Excitement was in the air as the crowds gathered in front of the Dodgems on the corner of the Tuesday Market Place for the opening of the 2020 King’s Lynn Mart.
The Proclamation was read, the Mart bells rang out and the rides sprang into life as the official travelling season got underway.
Yet who, on that day of hope and anticipation, could have suspected that just five weeks later the season would come to an abrupt halt as the country went into lockdown.
Twelve months on and the country was in lockdown again – its third. At King’s Lynn, the Proclamation is still read out, but this year by West Norfolk Mayor Geoff Hipperson, not from the Market Place but from his home.
There are no Dodgems, no rides of any description. The Mart has been cancelled due to Covid.
This has been a year like no other since the War. Over 127,000 people have tragically lost their lives to Covid. Families have been left devastated.
As the economy went into freefall, jobs have inevitably been lost, despite furlough and other extensive packages to support employment. Business have been forced to close and not all will return.
The entertainment and hospitality industries have been particularly hard-hit. The fun, excitement and laughter that fairs bring has been missing – and has been missed – along with all the other aspects of our recreational and social life that we value so much.
But as we gradually and cautiously emerge from lockdown, fairs have been given the green light to open again. It may be some time before we are back to normal, but hopefully this lockdown will be our last.
Showmen have been working hard to make sure their fairs are Covid-secure, to negotiate dates with councils and to bring back some fun into our lives.
In the Eastern Counties, the early season run of fairs that follow King’s Lynn (such as Wisbech, Peterborough and Whittlesey) are sadly lost, along with its key Easter fair at Great Yarmouth.
There is hope, however, that alternative dates may found for some fairs later in the year.
Speaking to World’s Fair, Norwich & Eastern Counties Section Chairman Charles Barwick said that negotiations had been taking place with councils during the closed period to try and gain support for Showmen once the government gave the go-ahead for fairs to open.
After last year’s closures, fairs could only open at local authority discretion and some councils were unfortunately more restrictive and withheld permission, despite government backing for the industry.
It was feared that this would be the case again, but this time the government have categorically stated that fairs can open from 12 April. There are, however, still issues with shows, ghost trains and some inflatables and the definition of what constitutes “outdoors”.
Whilst this is a better result than the Chairman was expecting, support from councils is still very much needed, he says.
“All we’re asking for is that councils remember we’ve been out of business for over a year – we know there are Covid-secure regulations that we have to follow and we’ll do that, we just don’t need too many obstacles in our way”, he said.
“If we do what the guidance says, we’ve done all we can.”
All Showmen have had to get to grips with strict Covid procedures to make their events and their equipment safe. In the Eastern Counties Section, a Health & Safety advisor has been working with the Section to ensure that every aspect of the regulations is covered.
Whilst the Covid procedures give reassurance to the public about their safety, they also come with a cost to Showmen.
Hand sanitiser stations, signage, fencing, barriers, extra staff – all increase the costs of running an event and these are exacerbated by having reduced entrance capacity to enable social distancing.
Showmen accept that these costs are necessary, the Chairman says, and are just glad to be able to open again. However, one thing they don’t need right now is rent increases.
Taking King’s Lynn Mart as an example, Mr Barwick explains: “If we had been able to open at King’s Lynn this year, it would have cost the Section a lot more money, but we couldn’t have put rents up for the Showmen in view of the year they’ve had.
“If possible, we would like councils to look at their rents for this year and give us a bit of help if they can, just for this year, to get started again so we don’t have to pass increases on to our members.
“Last year the Guild implemented a reduction on subs to help members and the Guild has tried to do as much as it can, but there are no easy solutions. Other industries and businesses face similar problems, everyone is looking at how to mitigate their losses.
“You do look at other industries when yours is completely shut down. Supermarkets, for instance – no one is taking any notice of one-way systems now, they’re indoors, the shop layout is the same as normal, so why is it you can have a supermarket full of people wandering all over the place yet there’s a clampdown on outdoor fairs?”
Nevertheless, the Chairman is now looking forward to Showmen getting open again and having chance to recoup some of their losses over the rest of the season. Discussions with councils are ongoing to try and re-organise some lost fairs.
“Great Yarmouth Easter Fair had to be cancelled but we have a very good relationship with the council and we’re hoping we may be able to do something later on in the season”, he says.
“It won’t be the same event as the Easter fair, though. If they do give us another date, we may not be able to have the Market Place, for example.
“I think Showmen who attend Yarmouth should still be offered places if they want to go, even though it will be a different event. It’s the same for other fairs that the Section runs or helps administer.
Negotiations are also in place with Norwich, King’s Lynn and Wisbech about holding replacement events.
Unfortunately, the Section’s most important fair, Cambridge Midsummer Fair, hasvbeen cancelled for this year. This was a joint decision taken by the council and the Eastern Counties Section.
The Section took over the running of Cambridge Midsummer Fair from the council in 2019 and embarked on a programme of revival. Once upon a time this was a great fair but recent years have seen increasing decline.
Consensus was that the 2019 had been a good fair and progress had been made. Despite the normal dates for the fair (late June) falling just inside Step 4 of the government’s roadmap out of lockdown, the situation is still uncertain and depends on many factors, including number of cases, hospitalisations, impact of variants of concern and vaccine efficacy.
Given the uncertainty and the amount of planning that is required, it was felt that rather than risk negative public perceptions and jeopardise the progress that was made in 2019, it was better to miss this year and come back with a revitalised fair in 2022.
“We believe there is good scope at Cambridge and we’ve got one or two ideas for the future”, the Chairman said.
“We think we did a good job with the fair when we took it over. We know we can’t get it back to where it used to be, but we do think we can get it to where it’s worthwhile attending for Showmen.”
So, are there any positives that can be taken from the last, dismal, 12 months?
“Showmen just want to get on with their business now, put this behind us and move on. Let’s talk about going forward”, the Chairman said.
“We’ve had time to stand back and look at how we do things; are there things we can do differently, a little bit more professionally”, he asks.
“I still want to see a fairground be a fairground, though. I don’t want to see every fair in the country with fences round them, our fairs are not traditionally fenced-in all the time.
“Of course, some places do need fences and the lessees use them for security reasons, but in general I’d still like to see a fair where people can walk on and off when they like.
“We might have a year or so of restrictions, we’ll cope with that, but I wouldn’t like to see them here forever.”
A clear emphasis, then, on moving forward. Many industries – and people – would agree with the Chairman’s stance. It’s been a dreadful year, one that we won’t forget, but there is hope now for the future. Light at the end of the tunnel.
Many businesses have had to change over the last 12 months. Showmen have a long history of innovation and Showmen will adapt.
New ideas, new ways of doing things will emerge. Hopefully, fairs might even attract new clientele – people who perhaps haven’t visited a fair in years.
Maybe, the sun might even shine…