Uni girl's fairground attraction

The papers have been full of stories about Zoah Hedges-Stocks - the young woman who spent childhood summers on the fairgrounds and is now a Cambridge University student. She tells Steven Russell how her dream came true

Steven Russell

The papers have been full of stories about Zoah Hedges-Stocks - the young woman who spent childhood summers on the fairgrounds and is now a Cambridge University student. She tells Steven Russell how her dream came true

ZOAH Hedges-Stocks still can't believe it. “I had a telegram - a telegram! - from This Morning, saying 'We'd like you to be on.' It's all a bit crazy,” she says breathlessly, eyes bright with excitement. The slogan on her shirt could not be more apt. Keep Calm and Carry On, it urges. Good advice. A life already extraordinary has indeed gone a bit bonkers in the past few weeks for a young woman barely out of her teens before she was nudged into the spotlight. Her picture has run in many national papers and she's been a guest on the BBC Radio 4 programme Midweek. Now three companies - including Tiger Aspect Productions - want to make documentaries about her life and many other newspapers are intrigued by her story. Her university has now allocated her a press officer, such has been the level of interest, “and we have a 'media strategy', whatever one of those is”. The 20-year-old grins about how things have mushroomed. “I've had college say 'We're going to have to inform the porters in case we have any freelance reporters trying to harass you outside the gates!'”

The reason for all the hoo-hah is that this first-year history student at Cambridge just happens to hail from a long-established family of travelling showmen, stretching back at least to 1821 and probably beyond. Each year, as a schoolgirl, she'd miss the summer term and instead travel with the funfair from town to town, helping her mum sell candy-floss, sweets and toffee-apples. The approach of autumn signalled a return to Leiston, where they had a plot of land - known as a yard. Home for Zoah until the age of 14 was a caravan. Then her mother bought a chalet/park home - which allowed the teenager to have her own bedroom for the first time and make concrete her dream of sleeping in a princessy four-poster bed.

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Of course, the fact Zoah's become a news item is essentially a reflection of society's benign prejudices. The subconscious question underpinning all the interest is “Surely a travelling fairground worker can't be intelligent enough to go to university, let alone Cambridge?” Shame on us. She's as bright as a button - and certainly isn't the first child of a showman's family at this seat of East Anglian academe.

Practical learning, she says, is what being a traveller is all about. “I mentioned to someone else that formal education is seen as not really relevant. That doesn't mean travellers are stupid; we learn what we need to learn naturally. I learnt maths by giving change on the kiosk. Not having a formal education doesn't mean you're not sharp.

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“A young man (from a travelling background) got in touch with me who's hoping to study medicine at Oxford, which is really exciting. I like to think it doesn't matter where you come from.”

Another grin. “I've got a great T-shirt from Florida. It says The best girls are from a trailer park.” Not that she is. “But I just had to buy it.”

We meet in an Ipswich coffee-house. Zoah - it rhymes with Noah - is back in Suffolk to drop off a tonne of novels she thought she'd have time to read in Cambridge but didn't; to have her hair done, and to see mischievous dog Tyke, a six- or seven-year-old Jack Russell. Not for Ealife the press officer route or wondering how we fit into a media strategy; we got in touch the modern way - via Facebook . . .

Zoah's happy to be featured on home turf: Stocks funfair being synonymous with Suffolk. “I see people in Ipswich and think 'I know that person . .' I might not know their name, but I've served them candy-floss every year for the last five years!”

Top of her list of priorities during this flying visit is to spend time with mum Bernice. It was she who carefully managed the pennies so her little daughter could have a couple of mornings a week at a Montessori nursery school down the road. Zoah went on to Middleton Primary School, where mum liked the smallish class sizes, and thence to Leiston Middle and Leiston High.

The yard pretty much backed on to the middle school, and Bernice would often pass unsold candy-floss over the fence for her daughter to share with friends!

Mum arrives at the coffee-house now and for a minute or two it's all hugs and kisses and catching up on news.

