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.

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