Gallery: They come by night to spread festive joy

Still 300-odd shopping days between now and Christmas, but some folk are already planning how to make our towns sparkle next December.

Steven Russell

Still 300-odd shopping days between now and Christmas, but some folk are already planning how to make our towns sparkle next December. Steven Russell meets a family experienced in bringing tidings of comfort and joy

IF you're a person who dreads hauling the fairy-lights down from the loft each December - finding them as tangled as a schoolboy's shoelaces and stubbornly refusing to glow when plugged in - spare a thought for the Loades clan and their team. Each festive season they put up thousands of twinkly lights for our delight - in shopping centres and streets - and take them down once the figs and chocolate oranges are eaten. They also design and install several department store grottos. Christmas might be over for most of us, but it rather rumbles on for Santa's little helpers. Many of the displays and fittings are checked and maintained before being stored away for the summer, though some tasks are scheduled for later in the year. Easter, for instance, usually brings the checking of the pea-lights - the familiar size of Christmas lights. That accounts for nearly a week's work at the Buttermarket Shopping Centre in Ipswich, where its decorations are kept, and then there's another two weeks or so of toil with other lights stashed in the Loades family warehouse on the edge of town.

And this time of year is when plans for the next yuletide season really need to be laid, illogical as it might seem. “In some ways, Christmas has already started,” admits Martin Loades, works director of the family business. “We've already been to Birmingham, to the spring fair, and looked at Christmas products and lighting.”

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Successful preparation now, including establishing what their customers might be wanting for December 2009, avoids last-minute panics in October. That's when the pace quickens and lighting displays are checked after their summer hibernation. All the bits and bobs are put in order, ready to go out on schedule and be put up at the end of the month and into November.

“I think there's about 250,000 pea-lights that we look after - the standard bulbs in the precincts, on decorations,” says Martin. “Outdoors? . . . it goes on! I don't know how many metres of icicle lighting we put up at Bury St Edmunds last year, but it was a lot!”

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Installations go up overnight, after most shoppers and store staff have gone home, and the teams are away before the regular working day begins again - leaving fairy dust (well, sparkling lights and tinsel) as the only evidence of their presence.

“Bury takes four nights to put up everything,” says Martin. “We took it down in a night, but it was hard work. We started at five o'clock and finished at three in the morning, and we literally stopped just for 15 minutes to eat a McDonald's. We had two teams and they did work very hard that night.”

His father, John, explains there's a schedule that has to be kept to whatever the weather throws at them, with wind the only element, really, that threatens to disrupt the best-laid plans. “Unless it's absolutely so wet that you really, really can't be out in it, you've got to be prepared to work in the rain, though probably not in a storm.”

So how did all this come about?

“It all started out I don't know how many years ago - 10 years ago-ish - when I was in the town (Ipswich) and looked at what we had: very sad lights,” explains John. “We knew the town centre manager very well. I said to him we would perhaps be able to come up with something that was a bit better.

“So we started designing Christmas lights specifically for Ipswich and put just a few ideas into practice the first year, and they started putting up some of our lights. It slowly grew from there to the point that within four years we'd replaced just about all the lights.”

That led to the Loadeses being contracted to put up the Buttermarket Shopping Centre lights in the town - something they still do. The Rookery in Newmarket (now The Guineas Shopping Centre) came next. Clacton Shopping Village offered the chance to design new Christmas lights, and the Suffolk business has put up bulbs and decorations for the past four years at what's now called Clacton Factory Outlet. The Tower Ramparts Shopping Centre in Ipswich also engaged their services.

The family dealt with the Ipswich town centre lights for four years, though it hasn't done so for the past couple of years. In 2008, a relationship was forged with Bury St Edmunds and the Loadeses did the honours for Christmas just gone.

As well as servicing and revamping the lights Bury already had, the business was also able to design a few new ones. One was a 30ft-long Welcome to Bury St Edmunds sign that adorned a wall by Moyses Hall.

There was a stroke of good fortune a few years back when they were down at Earls Court in London for a big amusement trades exhibition and bumped into the manager of the Buttermarket and his boss. “She said she'd got a shopping centre at Havant in Hampshire” - the Meridian Shopping Centre - “with really tired Christmas lights. 'Are you interested in having a look?' We've been doing that five Christmases now, and are quoting for another three.”

The family also provides Father Christmas grottos for Co-op stores in Ipswich (plus an animated window tableau) and Norwich, and organises a window display at the Great Yarmouth shop. Clacton Factory Outlet has also had a grotto.

They're also the folk who have done the hard physical graft in putting up and decorating the Evening Star Christmas tree on Ipswich Cornhill.

John smiles at some of the things people say about Christmas lights.

“Whatever you put up, the public will soon think it's been there for years. When we put the brand-new decorations up in Ipswich, people walked past and said 'Oh, same old rubbish as last year, then.' You just have to learn to ignore it.”

