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Roll up, roll up. The greatest shows on earth are about to begin;Places to go;Discovery series;Discover fairs

Britain's 250 travelling fairs no longer feature dwarfs and bearded ladies, but still buzz with colourful characters and rides both old and new high-tech. Among the best of those coming up are the Nottingham Goose Fair dating back to the 13th century, which is held at the end of September (tel: 01159 703808); Hull Fair, Britain's biggest week-long fair also dating back to the 13th century, held in October (tel: 01132 853341); Stratford-upon-Avon Mop Fair, originally a hiring fair for servants, held in October (tel: 0121 444 1363); and one of the oldest British fairs, Oxford St Giles Fair, held at the beginning of September (tel: 01784 454780).

Details of other travelling fairs are available from the National Fairground Archive, Sheffield University, tel: 0114 222 7231. It was founded by Dr Vanessa Toulmin five years ago with material donated by the Showmen's Guild of Great Britain. Vanessa was born at Winter Gardens Fair in Morecambe, Lancashire, and spins candyfloss and runs children's rides at weekend fairs. The collection comprises 32,000 photographs, books, films, videos, manuscripts and souvenirs. Web site:

One of the most flamboyant showmen of all time was Buffalo Bill, the great scout and tracker of the Wild West who went on to tour the United States and Britain with Annie "Get Your Gun" among others. This is your last chance to see the exhibition, Buffalo Bill's Wild West, which is running at the Royal Armouries, Leeds, until Sunday. It tells his extraordinary story and features the Deadwood Stagecoach, some of Annie Oakley's guns, a tipi, Cody's silver-inlaid saddle and lots more. Tel: 0113 220 1999.

The Thursford Museum, an enormous barn at Thursford Green, near Fakenham, Norfolk, is devoted to the fair and circus business. It has a beautiful 19th-century switchback Gondola ride, examples of mechanical organs and a mighty Wurlitzer (the fourth largest in Europe), which give daily performances. There is a collection of steam-driven road engines and of the more specialised and ornate showmen's engines, which hauled fairground and circus equipment and drove the electric generators. Every winter these exhibits make way for The Thursford Christmas Spectacular, the biggest in Britain, which is booked up a year in advance, although cancellations may be available. The museum collection is open from noon to 5pm from Good Friday to October 25. Bookings for the show, held twice daily mid November to December 23, are taken in writing from early January. Tel: 01328 878477.

Travellers and Sporting Men, an exhibition at The Museum of East Anglian Life, Abbot's Hall, Stowmarket, Suffolk, is devoted to gypsies and travelling showmen. Exhibits include a small gypsy encampment, a showman's van and part of a fairground site. Tel: 01449 612229.

Michael Crawford's death-defying portrayal of Barnum, the founder of "The Greatest Show on Earth", in the long-running musical of the same name did much to immortalise that great circus showman. There is also a Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut, which depicts his extraordinary life and his influence on 19th-century America. Its special exhibition, "Shocked and amazed: the world of side show", features those people with special talents or oddities he brought together in his American Museum in New York City. They include: General Tom Thumb, 643-pound Sweet Marie, "the sacred hairy family of Burma", Siamese twins Chang and Eng, giants and bearded ladies. Visitors can try items on for size, participate in novelty acts and assume the role of the "talker" to draw crowds to the side show. Admission: $5 adults, $3 children four to 18, children under four free. Address: 820 Main Street, Bridgeport, Connecticut 06604 tel: 001 203 331 1104 website:

Great Wurlitzer look-alikes and organs made 200 years ago are on display in The Barrel Organ Museum in Utrecht. There are also 100 year-old music boxes playing discs and paper rolls, a machine from 1910 which automatically plays three violins and a piano, and a 19th-century jukebox. Details of holidays from the Netherlands Board of Tourism, PO Box 523, London SW1, tel: 0891 717777.

German Christkindlesmarkte dating from the 16th century are traditional fairs for local residents. The oldest is at Nuremberg, November 26-December 24. More than 100 stalls, decorated in pine branches, cones and coloured lights, fill its cobbled square in December, all selling seasonal goods such as woodcarvings, wooden cribs, toys, musical boxes, old-fashioned Christmas decorations, gingerbread men and stollen. A festive cup of gluhwein helps the Christmas shopping along. Other German Christmas fairs include Stuttgartt, the largest and prettiest, Dresden's 500-year-old Strezelmarkt, Duesseldorf, Munich and Cologne. The German Tourist Office has details of them all on tel: 0171 317 0908.

A 17th-century frost fair is recreated every December at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London SE10. Tel: 0181 858 4422.

One of the most memorable scenes in the film, "The Third Man", starring Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten, is their confrontation in one of the carriages on Vienna's Big Wheel. Still a major landmark today, the views from it are terrific and the atmosphere of the fair itself could not be further from the sleazy, sinister one conveyed by the film. Details of Vienna breaks from Austrian National Tourist Office, PO Box 2363, London W1, tel: 0171 629 0461.

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