Sunday, 19 September 2021

Sir William’s wacky weekend

AS birthday celebrations go, it was somewhat unusual.

AS birthday celebrations go, it was somewhat unusual.

There were racing camels, a “unicorn”, a world record attempt for the most Labradors in one place at once and a visit by a member of the royal family.

This was the Fawley Hill Steam and Vintage Transport Festival, held at the estate of Sir William and Lady McAlpine over the weekend and attended by thousands of people despite the rain.

The event was also a celebration of steam enthusiast Sir William’s 80th birthday and he was presented with several birthday messages, including a book signed by all the engine drivers invited to the event.

The attractions included 80 traction engines as well as steam rollers, commercial vehicles, tractors, steam cars, vintage and veteran cars, a military display, tanks and fire engines.

Several vehicles became stuck in the mud and had to be towed out by tractors while others were brought in and out of the venue on lorries.

The festival, which is held annually, began on a wet Friday evening with motorbike displays, an air display team and the Rock on the Hill concert featuring DJ Mike Read and Elton John and Elvis Presley tribute acts.

Families enjoyed rides around the 250-acre estate on a train pulled by Sir William’s Hudswell Clarke saddle tank engine No 31. They could also visit the railway museum on site and see the many unusual animals kept at the estate.

There were performances in the “big top” by bands including Annie and the Dough Boys and Sam Brown’s International Ukelele Club of Sonning Common.

Over the weekend, the attractions included agricultural machinery dating back to the 19th century, motorbikes such as a First World War Triumph and several steam cars from the 1890s.

Among the vintage cars was a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost which drove 2,500 miles over the Alps in 2013, a Ford Model T and a Sunbeam light sports tourer used in the 1969 film Oh! What A Lovely War.

Nick and Wendy Sargent, who run Fawley Vineyard, had several vehicles at the event, including a 1933 Rolls Royce Phantom.

Mrs Sargent said: “It was a fantastic event and it always has been. It was a lot of fun and very well organised. We’ve been going since the original and it’s wonderful.”

On Saturday, the crowds were treated to camel racing. The riders raced the animals along the straight course with a prize of oats and carrots awaiting the winner at the finish line.

The camels included Kokoso, famous for his appearances in British comedy film Nativity!

On Sunday, Prince Michael of Kent arrived on a traditional London red bus.

A Swiss Panzer tank, complete with a gun turret, did laps around the main arena.

There was also a large number of American vehicles, many from the Second World War.

War planes including Spitfires and Hurricanes flew over the venue and there were also hot air balloons and gliders.

The Great War Display Team re-enacted a First World War aerial combat with tri-planes and bi-planes including a Fokker and German Junkers.

The Red Devils parachute regiment display team “dropped in”. The eight-man team carried the Union flag as they descended and were introduced to the McAlpines once on the ground.

More than 150 dogs and their owners gathered in an attempt to set a new world record for the most Labradors in an open space.

Lady McAlpine, who owns two Labradors herself, came up with the idea.

The attempt was compered by TV presenter Ben Fogle, who owns Labradors and has written a book on the history of the breed.

The owners paraded their pets around the arena and Fogle read out the name of each one, including Shadow, a black lab belonging to Prince Michael. The proceeds of the attempt will go to Medical Assistance Dogs.

Food and drink vendors included Tara Cole, daughter of actor George Cole, with Daisy the ice cream van.

Nuffield sheep farmer Tracy “Bill” Betteridge ran sheepdog demonstrations and there was a traditional dog show, judged by Erik d’Arcy Donnelly, of the Henley Veterinary Centre, in the venue’s “Ironhenge”, a circle made of old columns from St Pancras station in London.

There was also a “unicorn” on display at the estate, provided by Unicorn Magic of Telford.

Children could dress up as a princess or fairy for their picture with the unicorn, which was played by a white horse called Tornado. The festival was first held 10 years ago and has been held in some form every year since then.

This year it was raising money for 36 charities, including the Henley Handybus and the Chiltern Centre for disabled children in Henley, as well as 25 conservation groups.

Lady McAlpine said: “It was a brilliant weekend despite the wretched rain. We’ve had so much good feedback already and I have thousands of emails to look through.

“One local farmer phoned to say how impressed he was and said it was like an old country show. Somebody else said their 10- and 12-year-old kids left kicking and screaming. It was a shame that the traction engines couldn’t get into the ring on Sunday because of the mud but we showed the British wartime spirit and wouldn’t be defeated.

“We had some fantastic cars this time. I’m a car girl and I loved the great collection of American cars.”

She said her husband enjoyed himself, adding: “People like to make a fuss of him. I didn’t do as much as I would have liked — I had a lot more ‘Billsday’ activities planned.”

Lady McAlpine said she had been persuaded to change her mind about not staging another festival.

“I will happily do it again but I’d like some youngsters next time to help me with all the admin because I’ve been doing it all on my own,” she said.

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