Charlie Horne on the thrills of working in the fairground business

Charlie Horne. Picture: Robert Perry
Charlie Horne. Picture: Robert Perry
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SHOWMAN Charlie Horne looks skywards at his latest acquisition which is swinging back and forth like a giant pendulum holding rows of screaming youngsters.

Charlie, 58, winces at the suggestion he might like to have a go on the expensive hi-tech ride called Freak Out.

“Oh no,” he shakes his head. “I’m not going on that – I’m scared of heights.”

He might not want to have a go himself, but he knows what brings in the punters – and there are plenty of thrill-seekers lining up for the modern ride delivering an adrenaline rush. But of his six rides, the classics such as the waltzers and the dodgems are still the most popular.

He’d had a similar ride to Freak Out for three seasons, sold it five years ago but felt the time was right for a new version.

“I got a really good offer, so I sold it and it’s now in Boston in America. They tell people getting on the ride, ‘It’s come all the way from Scotland,’” he smiles, using an exaggerated American accent. “I don’t know if that makes it more appealing, but I suppose it tells people a bit of history.

“I don’t go on the rides myself any more, only if I take my grandchildren on the dodgems. That’s my favourite ride because it’s what I started with. I inherited the dodgems from my grandfather and built the business from there – although we’ve changed the ride over the years.”

Charlie is the fifth generation of his family to run a fairground over the past 140 years and he shares his name with his great great grandfather, great grandfather, grandfather and father. But he’s broken tradition slightly with his own son who’s now 34, naming him Christian Charles, because he says his wife, Christina, 56, didn’t want her husband and son to have the same name. The couple also have a daughter, Tina, now 32.

Charlie’s earliest memories are from the fairground. “When we were children we used to get on all the rides for free. We’d call out, ‘Is it all right to go on?’ because we knew everyone. Now my grandchildren can go on anything too – as long as they’re tall enough. I grew up surrounded by the rides so I expected them to be there. It probably wasn’t the same excitement as it would be for children visiting the fair. I think you take it for granted because it’s always around you. My first real memory of the fair is the little train ride my family had. Riding on that sticks in my mind, and then I went on the bigger rides when I was older.

“When I was young we travelled around from place to place and went to various schools. I’d have two weeks at one school and then move onto the next. We’d take a report card with us so our next teacher would understand what we’d been doing. It was difficult sometimes but I was brought up with it so I thought it was normal. I never really faced any problems.

“I’d make new friends and they would want to come down to see you at the fairground – it was exciting for them. They wanted to know what it was like and they’d ask if we went on the rides all the time.”

Charlie left school at 15 and started working on the rides. “That’s what I wanted to do anyway.” He met Christina, who is from the Taylor family of showpeople at the fair, and they married when he was 19 and she was 17. “When I got married I had the fairground business, but I’ve also had other businesses alongside, such as a hairdressing shop, a leisure business and record shop. But I’ve always stuck to the fairground business mostly,” he says.

“Back then it was more common to marry within the fairground community. But now times are changing and more showpeople are settling in one place rather than taking to the road. The way of life is changing quite a bit and the children now are at school all the time. I think we’ve got to move with the times. But I see the downside as well in that there’s not so much of a community now. But we see a lot of the grandchildren on weekends. I understand an education is important and the younger generation don’t want to take the kids out of school. And we still have the summer and Easter holidays.”

Charlie, the owner of Horne’s Pleasure Fairs, lives in a luxury three-bed caravan in Glasgow during the winter months and takes a smaller caravan when he goes on the road. Christina and Christian work alongside him and even though Tina lives in a house in Glasgow she helps out. Christina’s mum Violet Taylor is 85 but also helps, running the dodgems when the weather warms up.

Charlie’s great great grandfather began the business, starting out with stalls and then eventually a merry-go-round and a set of chair-o-planes. Charlie’s grandfather worked with the dodgems until he was 84. “He only lasted another couple of years after he retired because he didn’t have the interest in the fair to keep him going,” says Charlie. “He had nothing to get him up in the mornings.” Charlie’s father, despite being 85, likes to keep in touch by regularly ringing to see how everyone is. “He phones at least twice a day, just asking if everything’s been OK, what’s the weather like, how’s business and how are the grandchildren. He likes to know we’re OK and then he’s happy. In his day they’d move the fair from place to place with traction engines.”

Nowadays the rides transform into articulated lorries to take to the road. The industry has become more hi-tech, with health and safety at the forefront. Rides are tested every year and X-rayed for any sign of wear and tear. “All fairground people are very proud of their roots. It’s a culture and a way of life,” Charlie says. “It must be one of the oldest forms of entertainment going. The technology has got better over the years, but basically it’s the same thing, it’s a family day out.”

Charlie is proud of his heritage and he makes the distinction between showpeople and travellers featured in TV’s My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. “We’re showmen, we’re not travelling people or gypsy people, it’s a different thing altogether. I’m not knocking travelling people, we’re just different. I don’t watch the TV show but I know about it because I’ve heard people talk about it. I respect all people but we have a different way of life altogether. We just have a normal wedding thing,” he says. Tina was wed in the Old Course Hotel in St Andrews, he says, and increasing numbers of showpeople are marrying people from outside of the culture.

Another change is that more couples now want to settle down with bricks and mortar rather than staying on the road in a caravan.

“Years ago when you got married you bought a caravan. But the younger generation are buying houses and a smaller caravan for when they travel away. The modern large caravans are like the luxurious trailers favoured by movie stars on film sets and are the size of houses. But there are fewer of these around now with more families settling in one place to give their children a better education. The younger generation want the kids at school. Education is a big thing for us.”

Charlie’s four grandchildren, Tina’s children Cooper, four, and Sophie, two, and Christian’s daughters, Claudia, five and Candice, almost three, are often found playing around the family fairground at weekends. “We’re very family-orientated people,” says Charlie. “Family is the most important thing to us.”

Charlie is getting ready to bring his rides to the Kirkcaldy Links Market, from 18-23 April, which stretches three-quarters of a mile along the Esplanade, making it Europe’s longest street fair. It’s certainly the flagship fair for Scotland. Since finishing the year at the Glasgow’s SECC for the IRN-BRU carnival at Christmas, Charlie then had a break before hitting the road again with his fair in Ayr, Ireland and Edinburgh.

“There are a lot of the families carrying on the tradition. I’d like to hope my grandchildren will continue it, but you never know. I’m sure they will in one way or another. It’s a lovely way of life.

“But it’s getting harder because of the cost of fuel and the cost of running the fair. And for the last three to four years there’s been a lot of rain – the climate is changing and the cost of everything is affecting us. We have to keep the rides up-to-date which is a high expense. But it’s no different from any other business in life in that respect. And the upside is that it’s a way of life, it’s a culture and showpeople really like it so they get on with it. I don’t think I’ll retire, the cost of living is going up. But maybe I’ll take a bit more of a back seat and let my son take over more eventually.

“It’s lovely to work in a business where people are happy and enjoying themselves. It’s great when the weather’s good, not as good when we’re moving and the weather is bad. But the next day can be sunshine and so it changes again. I enjoy having family round about us all the time.”