Today is the unofficial opening of the 763rd Ilkeston Fair. This is the time when a sleepy and otherwise forgotten English town transforms with no small amount of magic into a wonderland of lights and music. Even the gloom doom residents of that town will today be searching wide-eyed and curious through the streets for the old favourites while investigating the newest additions. The midland elders will gladly share stories of yesteryear’s fair (live animals, wooden roller coasters, fire breathers and more) with anyone willing to listen. The kids will be opening their penny jars doing the ride-count-maths and checking their height, desperately hoping that this will be the year they are granted access to the more demanding rides.
When we first heard of the fair, we scoffed. How could this ironworks’ oubliette possibly be anything more than that. Depressed and poor, it was hard to imagine this grey mess of a place opening its doors to the childish pleasures of a fair. Really, you need to see it to believe it.
It starts the weekend before when the rides, trailers and caravans file into town in what seems like an hours long procession. The Wild Mouse is first to go up followed by Booster and the Cake Walk and then the food and game stands arrive. From the top of Bath Street right down to its end, the side streets, the back alleys, the market place, the parking lots: lights, lights, and more lights. The swings rising up over the masses giving you a spectacular view of Erewash. The music can be heard from the front door. The smell of cotton-candy is unavoidable …
Yes, there’s magic to be found in the week of the Ilkeston Fair. In its 763rd year now, it is one of Europe’s oldest and England’s biggest street fairs. A shadow of what once was. A glimmer of hope for what could still be. There is pride in this town. It was at my first Ilkeston Fair that I learned the meaning of potential. This town is considered dead to all but those still there alive. History, community, a shared future: potential