Zoah was born three and a half months premature, weighing only 995g and losing weight in the early weeks. Doctors were sceptical of her chances of survival, believing she would be brain damaged, blind or confined to a wheelchair if she lived, but the tot defied the odds and grew up with a thirst for stories and knowledge.

Her mum laughs. “Sweets, she wasn't bothered about. We had a kiosk full of sweets. She never went on a sweet ban if she was naughty; she went on a reading ban!

“We were in Cambridge once and went into a shop to buy a book. We were going to start buying The Chronicles of Narnia, book by book. There was this lovely box-set, and she really wanted it. Oh dear; haven't really got that much money. But we afforded it, anyway. Walking back to the common, she says 'Mum, my face hurts.' 'What's the matter? Why does it hurt?' 'Because I'm smiling so much. I'm so excited about my books!'”

When Zoah was little, teachers told her she could go to university when she left school. Yes, she thought, that's what I'll do. Not that she knew much about universities beyond the fact there was one in Cambridge, where each year she and her mum set up camp for the big midsummer fair. But a seed was planted.

She was thrilled with an offer from Murray Edwards College (formerly New Hall) and needed straight A-grades at A-level. Nearly got them, too - falling just 11 marks shy in philosophy and ethics. (Zoah thinks the departure during the year of one of her teachers for health reasons had an effect.)

She called the college to find out how she stood and was told they'd ring the next day. Cue the most anxious 24 hours of her life . . . and then indescribable ecstasy (plus a few tears) for mother and daughter when the call came.

“It feels like you're holding your breath for 24 hours,” recalls Bernice. “It's the best experience in the world - like winning the lottery. You can't take it in.”

As well as having some fantastic teachers, there was assistance from a friend's mother who had worked at King's College. She spent hours helping Zoah with mock interviews and offering an insight into how the Oxbridge system worked.

Funnily enough, for the bulk of her school career it looked as if Zoah would read English at university.

The penny began to drop as she revised for her A/S-level exams - studying hyper-inflation in Weimar Germany, of all things. “I was really struggling, because it was complicated economic stuff, and then I realised, watching the news, that what was happening in Zimbabwe was sort of a parallel and I got really excited. Mum said 'Why don't you do history? You really love history.' Yeah . . .”

Eleven days at an Eton College summer school in 2008 confirmed it.

“One of the moments when I knew it had to be history was a morning we'd been looking at Paradise Lost and in the afternoon they took us to Milton's house and I learned he was Oliver Cromwell's spin doctor - he wrote a lot of Cromwell's speeches - and so the paradise that was lost, to him, was the dream of an English republic. I thought 'Wow, that's exciting! Forget the poetry! - I want to be reading about the real human emotions behind it.”

That summer school - designed, she says, to give children from state schools a taste of what Oxbridge life might entail - was “like Disneyland for kids that like learning . . . They showed us a first-edition copy of Byron's Don Juan; I saw part of the original manuscript of On the Origin of Species; the graffiti Shelley did as a schoolboy. Awesome!”

About five months into her first year as an undergraduate and she's loving the way the course is stretching her, even if it has its stressful moments. Like being presented with a reading list, a history-related question, and the requirement to deliver a 3,000-word essay within about a week.

Bernice says: “Sunday and Monday I can't really talk to her much.” Zoah explains: “They're 'essay crisis days'. The essay has to be in Tuesday at 10am, and that afternoon you go into a room with a world expert and you're expected to discuss it!”

She's a bit surprised fellow students are so curious about her background and way of life. In Leiston, where her family has been part of the scene for about 55 years, “I was just that girl who goes away every year and then moves back for autumn.

“When I get to Cambridge, it's 'You do what?!' There have been a couple of times when someone's asked me a question about it at dinner and half an hour later I'll realise there are about 10 people listening . . . and I've been taking about myself all that time.

“Do we love the life? It's a difficult question to answer. It is just life. It's like saying 'How do you feel about oxygen?' You don't really consider it!”

