(I’ve been slow to blog about going to Thursford because I’ve been meaning to tweak my photos and a couple of attempts at it aren’t right. (The colour temperature is all wrong on the natural shots and the flash shots make the things look far too cruel). As a temporary measure I have used Thursford’s own website banner to set the scene, I hope they don’t mind).
The Thursford collection is a visitor attraction in the little village of Thursford in Norfolk. This was my fourth visit and the second for the rest of the family. It is a fairground museum, celebrating traction engines, mechanical organs and a couple of steam driven rides, namely a carousel, a gondola ride and a smaller kiddie carousel.
Like many such things, this was originally a private collection of one George Cushing who had a haulage business with fifteen steam rollers and then started to collect them in later years as they went out of favour. He was also fascinated in fairground steam rides and mechanical organs.
The collection was originally housed in several barns around his farm and is now mostly in one very large industrial type farm shed building, carefully painted and disguised to distract the eye from its functional nature.
My favourite item there is the switchback gondola ride which also describes itself as a scenic railway. The eight person gondola boats undulate around an elliptical track and it is a riot of fairground woodcarving art, built by the celebrated Frederick Savage. The ride is fairly bumpy and you have to hang on at times but whilst you revolve, you are accompanied by a very noisy and lively fairground organ.
Thursford has a timetable of how it works that seems to have changed little in twenty years. First they run the Gondolas and the carousel for thirty minutes or so, playing a few numbers on each ride. Then they play a song from each of the mechanical organs around the perimeter of the hall. This is followed by an Organ recital on their mighty Wurlitzer and then the process repeats again. (The museum typically opens from 12 noon to 5pm in the summer, with Organ concerts at 1:30pm and 3pm).
There were two ride operators in evidence, one to work the rides and the other to attend to the book music. The music man wore a pair of ear defenders as he would have been in constant exposure to the racket. He appeared to be enjoying himself, high fiving carousel riders and dancing along to some of the tunes.
There were eight mechanical organs although only seven were playable as the eighth was being restored. (“No wind”, said the operator, “not many pipes either!” I replied.) They varied considerably in their decorative quality, pipe ranks and volume. The ones I always found the most interesting were the two Dutch Cafe organs, with their saxophones and accordions. (They look better than they sound as the Saxes are rather expressionless, compared to a saxophonist, unsurprisingly).
Mechanical Organs are generally made to be brash rather than subtle, with constraints on their ability to make the various ranks of pipes speak depending on the complexity of the mechanism. Nonetheless, they can sound great, particularly playing music they were designed for. They are often referred to by how many “keys” they have which is a misnomer as they generally don’t have a keyboard. Instead they have small levers that operate as they feel holes in the music book which passes above. (Conversely, ones powered by rolls work by change in air pressure and are truly keyless). In case anyone isn’t aware, they aren’t powered by steam, instead they would have a mechanical feed from a nearby traction engine which worked a bellows air pump to pressurise the air chests, provide wind to the pipes when required and to work the mechanism. (Over time, they were upgraded to use electric motors powered from the traction engine dynamos, along with all of the decorative lighting).
The one organ that does have keyboards at Thursford is a very large Wurlitzer Cinema Organ which was originally installed in the Leeds Paramount in 1932 (and removed in the Seventies). It is also synonymous with one particular Organist- Robert Wolfe, who has worked at Thursford for a staggering 27 years now and I still think of as a very fresh faced young man from first seeing him in the 80s (although he is now in his mid forties, of course). He gives a good show with a wide repertoire (is it two shows ore one with a long intermission?) and the use of CCTV helps you see his hands and feet move, particularly when he does his trademark waterfall cascade style in the big numbers.
Something else that has developed at Thursford is the stage. Originally it was a small platform with the organ chambers behind and you could see into them as the swell shutters opened. Now the stage is about fifty feet wide with a permanent set and enough stage lighting to keep a West End Electrician happy. The reason for this is that Thursford do massive Christmas shows, something that has progressively grown in scale over the years and are probably just as important to the Trust as the summer season is (They had some 2007 show colour programmes available and the shows looked spectacular with lavish costumes and numerous routines)
One minor disappointment to me is that they have never actually excavated a deep enough pit with backstage access for the Organ console- it is on an organ lift but it doesn’t go completely from view, so Robert has to walk on stage at the start then at the end when he lowers it, he has to raise it up a bit again so he can climb out and walk off. Having said all this, the presentation is very theatrical and contrasts sharply with “The Village” at Fleggburgh (now closed) where the start of the Organ Concert was announced by the rattle of the industrial barn roller shutter being lowered.
I lurk on a theatre organ mailing list and there was much mirth there recently when someone stumbled over a tongue in cheek cameraphone review of a visit to the place on YouTube. I found the “Dollops of life enhancing Christmas joy” but “Buchanan’s chocolate ass creams were not to be found”.