Category Archives: Fair

Custom survived: St. Walstan’s Day pilgrimage, Bawburgh, Norfolk

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“Come journey in St. Walstan’s way, Come make a start this joyful day; And as he turned from wealth and ease, Go forth in prayer to seek God’s peace.”

The hymn of St. Walstan

Laying in a small private orchard beside the Parish church, St Walstan’s Well has been, on and off,  the goal of many pilgrims over the centuries. Here beside the church was once his chapel and in times before the Reformation, it doubtless swarmed with pilgrims visiting the shrine and well. The most auspicious date to visit the shrine and well would be the saint’s feast day the 30th May. How many pilgrims, what stories of their journeys and stories are now unknown. Little is recorded of the site before the Reformation but thanks to a return of pilgrimage and a greater tolerance and acceptance from Anglican Church and adoption by a revitalised Catholic church, St Walstan is now regularly remembered.

Saints alive!

Who is St. Walstan? He’s a little known saint today but his spread was once considerable through the agricultural heartlands of East Anglia and beyond. A Saxon saint, said to have been of royal lineage, who forwent this to be a farm hand, giving his riches to the poor. He died on the 30th May 1016, and legend tells us that three springs arose, one at his place of death, at Taverham, another, Costessey, where a cart pulled his body dragged by two white oxen and the final at Bawburgh, where his body was laid to rest and a shrine established which was very popular. Indeed, in a region rich with such shrines it attracted considerable miracles and money, it and his nearby well being the goal of man and beast. Then the reformation came, the shrine dismantled and attendance at the well discouraged! Put you cannot put a good saint down…nor more importantly his well.

Spring back

This revival in the importance of St Walstan’s Well can be traced back to the 1790s when an anonymous letter on the subject of wells and baths in the September of Gentlemen’s Magazine:

“My business has very lately obliged me to make a tour through this country, at all the market towns and even at every village I stopt at, I was informed of its wonderful efficacy in curing all disorders. The resort to this spring has been very great all this summer. I was assured by a person who was on the spot, that there were frequently 2000 people there at a time, particularly on Sunday mornings; and that the spring was frequently emptied, not so much by the quantity drank on the spot, as what was put into bottles, casks, and barrels, to be transported to the remotest parts of the county.”

Author J. C. Husbenbeth in 1859 Life of St Walstan, confessor wrote recording around the end of the 18th Century partly collaborating this:

“An old man died not long ago at Babur, who was known to the writer, and in his younger days kept an inn there, which was frequently by crowds of visitors to St Walstan’s Well.”

The Norwich Gazette noted that these crowds often resulted in trouble, and in 1763 it reported that:

“much confusion ensued …..and many heads were broken in the scuffle.”

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pilgrims bless themselves at the well

Still waters run deep

A number of cures were associated with the well and these combined with the spreading Anglo-Catholic ethos of the Oxford Movement renewed worship of the well. Among the colourful characters to have been connected with this revival at the time was Father Ignatius. He founded a monastic settlement called the Third Order in Norwich and led the first official pilgrimage to the well in 1864. Those attended it could have described it as did one of them Baronness de Bertouch:

“A Public pilgrimage in full feather to the St Walstan’s Well – a said to be miraculous source of water, four miles out of Norwich referred to on the programme of old world religious revivals. It was hundreds of years since a single pilgrim had dipped his cup into that long forgotten spring, or breathed a prayer to its derelict Patron; so the occasion was an historical one, and worthy of the pageant with which it was commemorated by the Monks and their contingent.”

Nearby Norwich, a strongly Protestant city viewed the whole affair differently as unwanted Popery and many opponents tried by any means possible to discourage the activities. To prevent any conflicts on the day of the procession it was suggested that constables should be placed on specific cross roads to monitor and thus remove any problems. Ignatius ignored this problem and marshalled his 400 pilgrim’s to the well. The crowd of pilgrims being so great that they moved as:

‘one long flexible column through the town.’

Critics in the press ridiculed their actions, a broadsheet entitled ‘The Monks Pilgrimage to Bawburgh’ was printed by Robert Cullum of Norwich and scathingly described their activities in a poem ridiculing the miraculous waters in the cure of Brother Stumpy’s leg:

“Why what in the world were these Monks now about,

They’re Lately been having a rather grand turn out,

To astonish the joskins the whole country round,

Such a set of poor simpletons elsewhere can’t be found.

