Chances are you’ve heard of Scarborough Fair – but have you heard of The Scarborough Fair Collection? Susan Stephenson steps back in time to find out more.
Nestled between holiday parks on the clifftops between Scarborough and Filey at Lebberston is a hidden gem – one of the largest collections of vintage fairground rides, organs and transport in Europe.
This stunning array of exhibits, known as The Scarborough Fair Collection, started life as a private collection, lovingly put together by Graham Atkinson, part of the Atkinson farming family which owns several holiday parks nearby.
It was back in the 1980s when Graham bought his first steam engine and a mechanical organ, purchases which sparked a real passion – and the start of what was to become a unique collection of vintage rides, tractors, steam engines, cars, motorcycles, memorabilia and more, which is now open to the public.
The attraction is run by a small, dedicated team of staff and volunteers, including museum guide Keith Kitching, whose knowledge of the exhibits can only be paralleled by his enthusiasm.
Keith says volunteering at the venue is a “dream come true” – and I get the feeling that every time he comes to work, this 69-year-old retired bus driver is like a little boy on Christmas morning.
He says with a smile: “It’s given me a new life. All my life I’ve wanted to work in a motor museum. I love every minute of it.”
It was three years ago that Keith made an appeal locally to find a new home for his beloved 1952 Austin K8 Plaxton Venturer, a 14-seat motor coach.
He was reluctantly considering selling the coach as he had nowhere to store it. But thankfully, Graham contacted Keith and said: “You can store it in my cowshed if you want.”
And so began Keith’s involvement with the collection, followed last year by his wife Chris, a retired postmistress, who now works on the reception desk. “It’s a brilliant place to work – everyone enjoys themselves and we get people of all ages coming in,” says Chris. “The only thing is that lots of people don’t know we’re here.”
To help combat this, after a decade of being open to the public, the attraction’s name was changed last summer to The Scarborough Fair Collection and Vintage Transport Museum.
Word is getting out and the reviews are glowing, both on Trip Advisor and in messages of thanks which are emailed in and proudly printed off by Chris.
Keith tells me that it doesn’t matter what age visitors are, they always find something that appeals to them and leave with a smile on their face.
“Getting schoolchildren past the hall of mirrors in the entrance can take ages,” he laughs.
The venue recently hosted an 80th birthday party and one visitor, aged 97, had the time of her life on the collection’s most ‘white-knuckle’ ride – the Thriller. Don’t be deceived by the quaint-looking exterior and hand-painted, animal-shaped seats – this ride is faster than it looks and not for the faint hearted.
Another success has been visits by groups of people with dementia, whose memories are awakened by the sounds of the mighty Wurlitzer or the sight of the vintage steam engines and cars from yesteryear.
The venue also hosts regular dances, which sees couples gliding round the floor one minute and having a ride on the ghost train or the galloping horses the next.
Scarborough couple Arthur Rosbottom and his wife Brenda, both in their eighties, have been coming to the dances every week for the past eight years. “It’s one of the best venues in England for dancing and for a day out – and it has one of the best vintage collections in the world I think,” says Arthur.
Another regular is local organ society chairman Bernard Blagden, of Hunmanby, who visits every week to enjoy the music with his wife Doreen.
“This is the East Coast’s answer to Blackpool Tower – except we’ve got two Wurlitzers and they only have one! There’s not another place to this standard in England,” he says proudly.
And the man with the task of playing these two cherished Wurlitzers is organist Michael Carr, a former baker and cafe owner, from Bridlington, who says he is “living the dream”.
He explains that when he was little, he and his mum used to listen to legendary Tower Ballroom organist Reginald Dixon on the radio. “When I was six or seven, I said to my mum ‘one day I’ll play the Wurlitzer’. I turned 65 last year and it’s a dream come true. It’s an absolute pleasure to play here. I love every second – I could sit and play all day.”
Starting out as an electronic organist, Michael played in working men’s clubs from the age of 18 and has been playing the Wurlitzer for the last six years. “It’s a difficult instrument to play – the tempos need to be dead right.”
Another key member of the museum family, volunteer Graham Turner, was also first drawn in by the Wurlitzer, as he explains. “I wired up the Wurlitzer in 2006. I was meant to be here for four months and I’m still here. It’s a fantastic place to be and a fantastic collection. Visitors are gobsmacked the first time they come – and they keep coming back.”
Graham, who was an electronics engineer in the aircraft industry, helps out four days a week and also volunteers on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway. “I’m doing what I enjoy. I don’t know how I found time to go to work,” he laughs.
Graham adds that the collection has grown dramatically since he started, when there was just one shed. The fourth shed has been open since April last year and the collection just keeps on growing. New additions come from both auctions and donations from members of the public.
The oldest exhibit is the Golden Galloping Horses, a ride which dates back to 1875 and after extensive restoration, is in perfect working order and one of the star attractions.
Keith is keen to tell me that it is not a carousel – this is British and runs clockwise, whereas carousels are American and run anti-clockwise.
“A good pub quiz fact for you there,” he says.
Other stand-out pieces include the most famous showman’s engine of them all, The Iron Maiden, which starred in the 1963 film of the same name.
The collection is also home to the world-famous Munich Oktoberfest organ, a stunning piece of engineering which Keith decides to demonstrate to me by playing the theme tune to The Wombles, leaving me both in stitches and awestruck by the beauty of this incredible piece of history.
As I leave, the tea dance ends and visitors stream out of the doors, all smiles, many coming up to thank staff and volunteers for a wonderful day out.
“It’s what makes it all worthwhile,” says museum coordinator Julie Kennedy, who has been there since day one. “It’s my baby,” she smiles. “The museum is a special place for volunteers, staff and the people who visit. I’m so proud of everybody here – we’re a family. Everybody goes out happy – and if visitors go out laughing and smiling we’ve done our job.”