The Dorset Steam Fair


Traction engines at the Dorset Steam Fair move a very heavy thing on a trailer. (c) Miles King


It was our annual visit to the Great Dorset Steam Fair yesterday. We’ve been going on and off, for the past 16 or 17 years. It’s undoubtedly the strangest festival I’ve ever been to – though I didn’t really think of it as a festival until recently. But people come and camp for the week, there is lots of stuff to see and do, including music – so it fits all the criteria for a festival. We go mostly to see the steam engines, though there are other things worth looking at – I usually have a look at the vintage motorcycles and military vehicles.

There are strange corners with people sitting next to their old (2 stroke) stationary engines, pumping water or keeping an electric light glowing, or doing whatever it was that these little engines used to be used for. We bought a bag of flour, stone-ground by a little engine a hundred years old.

There is also a growing network of trenches to commemorate the first world war. Re-enactors from Kent talk to visitors about what life was like in the trenches – and to commemorate the first use of gas in the trenches 1oo years ago this year, there was a gas attack (thankfully not a real one) while we were in the trenches. The re-enactors realistically rushed to put their masks on, one having failed to do so was stretchered away.

Is this tasteless exploitation of suffering for entertainment? I didnt think so. Our girls were fascinated by the experience and certainly learnt things they would not otherwise have known. My grandfather was gassed in the first world war and I wondered what my mum would have made of it if she had been there. I think she would have appreciated the care and attention the re-enactors had gone to, to make the experience realistic and educational, rather than primarily providing an entertainment “experience”.  I was also pleased to find a single plant of dwarf spurge Euphorbia exigua, a rare “arable weed”, growing on the edge of the trench. The fields of Flanders were covered in arable weeds as a result of the ground being constantly churned up by bombardment, which is why the common poppy is our emblem for those that suffered in the Great War. The French use the Cornflower for the same purpose.

The Steam fair is about nostalgia, of course. We are always drawn to watch the steam-powered forestry and farming equipment in action and this time we were fascinated to watch a steam-powered Reed-Comber in action.


Foster Murch Reed Comber 1943. (c) Miles King

This Heath Robinson contraption takes sheafs of cut wheat, separates the grain from the chaff (the large pile in front is chaff), then binds bundles of wheat stalks ready to be used for thatching. This machine dates from 1943. One person was on the engine, 2 on top of the comber feeding in the wheat, one was collecting the bundles as they appeared (and manually operated the binder). Another person was operating a separate baler and yet another moving straw bales around. it’s easy to imagine the fields full of people at harvest time. Our eldest commented that harvest must have been a very social event involving so many in the community, when this machine was in use.

Nowadays one person can drive a combine which does all these jobs, except produce combed wheat (or reed) for thatching. As there are still plenty of thatched houses in this part of the country, there is still a small demand for this type of operation and this website shows the processes involved.

While I am not suggesting we return to the days of using a traction engine to power the harvest, it is emblematic of the fact that the process of intensifying farm production, especially in the last 40 years, has created all manner of trade-offs; aside from the obvious impacts on nature, archaeology and history, it has also brought about the depopulation of farm workers from the countryside and consequently the near total loss of an agrarian culture that is millenia-old.

Perhaps this is what drives the people (who I imagine are all working in modern agriculture and its associated industries) who care about these machines to turn up to spend a week in Dorset every year, partly reliving the lives of their parents and grandparents. I certainly don’t get the impression that they see what they are doing (which is hard physical work) as entertainment.

About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
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