Then down to the well the country Johns got,

To gather the moss and they did get a lot,

The Monks paid them well and also did say,

They should want plenty more on some future day

Last Week they slipp’d out of Town one by one,

And people were puzzled to know where they’d gone,

In a fly there fine dresses and gimeracks were carried,

And some said that Blazer was gone to be married.

There’s Old Ginger Giles he vow and protest,

That he won’t work for farmers the Monks pay him best,

Seven shillings a week is not worth looking arter,

He can get twice as much from selling the water.

But soon they meet on the Earlham Road,

And some of the finery began to unload,

Pockthorpe famed Guild this rum lot would beat,

All it warned was Old Snap to make it complete.

The People of Bawburgh they never did ill,

And don’t know the want of a doctor or pill,

But if it is true what they say unto me,

‘Tis by using the water in making the tea.

 

‘And when all were muster’d under the trees,

Down went the whole lot right on to their knees,

On the dusty road Monks and Women were seen,

With their fine Sunday Dresses and smart Crinoline

There’s old mother Smith that lives by the Cock,

Declares that whenever she washes her smock,

With the water although she now getting old,

If she puts it on wet she never catch cold.

 

Then up they all got and made a great noise,

for some begun singing at the top of their voice,

Each village they came the people turned out,

For they could not imagine what t’was all about,

Brother Stumpy too met a wonderful cure,

You remember the wooden leg he had to be sure,

After bathing it well for an hour or two,

A beautiful new leg appeared to view.

 

But at Bawburgh is said that they have found out a well,

The water of which all others excel,

It will cure all complaints of those who receive it,

And keep out the Devil if you can believe it,

 

Poor neighbour goose who in St Lawrence now dwell,

Strange is the tale I’m about to tell,

Though the mother of eight children of late it is said,

Through drinking Holy Water, looks more like a maid

When they got there with fasting they turn’d very faint,

All were eager to drink at the well of the saint,

And some simpletons were heard to declare,

They could without victuals the rest of the year.

The blind made see, the lame made to walk,

The deaf made to hear and the dumb made to talk,

If you like to believe all the cures they tell,

That’s done by the water and moss from this well

Such a sight there was seen when they’d got to the well,

For flat on their faces these Pilgrims all fell,

And began kissing the ground as if they were crazed,

While the poor people looked on amazed.

Then down to the well the country Johns got,

To gather the moss and they did get a lot,

The Monks paid them well and also did say,

They should want plenty more on some future day

Brother Magentis then said that when the saint died,

(Though between you and me I think that he lied)

The water was seen from this place to run,

And thousands of cures by it had been done.

 

Now take my advice, don’t be galled by such stuff,

Of Monks and Miracles were had quite enough,

If you go to their chapel and learn at their schools,

You’ll find that they think you a great set of fools.

They’ll make you believe every Pulk hole they find,

Sprung up where some saint died if they have a mind,

But I hope folks know better in the present age,

And won’t join the monks in their next Pilgrimage.”

The pilgrims decorated the well with flowers and lights. Various vials and vessels were filled and handed out among the crowd. Locally people begun to realise that the water was still profitable; Ginger Giles, the supplier, stating that he received more money from selling its water, than from working on the local farm. However the anti-popish feeling ran high and sadly the Order suffered under physical and literary abuse, and after a scandal involving the luring away of a young boy, Father Ignatius, in 1866, left following a serious illness.

However despite this scandal the well was not forgotten. Indeed the revival had the desired effect in re-establishing the power of its water, the Norwich Mercury even noted effectiveness in the cure of sick animals. In 1912, the Third National Catholic Congress, organised a mass pilgrimage to the well, after a successful one to Walsingham. It was the result of this congress that the first chronicled and official miracle of the twentieth century occurred, after a London man attending the pilgrimage took back with him some moss. Later that year he found his eyes failing and was diagnosed to be becoming blind. Yet after washing his eyes in the well’s water and placing the moss on his eyes for four days – and his eyes were restored. He vowed to make a second pilgrimage and did the following September. This story had been circulated and another Catholic Pilgrimage was organised. This procession starting in the grounds of Bawburgh Hall, and Mr Sparrow the farmer again helped with the water access, however someone was over zealous by bringing a gallon-sized beer bottle.