The average man in the street probably wouldn't note a distinction between travelling showmen, travellers and gipsies, and probably wouldn't view any in a favourable light. Has Zoah encountered much prejudice?

“I had it at school. We are technically travelling showmen, but when you're talking amongst yourself that's a bit of a mouthful, so we tend to say 'travellers'. But then, like you say, that tends to have connotations with lots of groups who aren't anything to do with us and have got, sadly, quite a negative image.

“So I would get a bit of abuse at school: filthy gipsy, gippo, pikey - that sort of thing. Which is not only offensive, it's factually inaccurate. Once people realised that I would stick up for myself” - sarcasm and ignoring the offenders were her main defences - “it became less of an issue. People might still say it, but it would be in a crowded corridor, behind my back. At which point I stopped caring!

“I know where I come from and I'm proud of it.”

Will she be joining mum at the fairs when the summer term ends? “Definitely! I'm her right-hand girl; she needs me!”

And when she graduates in 2012? “Being rich very much figures in my plan,” she laughs. “I'd quite like to be a journalist.” (Forget the fortunes, then . . .) Writing is what I really enjoy, though I might end up getting a more 'sensible' job, like something in the civil service.

“My mum has always said 'I'll be proud of you whatever you do.'

“I've got scars on the back of my hand from the tubes that were keeping me alive, and there's a scar round my eyebrow where the forceps slipped, so I look in the mirror and I know I'm lucky to be alive - let alone to be where I am.”

If it's May, it must be Framlingham . . .

FOR a travelling showman, spring's a time to relish. “You kind of get itchy feet: a feeling inside that's anxiousness/excitement. It's like today: I felt I should be getting ready to move,” smiles Bernice, mother of Zoah Hedges-Stocks and granddaughter of showman Bert Stocks. Bernice, who's spending the winter working for a Suffolk florist, says the fairground lifestyle gets in your blood.

“One week, we'll open our caravan door and there's Framlingham Castle. The next week we're at Southwold Trinity Fair and you're near the sea. It's a lovely life when you're a child. Fairgrounds tend to be like a small village that moves every week, and everybody knows everyone else.”

The life's not nomadic, though. Zoah and her mum know, for instance, that late May always means Framlingham Gala. Their circuit essentially follows the same pattern every year; it's only the timing of Easter that sometimes shifts the order of events, or the tides that determine the dates of regattas later in the season.

Zoah knows her mum's kiosk occupies a space where grandmother's stall used to stand, and where great-grandma Violet's pitch could be found before that. Most events have featured on their calendar since the war - some longer than that.

The season traditionally begins at Easter in Bramford Road, Ipswich, before moving on to Great Yarmouth, Haverhill, Bardwell near Bury St Edmunds, Hadleigh Show, Framlingham Gala, Southwold Trinity Fair, possibly back to Haverhill, and then on to Cambridge's big Midsummer Fair in June. There's Kesgrave Music Festival, carnivals at Stowmarket, Beccles and Aldeburgh, and West Mersea Town Regatta.

The Bardwell date in early May is interesting. Children of showmen would often spend

the week at the village school, says Zoah, and it was something of a tradition for travelling children to be christened in

the parish church on the Sunday.

For the last four or so years, Zoah and her mum have returned to Leiston for the exam period. “It's quite amusing,” says the undergraduate, “because for the last few years I haven't been at Cambridge Midsummer Fair . . . because I've been studying hard so I can go to Cambridge!”

Half-term report

Zoah is grateful to the Rotary Club of Saxmundham & District for a �750-a-year bursary. “That's meant I haven't had to be so anxious about money as some of the other students”

She actually can't stand candy-floss!

But she likes the sound of rain on a caravan roof. It helps her get to sleep

Zoah's mum's from the Stocks family

The student's dad, a member of the Hedges clan, winters in Witham

They all work the same fairs about eight times a year

Zoah has a sister and two brothers

A highlight of her time in Cambridge has been meeting Stephen Fry, who gave a talk to students

In the dialect of travelling showmen, people living in houses are called joskins

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