephant boy", boasts another. Inside is a hastily constructed glass cabinet with a range of bottles with objects floating on the surface. One contains the "two-bodied pig with eight legs", which sure enough was a two-bodied pig with eight legs - pale and flabby - a stillborn probably. The two- headed boy turns out to be Brazilian - again in embryonic form, floating in transparent liquid.

Then there is an array of stuffed animals - masterpieces of taxidermy: "Basil the three-eyed fox" (a stuffed fox with a third eye stuck in the middle), a unicorn rabbit (a horn jutting out of the forehead - found on the M1 near Nottingham apparently) and Willie the Weasel (two heads stemming from one neck). A giant rat-like creature also features (a wombat I suspect) alongside a Chinese sea horse, a giant flying beetle and a Zairian war mask.

The stream of visitors - mostly young lads - seem giddy with excitement. "Look, look, look!" they cry, dashing up and down. A quick skim round then plonk, plonk, plonk down the stairs to view the 1,000-year-old two- headed man - a worm-ridden object in a collapsing coffin. A quick look and then they burst out of the caravan - not into sun but into rain.

Nobody seems to mind - there's not an umbrella in sight. Men stride up and down carrying children, indulging every whim, every cry. Women follow behind - dressed up and smiling to themselves. But it is the bands of girls dressed in satin baby-doll dresses who grab the attention of the fairground workers. The place is seething with sexual overtones - a hand on the shoulder in the Dodgems, a quick nip on the waist as the safety barriers are lowered, a stabilising "hug" in the dizzy moments after the ride. Promises of more.

The fairground workers needn't work hard on their prey: courting is all part of the fair experience - part of the dip into the unknown. "By the way that lad's looking at me, I'm his already", titters Cherie Wilkes, 15, waving a floppy arm in the direction of a lithe-looking lad. In her hand she carries a bottle of Robinson's Orange concentrate with something suspiciously like alcohol inside it. Old wine in new Tetra packs.

News
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
News
James Argent from Towie is missing, police say
newsTV star had been reported missing
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
News
Winchester College Football (universally known as Winkies) is designed to make athletic skill all but irrelevant
Life...arcane public school games explained
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Financial Technical Consultant (C++, C#, Finance, MSc, PhD)

    £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Financial Technical Consultant (C++, C#, F...

    Year 3 Teacher

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Year 3 Teacher Required We are curr...

    Year 5 Teacher

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Year 5 Primary Teaching positionRands...

    C# Algo-Developer (BDD/TDD, ASP.NET, JavaScript, RX)

    £45000 - £69999 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Algo-Develo...

    Day In a Page

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone