Monthly Archives: August 2015

Custom survived: The Brigg Horse Fair

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It was on the 5th of August, the weather fair and fine,
Unto Brigg Fair I did repair; for love I was inclined.

So famous a fair which became immortalised in the well-known folk song. However visiting on the day in the early 2000s I found a different story. The town sign clearly pronounced – Brigg – Town of the Horse Fair – but where was it? So famous a fair I thought would be much trumpeted with posters and banners. So I asked in the  Tourist Information Centre, they said they knew nothing? How strange I thought…then a local man learnt over to me and said in a quiet voice “It’s still on…they want to get rid of it and so are keeping quiet about it….it’s on the industrial estate on the edge of town.” Industrial estate I thought?

Horse whispers

It was a sad statement for an event which was the oldest of its kind in the country. Legendarily founded in 1204 in the Reign of King John it was an important charter fair which ran for five days. It may have originally been a general fair becoming a horse fair only later in its history. The sight of large numbers of horses and their assembled traveller community was a memorable site.

The Fair has in recent years apparently had a tenuous hold on survival. Maureen Sutton notes that it was in rapid decline in the early 1990s. She notes that in 1995 a new committee took it over the organisation and the fair was revivatilised and in 1997 80 horses were present. Morris dancers and local folk singers attended as well….these sadly were nowhere to be seen in the early 2000s.

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Of course in the world of NIMBYism an event which attracts large numbers of traveller folk was always in modern times to be not looked upon favourably and one wonders whether this was behind the councils attend to sequester it. Certainly if Maureen Sutton (1996) account is anything to go by in her Lincolnshire Calendar, the attendees were not shy of sharp practices.  An 89 year old man recalls:

“Oh aye, Brigg Fair, I seed it with me own eyes, I seed it. I was a boy of ten and me dad took me. Me dad bought twenty horses and one of them was lame, it it had sort of – like this, gristle in the leg. When they run with others up and down they kept this one to the wall side on the street, when they run them back again they made sure it was hid in the others, tricksters – they were that. I seed it bit I was too daft to tell me dad, lame it were – no good.”

Such activity was sure to make in unpopular. Indeed the reluctance to ‘allow’ the proper fair resulted In 2003 with two fairs occurring one unofficial one with horses the official one didn’t! Then the original fair site disappeared under a Tesco supermarket and an alternative could not be found and so the fair did not occur. Even barriers were placed across Station Street to prevent the traditional trotting of ponies, due to the danger to the general public…All this appeared to send the message that the fair or rather its traditional attendees were not welcome!

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Horsing around
Certainly there was a depressing and subdued atmosphere at the industrial estate – a very perfunctory place for a fair. Yet it was like stepping into another age. The roads were lined with caravans, stalls selling china and jewellery mainly and of course horse boxes with their horses and ponies sheltered in their shade. Nearby men had hushed conservations, every now punctuated with hand slapping and an occasional laugh. Up and down the lanes people milled around examining the materials on the stalls or else being curious. Every now and then a trap would come by with a pony trotting along. There was a feeling of being an intruder into another world – this was long before the media’s obsession with Gypsies – and certainly I experienced a number of furtive and concerned looks from the attendees – why was I taking photos they may have thought.
As I took these photos of the dying world I thought that this would be one of the last…but somethings customs can have greater resilience than that. Perhaps thanks to a combination a better organisation, that increased desire to preserve old customs and the media appeal of the travellers and their customs the Brigg Fair is bigger and better than ever.  Now the event starts with a parade of horses for the entertainment of the crowds…which sounds like a long way away from the trotting ban of early in the 20th century.

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Custom revived: The Inspection of the Gibson Mausoleum Sutton

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What! I was writing this blog page on this unique demised custom…then it was revived! Good news for this is perhaps strangest of demised customs was the annual inspection of the Gibson Tomb at Sutton in Surrey held every 12th August. A record in the charities reads:

In the will of Mrs Elizabeth Gibson, spinster, dated 7 December 1786 “ I give the sum of £500 four percent Bank Annuities unto the Minister and Churchwardens (for the time being) of the said Parish of Sutton in the County of Surrey, in trust, to pay and apply the interest to the future repair of the said monument and vault as often as need or occasion shall require; and in the meantime I direct the interest of the said £500 to be laid out in the purchase of shoes and stockings for the poor people and children of the said Parish at the discretion of the Ministers and Churchwardens for the time being.

Mrs Mary Gibson by her last Will gave and bequeathed to the Minister and Churchwardens, for the time being, of the Parish of Sutton in the County of Surrey; £500 three per cent consolidated Bank Annuities on trust to be applied as follows: Five pounds to the Minister of Sutton for the time being for ever for preaching a sermon on the twelfth of August every year. Five pounds to be distributed that day at Church to the poor in every year by the Churchwardens. One pound to be paid to the Clerk of the said parish for the time being on that day in every year. Four pounds to be divided between the Churchwardens on that day in every year, on condition that the said Churchwardens do attend on the said twelfth of August in every year and survey and examine the monument and family vault of the Gibsons, and if any reparations or amendments are wanting that they do apply and certify the same to the Governors and Guardians of Christ’s Hospital, and if they should refuse or neglect to repair and amend the aforesaid monument within the limited time that the said Churchwardens of Sutton for the time being give notice of such refusal or neglect to the Governors and Guardians of the Foundling Hospital. October 1793, Giles Hatch, Rector. Richard Mugridge, Thomas Young, Churchwardens.”

