Long Read

The Show Must Go On

Travelling Showmen in the Vale of Health.

Cy Abbott, Travelling Showman, spends summers in the control booth of his fairground ride, called New York. For hours a day, sometimes with his young twins balanced on each knee, he watches customers strap into a fleet of yellow cabs beneath a canopy of disco balls, foam machines, American flags and a spray-painted slogan: ‘The Atmosphere is Here!’ Cy starts his ride slowly, to the baritone of New York, New York. The jingle box switches to Empire State of Mind and he accelerates, whirling the cabs around the carousel. Cy’s father was a Showman. As was his grandfather and great-grandfather. So the business of show business comes naturally. He’ll often take the mic, interrupting Frank Sinatra and Alicia Keys, and shout things like, ‘Put your hands in the air! It’s party time!’

‘When you say to 66 people “scream if you want to go faster!” and they all scream, it makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. It’s a noise that you have never heard before in your life,’ Cy tells me. ‘I’m a very enthusiastic showman. I love my job.’ Cy’s brother, Charles, is a Showman too. He travels with a rifle range and some kids’ rides, and he never thought seriously about doing anything else. You don’t choose this job, or way of life, he explains – you’re born into it.

A Showman’s life is shaped by generations of tradition, and the seasons. Traditionally, Showmen earn enough over the summer to sustain themselves during the winter (which they call kipper season). Around Bonfire Night, they return to their yards to rest and repair their rides before hitting the road again for fairground season, opened in February by the King’s Lynn Mart, which has run since Tudor times. For more than a century, the Abbott family yard, their winter quarters, was in an idyllic hamlet called the Vale of Health, tucked into a side of Hampstead Heath. Meaning Cy and Charles have spent a lot of kipper seasons in one of the most exclusive parts of Hampstead; therefore, London – therefore, if you think about it, the world.

Circumferenced by a dilapidated fence, the Abbott yard, known as the North Fairground site, is at the bottom of the Vale of Health, sandwiched between elegant Victorian villas and the sweeping green of the Heath – the mixed bathing pond is a swift 10-minute walk away. Living in Hampstead was incredible, the brothers say. But, as time passed, their yard became unsuitable for their sprawling family and for storing massive rides like New York. So, a few years ago, the Abbotts put their yard up for sale. The ensuing planning battle has a fantastic cast of characters. A clan of Travelling Showmen. A developer in the business of bungalows. A barristered-up coalition of Hampstead societies. Horrified high-society residents equally horrified by the prospect of ‘a group of bungalows masquerading as caravans’.

Opponents viewed plans to put semi-permanent caravans on the site as a developer’s attempt to dodge planning laws, to the detriment of the prized and protected Heath. Obviously, the Abbotts saw the whole debacle differently. It felt like their wealthy neighbours were thwarting their right to benefit from their own property. ‘It sickened us to be honest, in some respects,’ says Charles. ‘It wasn’t just about the money. Obviously the money would have been a factor… But all we wanted to do was move on and better ourselves.’

Roughly 20,000 Travelling Showmen live in the UK, and many families have worked in the business for generations, cultivating a strong and self-contained culture in the process. Showmen travel together and work together. They often marry each other and even have their own language, Paylaree, a combination of Romani and slang. Despite their unique culture and the ancient roots of their industry, Showmen were only recognised as an ethnicity and profession in the 2021 census, following a campaign by the Showmen’s Guild, the body that governs the industry and advocates for Showmen. The guild started life in the 1880s as a protest movement against an ardent Methodist preacher who was on a mission to restrict the movement of itinerant people – a challenge still faced by many Travelling communities today. Showmen don’t identify with Travellers or Gypsies, but they can experience similar types of discrimination. Everyone loves the funfair, but a lot of people don’t want Showmen pitching up near their back gardens.

A Showman’s yard in the heart of Hampstead Heath sounds too fantastical to be true. So I went to check it out, climbing through Hampstead until I reached a narrow lane. The sign was draped in a tangle of greenery so it read, just: Health. The Vale of Health is accessible only by this lane and it combines the seclusion of a country village with the cash and cultural clout of the city. Its houses have names (Hillview, Heathhurst) and plaques announce they’ve been lived in by D.H. Lawrence and media baron Lord Northcliffe. The Evening Standard once described the Vale’s residents as looking like readers of the London Review of Books. I’ll update that: they could all be subscribers to The Fence.

