Photo gallery: Tragedy and a changing world giving Lynn Mart a bumpy ride
- Credit: Archant
The rich history of King's Lynn Mart continues once again next week with it's traditional opening. TREVOR HEATON hears a passionate defence of this ancient - but latterly troubled - event.
Growing up in King's Lynn there were just two things that topped most kids' wish lists.
One was to be playing for the Linnets the day they drew Manchester United at home in the FA Cup. The other was to open the Mart, Lynn's famous funfair which begins at noon on St Valentine's Day next week, as it has done almost every year since 1752.
So lucky, lucky Dr Paul Richards then – he got to open the event twice (that Linnets' cup call-up never came). The former borough mayor and the town's most celebrated historian performed the civic opening of the fair in both 1999 and 2000.
And that's a bigger deal than you might realise. For the Mart opening is unlike anything else in the Norfolk year – arguably, in the whole country. A grand civic occasion and spectacle, it draws mayors from across the region in all their finery, mace bearers, town criers and showmen, all watched by an expectant crowd against the backdrop of the fairground rides and stalls packed into the town's handsome Tuesday Market Place.
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It has an importance far in excess of its stay in the town. It has always marked the traditional start of the showmen's calendar, and often proved the time for them to try out new rides and attractions with the public. In 1897 Randall Williams was the first showman to display moving pictures to the public and the legendary Frederick Savage used the Mart to show off his latest steam-powered attractions. It has always had a special place in the hearts of the Showmen's Guild of Great Britain, which this year is celebrating its 125th anniversary.
Sensation-hungry Lynners looked forward eagerly to the next excitement, as can be clearly seen in a sequence of postcards of the opening from the earliest years of the last century. An era of cloth caps and big hats, of hard work and simple pleasures, the arrival of the Mart brought something truly special to the lives of ordinary working folk.
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For Dr Richards, his love affair with the Mart began when he was a small boy back in the 1950s. 'I'm a Lynn boy – from the Chequer Street area,' he said. 'My earliest memory of the Mart is of snow on the ground – it must have been around 1955. My mum took us to the Mart, I remember it being very cold. I remember getting closer and hearing all those sounds, and then when you turned the corner it was like some magical scene from outer space.'
He's loved it ever since. 'I particularly like the smell of toffee apples – they've always been a particular favourite, but I've never really got on with candy floss though! Then there's all the noise, the bustle, the stalls, the roundabouts...
'Some of the rides you thought were a bit scary. I used to like the dodgems and the helter-skelters – but I kept away from the waltzers. I saw people coming off them looking a bit green and it put me off.
'There were the wall of death riders riding motorbikes round and round a big tube. The crowds, the excitement...'
The world changes, though. 'In those days there were no computers and far fewer distractions. We kids all looked forward to it. It's lost a lot of that over the years. Video games, shopping, all those things have taken away from the funfair over the years. It's probably fair to say that, nationally, the glory days of funfairs are in the past,' he said.
That said, it was a very proud Paul in 1999 and 2000 when, when as borough mayor, he took pride of place at the opening ceremonies. Both were particularly memorable affairs.
'I was so proud that first year,' he recalled. 'We had a 'chain gang' of 16 mayors from across the region – Norwich, Peterborough, Boston, Cambridge... – we processed down the High Street, turning the corner into Tuesday Market Place and you could hear the real buzz from the crowd.
'After the opening and going on the rides, we processed back to the Town Hall for a civic luncheon and speeches, and finally finished at 4pm. It's an absolutely fantastic event for King's Lynn. The atmosphere is wonderful – you really feel part of something.
'Then in 2000 – Millennium year – we had a 100-year-old Savage's gallopers outside the Globe. It showed how Lynn's pride is interwoven with that of the Showmen's Guild of Great Britain.'
The 'Fifth Beatle' in all of this is the setting itself: Tuesday Market Place is considered to be one of the finest market squares in the country.
And come the Mart, it turns into a tightly-packed enclave of delights, where sounds and even smells seem to bounce off the walls and jump back into the square. It's a big favourite with photographers too, with the lights of the rides and the many reflections from the surrounding buildings offering a chance for some stunning night shots.
As Dr Richards adds: 'The buildings round the market place are shot through with Mart history.
'By the Globe Hotel, Savage's would set up their latest roundabouts and the showmen would go into the hotel to buy and sell. And I remember someone tell me about the fire-eater who used to set up near there. After half an hour of breathing out fire, he was always ready for a couple of pints!
'It's a great urban tradition of popular culture – bringing together the people, the colour, and the buildings. And art too – let's not forget the beautiful artwork on the rides.'
But it's true to say the Mart has sometimes had an uneasy relationship with the town. Over the years there have been grumbles from some traders concerned about loss of revenue, and from motorists, given the headache of coping with the loss of hundreds of parking spaces.
At the core of all of them is the built-in tensions of trying to run an event with a 19th-century format in a medieval square, and with 21st-century traffic.
All these strands were brought into sharp and tragic focus in 2012 when a visiting three-year-old was killed in an accident with a car on nearby King Street while visiting the Mart.
The death stunned town- and showfolk alike, prompting immediate calls to ban traffic from the market place during the fair. It also led to a wider discussion about the future of the event.
While the council says talks remain 'ongoing', some want to move the fair out of the town centre altogether.
It's a thought which fills Dr Richards with dread. 'It would kill it,' he says simply. 'The whole point is that it's an urban event. Without that setting it would wither and die.'
Which brings us the wider question of why we should continue to hold the Mart. 'Look – it's in February, it's only on for a week and a bit. It's been interwoven with Lynn's identity for hundreds of years. For goodness' sake let's keep some of the things that made Lynn important.
'It gives me a sense of pride in the local community. Why don't we make more of our heritage assets like this? As far as I am concerned, the past IS about the future.'
When he talks about the Mart Dr Richards' passion is so much more than a love of tradition and history, more so even than his deep love for his home town.
It's because, at his heart, he is still that small boy from the Friars who, wide-eyed in wonder, walked hand in hand with his mother into a magical world of sound, excitement, smells and tastes on a chilly day in 1955. And fell in love for a lifetime.
Ten things you never knew about Lynn Mart - see www.edp.co.uk