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Memories of Farnworth Wakes

by Alan Burrows

No-one seemed to know where they came from and where they went when it was all over; teenaged girls would scream and boys look on enviously as they went about their work.

They were the men who drifted into Farnworth with the annual fair - the Wakes. Some sported earrings and tattoos long before they became a recognised Y2K fashion fad; shirt sleeves rolled up, hair greased, tight jeans and footwear that looked indestructible.

On favourite rides such as The Waltzer and The Whip they'd fleet-footedly flit among the spinning, twirling carriages picking out the pretty girls and give theirs an extra spin to elicit screams, for it was the yells and shrieks as much as the blaring music and rattling machinery that attracted customers to the `big rides'.

Some said they were ex-jailbirds or merchant seamen; others gypsies or travelling tinkers. For all we knew they might have lived in the next street ... plumbers, joiners, brickies ... but they were the charismatic characters who added to the enchantment and mystique of the travelling carnival that for a week was the magnetic entertainment hub of whatever town they visited. For me, there was only ever the Farnworth Wakes.

As far back as I can remember my parents had taken me to the Wakes that in the 1950s and '60s were camped on two pieces of vacant land between Market and King streets, separated by a small string of terraced houses and shops that included Dagg's paint and wallpaper emporium. The `little Wakes' was on the patch next to Farnworth Market, whose rickety, skeletal stalls of wood seemed to have been there for ever. The `little Wakes' was widely looked on as `for the kids', with little clanging bells, honking motor horns and excited chatter.

As the years ticked by I graduated from the swingboats and little carousels with their painted ponies, cars and planes to going unaccompanied or with friends to test out my courage -- and my stomach -- on the grown-up rides ... the Big Wheel, Waltzer, Whip, Caterpillar or Dodgems that bore elaborately painted name-signs such as Silcocks, Greens and Cubbins. The cacophony of clanging bells, blaring music, rattling rides and excited babble teased the senses, along with the stench of diesel fuel, heat from the huge generators, the enticing smell of hot dogs, black peas, candy floss, chips, steamed or baked potatoes and toffee apples. Thick cables snaked between rides along the dirt, or puddles if it had rained, ready to trip the unwary, and myriad coloured lights blinked, popped and swayed in the evening breeze (for it was always more exciting and promising to view the Wakes after dark); a visit to `the big Wakes' was an exercise in maintaining the perpendicular by alternating one's gaze up and down.

The Wakes: my memories of them are of a time when rock `n` roll was drowning out the barrel-organs; when Bye Bye Love by the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly's Maybe Baby played virtually non-stop. This was revolutionary music ... so new, so tantilising it was hardly yet heard on the wireless.

It was a time for meeting people, or at least trying to. Boys of my age would go in a usually hopeless search for a girl and instead of taking one home would have to content themselves with a goldfish, a coconut or a fluffy toy won on the sideshows. Invariably it was nothing more than empty pockets.

I spent a small fortune trying to lob a table tennis ball into one of those globe-shaped goldfish bowls with the impossibly narrow necks, trying to get three darts into a row of playing cards, learning the knack of roll-a-penny or knocking down enough metal duck silhouettes on the air-rifle shooting stall to win a prize.

You'd wander round counting your loose change and weigh up whether to spend 6d on a Waltzer ride (perhaps you could squeeze at the last minute into a carriage occupied by two or three gorgeous, done-up-to-the-nines schoolgirls) or have two goes at 3d on the Dodgems - a singularly lonely ride on which girls were singularly unimpressed when your car ploughed into theirs with a neck-wrenching thud.

Every lad's dream was a stolen kiss with a girl as the Caterpillar closed its canvas canopy, hiding the occupants for 30 seconds or so. Alas ... This was Farnworth, though and, more often than not, it rained. Then you'd leap the muddy puddles to crowd under the meagre shelter of the eaves of the Waltzer or Whip and attempt to stay upright on the undulating, painted, rain-spattered, wooden-slatted floor surrounding the ride, as the carriages hurtled round and round and the lights flashed on and off - and you'd seethe as those wily Wakes Wanderers plied their trade, taking your money and leaving you wondering if you would ever see them again with your change, yet as far as I can recall I was never once ripped off.

Who were they? I never found out. Did they get the girls? I'll never know.

I'm now 10,000 miles and almost 50 years away from the Wakes. Only 20 minutes' drive from where I now live are some of the world's most prestige theme parks, where the hi-tech, super-fast thrill rides are literally set in concrete and many storeys high. They can't move from town to town, and cost tens of millions of dollars to set up. There's Dreamworld, Movie World, Sea World, Wet and Wild Water World and others. The turnover in half a day would easily eclipse what the leather cash bags took on the Wakes in a week.

I've been to them all but, to tell the truth, a lifetime of going to these immense `cities of fun' will never eclipse the memory of one night at Farnworth Wakes.

See also:

My Memories of Farnworth Wakes by Vera Berry Burrows