The Vale of Health wasn’t always such a coveted postcode. It was actually a malarial marsh that was drained when the Hampstead Water Company dug a big pond. Builders put up some houses and, in a savvy marketing move, the area’s name was changed from Hatches Bottom to the Vale of Health, presumably to entice people to move into these houses, which were overcrowded and one was apparently full of chimney sweeps. A dusting of star power was provided by essayist Leigh Hunt, who lived at the Vale after leaving prison and hosted leading literary figures of the day. Shelley and Byron apparently shared a nearby cottage in the Vale and wrote lines of poetry on its window.

The Hampstead Junction Railway station opened in 1860 and the Heath became accessible to more than tortured romantic poets and tortured chimney sweeps. An 1888 article from the Hampstead and Highgate Express describes 80,000 people at the fair watching entertainment ranging from fire-eaters to conjurers. Powered by the Industrial Revolution, this was when funfairs – and Travelling Showmen – were in their prime. And it was around when Cy and Charles’s great-great-grandfather, Frederick, arrived in England with an obscure past and an Irish surname that he swiftly changed to Gray. Frederick married into a fairground family, bought some steam-powered rides, the North Fairground site, an adjacent hotel and a row of houses – and became one of the best-known Showmen of his day.

Now home to a scattering of caravans, for years there was a permanent fairground in the Abbott yard, which has been passed through generations – including a woman called Violet, who was christened with the middle name Hampstead and lived to be more than a hundred. When Cy and Charles were tiny, their parents were based at a Showman’s site in a bombed-out part of Whitechapel. But they soon moved to the Vale of Health, spending winters with their extended family and a Rolodex of neighbours who sound like the guest list to an awards show in the late 90s: Rowan Atkinson, Sporty Spice, Ali G. Their grandfather drank at the local pub, the Duke of Hamilton, with the actor and notorious hellraiser Oliver Reed. Cy remembers a mythical-sounding story apparently involving Liam Gallagher (who lived in a cottage in the Vale) getting involved in a campfire sing-along. ‘We were part of the furniture, that’s for sure,’ says Cy. ‘I know Hampstead Heath like the back of my hand.’

The Abbotts had been settled for years but, Cy says, his grandfather was always thinking of selling the site, or developing it – trying to make it work financially. Back in the 60s, the Abbotts developed a hotel by the fairground site into a block of flats, Spencer House (named after the artist Stanley Spencer, who’d had a studio there). In 1997, as house prices rocketed around them, the Abbotts tried, unsuccessfully, to develop more flats. Around that time, they started renting spots on the fairground to non-Showmen: waifs, strays, creatives, hippies. A later complaint from a neighbour about overcrowding of the site resulted in a council survey of its residents. They included 13 people living in a double-decker bus.

Showmen don’t need planning permission for their yards, which are classified as mixed-use: for storing equipment and transient living. But permission is required to change their use into, say, permanent residential sites. In 2010, this is what the Abbotts tried to do, claiming that the yard had long been used for residential purposes. They withdrew their application after objections flooded in, many claiming the site was still being used for fairground purposes. ‘Fairground rides (e.g. an aeroplane ride) have been stored on the site,’ read one. ‘I believe there has also been occasional sale of goldfish.’

When Cy was 16, his father retired and the brothers graduated into being Showmen themselves. They inherited a small aeroplane ride and went on the road. But, they tell me, they dreaded coming back to the Vale of Health for the winter and driving their lorries down its tiny lane. Showmen’s rides have gotten much bigger since the days of Frederick Gray and his steam engines. Their family was changing. Ownership was split between different branches and was becoming more complicated as more kids arrived. The retired Abbotts wanted to spend their final days in semi-permanent houses (which they call chalets) rather than caravans. The Abbotts’ longtime base wasn’t meeting their needs, so they decided to sell. They couldn’t afford the inevitable legal fees, so the initial deal was that a potential buyer would put in a down payment, navigate any planning problems and pay the rest after. Given the existing local tension around their yard, finding a buyer wasn’t going to be easy. The Heath & Hampstead Society spoke to Camden News: ‘If anyone is foolish enough to buy it, they will be pouring money down the drain. No one would have any chance at all of getting planning permission. They are simply trying it on. It is only a valuable piece of land as part of the Heath and for the people who live there in caravans.’