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Pilgrims pass Chapel Farm – a clue to an ancient pilgrim route?

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The banner held proudly aloft

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Through the fields they travelled..

Well look who’s here!

Despite the anti-pilgrimage opinions it would only 20 years for the Church of England moved towards revitalising the saint and that year saw the first of many Anglo-Catholic Pilgrimages and even worship of the saint included Bawburgh Methodists. Today there is a regular service at the well on the saint’s day 30th May.

In 1976 there was established an Anglo-Catholic pilgrimage. Indeed since the 1970s every year there has been an observance of the custom, with the Methodist joining in 1982. In 1989 an interfaith pilgrimage from Taverham to Bawburgh was established to recognise the saint’s adoption by the British Food and Agriculture year. How things have greatly and thankfully changed from the ‘stumpy’ protestations!

Actually there are three separate observations – on the Sunday nearest to St. Walstan’s Day for Anglicans and the Sunday after St. Walstan, the first in June for Catholics processing from the local Catholic Church at Costessey, with the Orthodox coming the week after. However, in the last few years the first two days have coincided in the calendar and thus the observation combined. The Catholic church processing and being met on the old packhorse bridge by the local Anglican church. A school visit on the 30th for children even being organised on year with an re-enactment of the cart carrying the body of the saint.  In 2016, the community commemorated the saint’s millennia again with a joint celebration with the Bishops of Norwich/East Anglia, Rt Reverend Grapham Jones and Rt Reverend Alan Hopes (both Catholic and Anglican).

Well trod

For the commemoration of the 1000th anniversary of his death, the village established a number of events. In the church was a flower festival based on the saint’s life and a special extended processional pilgrimage walk. In the village I even saw a man carrying an old scythe like St. Walstan.  A large group had assembled for the mass pilgrimage from Marlingford village hall for this walk, I waited for the man with the scythe to lead us – he didn’t turn up – did I imagine it At the hall I asked one of the organisers why this route. Apparently there was evidence that the route, now over private land, was an old pilgrim route – it does pass by a chapel farm – although more functionally a procession with large numbers from Taverham, the place of his death to Bawburgh, would be problematic for safety purposes. A shame but the essence of a pilgrimage was upheld nevertheless, and if we were walking in the footsteps of ancient pilgrims that added to it. The walk, which was around 3 miles took in some of the great agricultural landscapes that would have made this farming saint at home. Indeed half way we rested and paused to give thanks for what Norfolk and its agriculture had provided and the people who’s livelihood depended on it. The walk continued, with the banner of St Mary and St Walstan Catholic church proudly leading the way. Soon the church was in sight and after a long walk it was a welcome site.

Alls Well, that ends well

The procession made its way via St. Walstan’s Well, sadly we couldn’t refresh ourselves there as the water was unfit for drinking, fortunately there was tea and coffee available, a much needed physical refreshment. At the well a medieval band played and song, a St Walstan inspired madrigal, as the weary pilgrims took a blessing from the well’s water instead from bowls by the side. Some attached blessings to a tree nearby, a resurrected St. Walstan’s bush perhaps said to lie nearby. I went for the tea and coffee.

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BBOGOF – Bishops Buy one get one free!

In a field near the church and well, a large congregation had gathered, augmented by the pilgrims, to hear the unusual sounds of a joint Anglican-Catholic service, at one point read in union, which I must admit was quite unusual. The Catholic Bishop recalling the legend of St. Walstan and hymns included one dedicated to the saint. The Bishop double act entered the congregation and went around sprinkling blessings with holy water – although the Catholic bishop seemed a bit more expedient and appeared to cover more ground! The service ended with the clergy praying homage to the Well and remembering the saint and the gift of his water. Remarkable for such an obscure saint that his memory is still important 1000 years on..but then again very little has changed to mean that his message is no longer relevant !

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Wait all this time for some clergy and nine come at once. The Bishops bless the well.