Dying to have a look!

From a simple bequest developed a ceremony with much pomp and circumstance. A sermon would be preached on the day. On the allotted day of 12th August the Vicar would attend in full vestments accompanied with a choirboy who held the key upon a cushion. At the tomb would often be a small group of curious bystanders all hoping to get a look at this curious custom. The door was unlocked and the attendees poured in!

Then it was all change, the sermon was the first to go and then the new appointment of a rector of the church in 1985 appeared to cement its fate forever. He believed it was a rather ‘undignified side-show’ and ceased the annual inspection, although in keeping with the bequest the tomb was still inspected for damage except it was not publicised. The custom survived albeit in a less spectacular fashion – however it survived. Then his inheritor went further and refused point blank to inspect claiming it was unsafe- as a result the tomb has laid unopened and uninspected for over 10 years. Sadly not event Christ’s School is interested anymore and so the custom is became another victim of health and safety culture! The event even reached the national newspapers with the Independent in 1994 taking up the mantle but the rector wouldn’t budge. They noted:

“He advanced several reasons for the ban: that questions had been asked about the pagan style of the ceremony; that it was not in keeping with the living church; that Mary Gibson would not have liked it; and that it was not good for the church to be ‘involved in anything which can seem queer’.

But his arguments failed to satisfy the Gibson camp which is outraged. They appealed to the Folklore Society, to experts on British burial, and finally to the Archbishop of Canterbury. To no avail. Mr Hazelhurst continued to exclude the public.

The torch-bearer for the Mary Gibson fan club is Millicent Hamilton Bradbury, 79, an amateur historian from Hammersmith, west London, who has spent 15 years researching the family’s obscure history. ‘We were very grieved,’ she said.

Mr Hazlehurst is unrepentant. ‘We had comments from people saying if we believed in the resurrection it seemed rather funny we were paying so much attention to these coffins in the tomb. The way crowds of people came with children to look at the coffins was rather macabre, and didn’t speak to the living faith.’

However, a ray of hope has appeared for Mrs Hamilton Bradbury with the news that Mr Hazlehurst is leaving. ‘You can imagine,’ she confided gleefully, ‘we shall be getting on to the next rector at once]”

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Resurrection

It may have worked, for then perhaps out of the blue in 2015 the church returned to their inspection, Wednesday the 12th at 1pm. Large crowds had assembled outside the church. The rector and church wardens carried the bible aloft accompanied by a choir boy with the key on a cushion. A service was held around the mausoleum remembering Mary and reading her will. Then the key was inserted into the lock, the door opened and fortunately little evidence of damage was there! The custom was reborn…without the scrum of the public joining in it can be noted. It just goes to show no calendar custom can be lost forever…2015 looks like a great year for the revival!

 

Custom contrived: Bonsall Hen Race

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You have to admire the creativity of many English pubs. Looking for a clever angle, amidst the special Happy Hours and inventive menus there are pubs which go beyond the obvious. The Barley Mow a small village pub tucked down a narrow country lane in a delightful Derbyshire village perhaps has developed one of the craziest – Hen Race Championships. Or did it?

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Fowl Play

Although, landlord David Wragg of the Barley Mow did start the current races 25 years ago, locals will tell you it was an old tradition at least dating back to the 1800s although details are scant. This was probably because the old tradition involved gambling. The main location was the event remoter hamlet of Ible, where the races focused around the Hope and Anchor. When this ceased, if indeed it has, is unclear but it was certainly in fine form back in 1986 when it was captured in jocular fashion the below video. This custom was done unsurprisingly perhaps on the 1st of April.

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Chicken Run

Arriving at the Barley Mow one quickly encounters the area a track 15 metres long. Being August, the organisers were struggling with erecting a tent, not for the spectators, but for the chickens…this is serious stuff..it was needed as well…it rained loads!

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All around the arena are competitors, sitting in cages, cat carriers and even cardboard boxes..their heads popping out and giving a cluck every now and then. Apparently these were any old fowls but many had been subjected to months of training and the landlord often takes his prize winner ‘Flo Jo’ for training across the moors. Not only that but this is a world championship with entries from as far away as Norway..I would be interested to hear their reasons at passport control.

Pecking order

Around 50 birds entered the races in a series of heats. Soon the races begun and hens were lined up at the starting line…and they were off..or rather not. It wasn’t exactly a speedy event with many of the birds looking quite bemused by it all. Some were more interested in going back to the start and pandemonium ensued when one managed to break through the fencing and enter the crowd! Some were content just to peck the ground beneath them..Despite their trainers were at the other end banging tins of sweetcorn and mealworms. Although the birds were pretty standard…their trainers were not – one being a capped crusader and another had a suit made of cartoon strips…great British eccentricity!

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Some hens were more proactive and one was particularly keen to show its abilities…after a few also rans it was clear that there is either natural variation in the survival instinct of the birds or the training worked. The overall winner was one called Road Runner and a very pleased young man called Harvey and his father Oliver looked as pretty pleased. I could say they were cocky….although I chickened out on that joke!