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Celebrating 50 years of Dorset Steam Fair

PUBLISHED: 11:08 06 August 2018 | UPDATED: 11:08 06 August 2018

A line-up of engines at the 2008 show

A line-up of engines at the 2008 show


One of the world’s most famous steam fairs celebrates its 50th anniversary this August, Emma Fernandez talks to a family which has been immersed in Dorset’s steam scene since the early days

Robert Coles has been involved with the Great Dorset Steam Fair (GDSF) since its early days. Over the years the 60-year-old has played a major role in curating many of the special sections, including being part of the team planning the celebrations for this year’s milestone. Robert also owns the magnificent showman’s engine Quo Vadis - the flagship engine for the show.

The Oliver family, who established the Great Dorset Steam Fair back in 1969, have been friends with the Coles for many years. Jenny Duncombe (nee Coles), Robert’s 31-year-old daughter joined ‘Team Steam’ in 2017 as PA to Martin Oliver, managing director of GDSF. Martin is the third generation of the Oliver family to be running this annual event.

As you can imagine with a dad like Robert, Jenny has been immersed in steam her whole life - she attended her first GDSF when she was just six months old and she has been every year since. The trio have been heavily involved in the planning of the 500@50 steam event – featuring 500 steam powered engines from around the world.

What is your earliest memory of the GDSF?

Robert: Visiting it as a 12 year-old and marvelling at all the showman’s engines and the ploughing engines, it was a remarkable sight. I also saw Quo Vadis (the GDSF flagship engine). I had seen this engine being done up by Mr Hines and there she was all finished and proudly on show. Little did I know that nearly 30 years later I would own her!

Jenny: Looking out at the lights of the fair from Dad’s living hut at the GDSF when we were supposed to be going to sleep. Dad eventually let me and my brother Philip put our overalls on over our pyjamas and go back down to the fair with him. Seeing all the smoke, the lights and the noise of the fair after dark is still a special moment for me.

Robert with his daughter Jenny on her wedding day, with one of the steam engines behindRobert with his daughter Jenny on her wedding day, with one of the steam engines behind

Is steam a family tradition?

Robert: I actually started with stationary engines and tractors, then worked my way into steam. So I suppose that I started it as a family tradition.

Jenny: My son adores all things steam so that will be a third generation. I certainly have a lot to thank my Dad and Mum for supporting me and my brothers in our hobbies. We are all passionate about the whole vintage movement, and we are blessed to have met so many lovely people through our interests over the years. I even met my husband at the GDSF!

What are you most excited about seeing this year?

Robert: Meeting all the people involved in the various preservation movements. They are coming from all over the world to see all the exhibits, some of which are rarely seen. I am part of the team who puts these special sections together. You’re always a little bit nervous about having such rare pieces in your care, you want to make sure they are well looked after.

Jenny: Hosting the biggest gathering of steam engines in the world is going to be amazing. The ‘500 at 50’ event will be an official Guinness World Record attempt as steam engines from across the globe make their way to Dorset. It is a mammoth undertaking for the whole GDSF family but such a wonderful way to mark this milestone. We hope that this special 50th GDSF builds many more memories for all generations attending this landmark show.

ONe of the magificent engines at the first show in 1969ONe of the magificent engines at the first show in 1969

Let’s go to the Great Dorset Steam Fair!

The GDSF runs over the Bank Holiday weekend from 23 - 27 August at their showground at Tarrant Hinton. Check out their Facebook page Great Dorset Steam Fair for the latest secret unveilings. For a full list of events and tickets visit gdsf.co.uk.


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