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Custom demised: The Byzant Ceremony Shaftesbury Dorset

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In Shaftesbury museum is a curious relic from a lost bygone custom. The structure an ornate shaft was called the byzant and a curious ceremony which maintained ancient rights for the town. The custom being at first on Holy Cross Day, the first Sunday after the 3rd of May, being in 1622 transferred to the Monday before Holy Thursday, or Ascension Day.

Many people visit Shaftesbury for its picturesque hill top setting, especially taking in the famed Gold Hill, but this location caused problems for the town as it did not have a reliable water supply. Yet, at some point someone in the settlement came to an idea at nearby Enmore Green at Motcombe was a water supply which could be utilised.

However, the town could not just take the water some sort of tribute would have to be established with the giving of gifts. Thus arose the Byzant ceremony. The custom dates back to at least 1364 and its first written account is 1527 as below:

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A detailed written reference is in A compleat history of Dorsetshire c 1716. Its name possibly derived from a middle-eastern tradition of royalty giving a special coin called the bezant at religious events. Although it appears the coin was replaced with something clearly ceremonial, the Lord of the Manor of Gillingham, whose land the spring lay, still received more functional gifts. John Symmonds Udal in his 1883 article in Dorset County Chronicle state::

“raw calves head, and a pair of Gloves, which his Steward receives distributing at the same time among the People twelve Penny Loaves and three dozen of Beer.”

The former probably from a quit rent and the later to provide for hospitality. The Byzant ceremony thus developed into a celebration with the attendees singing and dancing their way to the spring, a distance of half a mile or so. Before them would be the town officials, the Mayor and council, and in front of them would be two officials. One carried a calf’s head which carried a purse of money and another carrying the ornate Byzant or prize-besom covered with ribbons, flowers, feathers and jewels. John Symmonds Udal (1883) state:

“The mayor and burgess of Shaftesbury…dress up a Prize-Besom, as they call it (somewhat like a May Garland in form)”

Chambers in his Book of Days describes the byzant as:

“A frame four feet high was covered with ribbons, flowers, peacock’s feathers, jewellery, and gold and silver coins, from which the last name was taken, a bizant being an ancient gold coin, and the amount, probably, of the original water tax.”

Once at Enmore Green, the gifts and byzant were handed over. The Lord would receive the ornate staff but then hand it back. As John Symmonds Udal (1883) notes:

“The prize-besom, which was worth usually £1500 being adorned with plate and jewels borrowed of the neighbouring gentry) is restored to the Mayor and brought back again to the Town by one of the officers with great solemnity.”

Despite the futile nature of the ceremony the village of Motcombe could still refuse access if it did not happen. After the ceremony the attendees would make their way back, rather tiringly up the hill to Shaftesbury.

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Sadly practicalities dominated and thus when an artesian well was established on the hill providing a reliable source of water the need to fete Enmore Green was gone but that may not have been the sole reason for its demise. The ritual really died out in 1830, being abolished by the Marquess of Westminster when he purchased the Motcombe estate. The decision was not popular at Enmore. Udal 1922 Dorsetshire folk-lore notes:

“ on the Tuesday and during the week after the custom, a fair was held at Enmore green, a hamlet of Motcombe, in which the wells were situate, and further that the people filled up the wells with rubbish, being disgusted, that the custom had been abolished.”

The protestations fell on fallow ground and now the only remembrance ended up in Shaftesbury museum. Thanks to Claire Heron for the photos!

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Custom demised: Hunting the Hare at Dane Hills Leicester

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If you were to go to Leciester on Easter Monday you may have been witness to the annual congregation of horse-riding dignitaries, amongst them the Lord Mayor, ready to ride off to hunt the hare. The event is first recorded in the Town records in 1668, but as it was probably by then an ancient custom. The association with hare hunting and Easter was not unique to Leicester, there is a 1574 account that 12d was given to to ‘the hare-finders at Whetston Court’ and of course hares are ‘on the menu’ although now beef I believe in Leicestershire’s Hallaton Hare Pie and Bottle kicking! Just over the border in Coleshill, Warwickshire, the parson would give a groat, a calf’s head and a hundred eggs, if a hare was presented to him by the young men of the Parish before 10 o’clock on Easter Monday!

