Outings: The great Christmas barn bonanza

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The Independent Online
Britain's biggest Christmas spectacular takes place in a tucked away village. Louise Duffield went to the opening night.

If someone asked where in this country you could find the largest Christmas show, few would suggest a venue outside of London. There would be even fewer who would suggest Norfolk. And if anyone said "in a museum barn in a remote village", then it could only mean one thing - that they'd already been privileged to see one of Thursford's Christmas spectaculars. Billed as the largest Christmas production in England, the Thursford Spectacular is quite some festive sight. But what is all the more remarkable about the show is that it is staged in an enormous barn which, for the rest of the year, is home to a collection of steam engines, organs and fairground memorabilia.

The Thursford Christmas Spectacular started as a small-scale carol concert 20 years ago and has become so popular that every show is a sell-out, and visitors travel from all over the country to see it.

It is the variety of the Thursford event that is unique: nowhere else can you see such a combination of choirs, singers, dancers and musicians. The organist from the Tower Ballroom, Blackpool, sits alongside musicians from the band of the Prince of Wales's Division (Lucknow) on the programme, while the Thursford Dancers put their interpretation on such pieces as "Lord of the Dance", "Rockin' all over the World" and "Dance of the Snowmen". The St Nicholas Choir, a bagpiper and a harpist are also vital parts of the production, not to mention the live turkey, basket of ferrets and dove flypast.

It takes three weeks to turn the home of The Thursford Collection into a sparkling winter wonderland of glitter, tinsel and lights. The barn itself contains 20 steam engines, a magnificent, 100-year-old fairground gondola switchback ride, a mighty Wurlitzer organ, and a host of musical fairground organs. A further 30 engines are awaiting restoration.

The seed that was to grow into this unique collection was planted when the founder George Cushing, now 94, visited a traditional fairground as a boy. He was amazed and bewitched by the steam engines, which sparked off a life-long passion for the huge, hissing objects. As a young man he saved every penny he had and bought a second-hand traction engine, and worked as a contractor. He still has that machine - and dozens of others, which he saved from the scrapheap so that future generations could live the age of steam. The love of steam engines bought Mr Cushing into contact with mechanical fairground organs, which he soon began adding to his collection. Then came the beautiful 19th-century Gondola switchback fairground ride, built in the Norfolk factory of the merry-go-round creator Frederick Savage. Today it is powered by electricity for convenience, but in its heyday it ran on steam.

But one of the most popular attractions at Thursford is undoubtedly the Wurlitzer organ - formerly housed in a Leeds cinema and the fourth largest in Europe with 1339 pipes. Resident organist Robert Wolfe gives regular afternoon concerts.

The visitors

Sharon Lloyd, an office clerk, went to the Thursford Collection's Christmas Spectacular with her son Adam, 12, and daughter Nicola, eight.

Sharon: This is probably the fifth time that I have been to one of Thursford's Christmas shows, and I still think it is so magical. I keep coming back because to me it sums up Christmas. It has something to appeal to most ages, because the show switches from serious music by the choir to humorous geese strutting around the stage. If you don't like one thing, then you don't have to wait long before something different appears on stage.

I think it would be well worth going to visit Thursford when the Christmas decorations are down, and the regular attractions are on display.

Adam: I thought the show was great. There was a lot of singing and dancing, and there were animals and everything involved. My favourite bit was the last bit, where the balloons came down and the doves flew past.

The first time I saw the Christmas decorations, I thought they were very good. I liked the shops because they sold a wide variety of things. I bought a badge. Some people of my age wouldn't like the Christmas show because they are into rave. I have seen steam engines at the Royal Norfolk Show and I thought they were quite good, so I may like to come back and have a look at the ones they have at Thursford.

Nicola: I thought it was brilliant because it was fun and exciting, and the songs were good. It was very colourful and the decorations were lovely. I had loads of favourite parts, but I especially liked the song "Santa Claus is Coming to Town", and when they were doing "Lord of the Dance", and the bagpipes. I had never seen any bagpipes before. I hope I can go again. I bought some flashing Christmas tree earrings in the shop.

The deal

The Thursford Christmas Show is staged at the Thursford Collection, Thursford Green, Thursford, near Fakenham, Norfolk (01328 878477). There are two shows every day, at 2.30pm and 7pm, until 23 December, but the only tickets available are cancellations. Bookings for next year's spectacular, from 12 November to 23 December, are taken in writing from 5 January.

The museum collection is open from noon until 5pm from Good Friday to 25 October, with live musical shows daily from the mechanical organs and the Wurlitzer.

Admission: This year's ticket price for the show is pounds 12.50, or pounds 11.25 for the party rate. Next year it will be pounds 13, or pounds 11.75 per person for groups of 15 or more. Under-eights are not admitted. Admission to the museum collection is pounds 4.50 for adults, pounds 4.20 for senior citizens, pounds 3.75 party rate and students, pounds 2 for children four to 14, and under-fours free.

Access: Accessible for wheelchairs and pushchairs everywhere.

Toilets and baby-changing: Clean, several of them, but quite crowded at times. Baby-changing facilities in the toilet for the disabled.

Shops: Three, well-stocked with good quality gifts and locally-made items, but, again, quite crowded at times.

Catering: Several different options, including ice-cream parlour, cafe and tearoom. A picnic area outside, near the adventure playground.

Education: School trips available, helping with modern history and steam.