Of course, everyone wants their lights to come down bang on Twelfth Night, but - unlike Father Christmas - John, Martin and their crew can't get round everywhere in one night. A schedule has to be worked out that everyone is happy with.

Shopping centres generally don't mind their decorations coming down earlyish, as the focus has moved on to the sales. Towns often like to hang on to their lights for a while as they make the streets look jolly.

“Martin gets it organised like a military operation and we don't often go wrong or forget anything, do we?” smiles his dad.

Martin himself says: “We had New Year's Day off and then we were taking lights down.” January 2 meant a night of graft in Newmarket, followed by other dismantlings. “My wife's birthday is the fourth of January, so she's really happy! I said 'Have to get used to it . . . While we're taking lights down, we'll always be working.'

“But then, later, you can have three days off, and if you want to go and do something, most of the time you can. It has its plus points.

“I couldn't work for anyone else full-time. Too regimented. We're lucky that, if we get bored, there's always a different job to do. Leave it for a couple of days, do something different, and then come back to it. I couldn't do a job that was the same day in, day out. Drive me crackers.”

Does Christmas ever lose its magic for them, seeing as they're thinking deeply about it just after summer, working hard through October and November, and then tying up the loose ends at Easter?

“I shall now be getting it back, because I've got a little girl, born at the end of September, so this Christmas she'll be into it and the sparkle will hopefully come back a bit,” grins Martin.

His dad adds: “It's nice that we're involved in the tradition and fun of Christmas. We are, I suppose, brightening people's lives a little, so that when they do come to town they have something to look at - and can look at for nothing. It's nice we've got that little element attached to our business.”

DESIGNING, maintaining and stringing up festive lighting is only one part of the Loades business. They also own the Belgian chocolate shop in Woodbridge - and then there's the children's amusements side.

Operating under the banner “Loades for Loads of Fun”, the enterprise takes rides such as an inflatable slide, a roundabout, swing-boats and an inflatable adventure playground out on the road during the summer. They've also got candyfloss and popcorn kiosks.

Traditional fetes and similar events are becoming more of a headache, says John Loades, because legislative changes and insurance issues are a deterrent to potential organisers, but the business is lucky in having some good locations and dates.

Ipswich Music Day is on the calendar, for instance, along with three days at Aldeburgh Carnival, Martlesham Heath's Music on the Green showpiece, school events, and two annual visits to Great Yarmouth for the horse-racing - over Easter and August bank holiday.

It all started when John's father many years ago built a beautifully-engineered, scaled-down, model fairground - featuring working gallopers, a cakewalk and so on - and at weekends toured the country with it in a trailer, visiting fetes, shows and so on.

“By the time I was born he'd got enough for two shows, so we used to go round too and I was dragged around the country,” smiles Martin. “We did about 7,000 miles every summer.” (The miniatures later appeared on a number of TV programmes, such as Motormouth, Pebble Mill at One, and Runaround with Mike Reid.)

John worked at the Ipswich printers WS Cowell until his early 30s, when he took redundancy and the chance of taking the miniature fairground on the road and seeing what could be done with it. “We did all right for a year and then petrol prices took a sharp rise and suddenly there was no money in it, and we found this site at Lowestoft.”

It was on the seafront, by the lifeboat station. They offered rides such as the roundabout and swing-boats they still have today, and radio-controlled boats. “It kept us fed for a few years but it wasn't ever going to lead anywhere.”

The family ran the site for seven summers, from 1982 to 1988, but the rent got too dear and they were limited as to what they could do there. So they said goodbye to Lowestoft and started taking the rides to fetes and similar events.

Their roundabout is a familiar sight on Ipswich Cornhill at Christmas - and it's there during this half-term week, too.

Of course, being outside means your business is at the mercy of the good old British weather. A bad run of days isn't great. “We have a saying: you can take a day's takings in a month, and you can take a month's takings in a day. But when you have a good 'touch', you have a very good touch,” says John, whose house-name, Fairlands, symbolises the family's roots.

“I always say on paper we should be rich, but it doesn't seem to work that way! You never seem to keep the money that has been made.” It costs about �5,000 to take to the road at the start of a new season, he says, once public liability insurance, vehicle testing fees and other expenses are added up.

Martin admits that while he went to college after leaving school, his intention was always to come into the business. He's got plenty of strings to his bow - qualifications in lorry-driving, electrical skills, welding and engineering - to ensure he has plenty on his plate all year round.

“I keep busy. I spent all last winter working on a project at Bentwaters Park, putting in a six-megawatt- generator substation, run on biofuel. That was very interesting.”

His dad's cousin owns a static caravan park at Felixstowe, so he goes down there to help with bits and pieces, too - including wiring up a substation a few years ago - and he does some driving for showmen he knows. “Move some of the rides about, which is a bit of fun. A lorry and two trailers - 85ft long on the road. Never a dull moment!”

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