The man foolish enough to buy the site was Royston Cooper, owner of Knightsbridge Parks LLP, who paid £1,830,000 for it in November 2020. Knightsbridge Parks doesn’t have a website, but a cursory sweep through Companies House links Cooper to about 60 active or folded companies – mostly related to caravan parks and bungalow sites across the country. Another cross-reference shows he was fined £15,000 in 2018 for poor conditions on one of his sites, including a sewage treatment plant that exuded unbearable smells in hot weather.

Like the Abbotts, Knightsbridge Parks tried to claim the use of the site had changed, and that it was mainly used for residential purposes, rather than as a working, mixed-use Showman’s yard winter quarters. A certificate proving this would hopefully clear the way to build static caravans which, one local resident complained, ‘is essentially a housing estate of small bungalows’ and ‘would give the impression of a “suburban housing estate”’. The Vale of Health is on Metropolitan Open Land, meaning it is protected from inappropriate developments. A panoply of local groups sprang into action: the Highgate Society, the Vale of Health Society, the Hampstead Heath Society, the Hampstead Neighbourhood Forum. The plans received more than 61 objections from residents. One complainant, who worked for the Welsh National Opera, argued that the developers’ claims that ‘there would be no change from the existing use to be both sophistry and hogwash’. The industrial designer Sir Kenneth Grange (the brains behind the Wilkinson Sword razor) threw his hat into the ring next. ‘We live in an epidemic of gluttonous success by developers who have only contempt for any views about sustaining and guarding the very qualities of environment that has made this corner of our City so valuable and essential.’

Cooper was not successful. At the start of 2023, he submitted another application for ‘A Certificate of Lawful Existing Use or Development’ (which otherwise goes by the acronym CLEUD), which would certify the Abbotts’ old home as a ‘mixed-use site for travelling showpeople and a residential caravan site’. At the time of writing, Camden Council were still assessing the application. The future of the North Fairground site is still in flux, but the Abbotts are no longer there after more than 100 years of residence. The two-decades’ worth of planning disputes between the family and their neighbours give an entertaining, if often absurd, insight into the tensions that come from having a Travelling Showman’s site in the heart of one of the most rarefied parts of London.

But the story of the Abbotts’ lives in the Vale of Health, and their decision to leave, isn’t just about caricaturing raging north London elites. It raises broader, more complex questions. About the place that itinerant communities have within our society. About who gets to profit and benefit from protected land. Above all, the Abbott story spotlights an overlooked community who are an integral part of the heritage of Hampstead and life across the country – a community whose lifeblood is the business of entertaining others.

The brothers have mixed feelings about the sale of the site. They felt that residents, with their ‘million-pound houses’ and ‘fancy cars’ obstructed their ability to sell the yard at what they believed it was worth. ‘It was as though we weren’t allowed the cream,’ Cy says. Still, moving on has projected them forward to where they are today. They’re based in Cambridge and have grown the family business, despite the challenges of running fairground rides in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis. Cy is particularly proud of New York, which he takes to the Nottingham Goose Fair, one of the biggest in the country, which historians have dated back to 1248. ‘Just to be open at that fair, you’ve already made it. You’re at the top of your job. You go there, you’re rubbing shoulders with the elite and it’s amazing,’ he says. Even better, New York was crowned Best Ride at the fair. ‘The best ride at the best fair in the country. Winning the award was incredible. That was a wow moment. It’s giving me goosebumps now just talking about it.’ Cy hopes that his twin sons will take over the business when they’re older. And one day, when he’s ready, he’ll take them back to the Vale of Health so they can understand their heritage, and the connection the Abbott family have with the land. ‘I would call Hampstead my home until the day I die.’


This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.

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