Another account is in the Calendar of State Papers which records:

“1620, April 2. Thos. Fulnety solicits the permission of Lord Zouch, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, to kill a hare on Good Friday, as huntsmen say that those who have not a hare against Easter must eat a red herring.”

Returning to Dane Hills, it is in Throsby’s History of Leicester gives the longest and most detailed account:

“It had long been customary on Easter Monday for the Mayor and his brethren, in their scarlet gowns, attended by their proper officers, in form, to go to a certain close, called Black-Annis’ Bower Close, parcel of, or bordering upon, Leicester Forest, to see the diversion of hunting, or rather the trailing of a cat before a pack of hounds; a custom perhaps originating out of a claim to the royalty of the forest. Hither, on a fair day, resorted the young and old, and those of all denominations. In the greatest harmony the Spring was welcomed.”

However, although hares were the quarry they were perhaps at the time of Throsby’s account getting a bit scarce, therefore after the morning was spent in ‘various amusements and athletic exercises’:

“a dead cat, about noon, was prepared by aniseed water for commencing the mock-hunting of the hare. In about half-an-hour, after the cat had been trailed at the tail of a horse over the grounds in zig-zag directions, the hounds were directed to the spot where the cat had been trailed from. Here the hounds gave tongue in glorious concert. The people from the various eminences who had placed themselves to behold the sight, with shouts of rapture, gave applause; the horsemen dashing after the hounds through foul passages and over fences, were emulous for taking the lead of their fellows. . . . As the cat had been trailed to the Mayor’s door, through some of the principal streets, consequently the dogs and horsemen followed. After the hunt was over, the Mayor gave a handsome treat to his friends; in this manner the day ended.”

Why did they do the custom? As the land was held time immemorial as part of the demesne of the ancient Earls of Leicester passing to the crown in the reign of Henry IV, and thus Kelly’s Notices of Leicester believes that:

“this formal ceremony of hunting in their state robes was adopted by the Corporation as an assertion of their right of free warren over the lands in question”.

However, the hunting of the hare is as noted an ancient tradition long older than the medieval perhaps. The site, Dane hill is believed to be derived from a possible pagan deity who is remembered as Black Annis (derived from the Celt Anu?). It was bogeyman or witch who would ‘suck on their blood’, as noted in Leicester Chronicle of 1894, of children. Is it a coincidence that the hunters dragged a cat soaked in anni-seed? This is especially suspicious considering that the legend of the bogeyman was called in the 1890s as ‘Cat Anna’ or did this remember the cat soaked in anniseed?

The custom survived until 1767, but as often happens the associated ‘amusements’ which arose around it continued for longer. An account from April 2nd 1842 notes:

“The Dane Hill Fair was crowded with visitors, principally young people of the working classes, and the fields beyond the spot where the field is held were also thronged with merry-makers.”

This fair was the last vestige of the unusual custom and died out in 1842. And hares or dead cats be sighing relief!

Custom demised: Weyhill Sheep Fair

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“To Wy and to Wynchestre I wente to the feyre.”

So does Langland record Weyhill Fair, in Piers Plowman, in 1377, the largest and most important livestock fair in the country. One of the features were the establishment of booths to sell produce and so many hops from Farnham were sold that they became known as Farnham row.  Like many great fairs despite an ancient provenance it was like others a charter fair…like others it did attract fringe activities – hiring of labour, a pleasure fair, bull baiting and even mummers and mystery plays.

Ancient fair

Twelve twenty five is the fair’s earliest reference being called Fair of Le We then. However this is not a charter. Indeed, the lack of a charter is perhaps because the fair was very ancient lying as it does on ancient crossroads which crisscrossed tin merchants, gold transporter and even pilgrims from as far as way as Cornwall, Kent and the Continent. Laying also on three parishes and three estates helped it escape the need for a Charter. For when in Andover town folk claimed a right to hold their own fair, by 1559 Royal charter, the fair owners claimed that the rules did not apply to their fair!

Court fair

As it grew into the 19th century the volume of trading grew exponentially. Cheeses from all over Wessex were sold and around 100,000 sheep were sold in one day.  Irish horse traders were accused of putting everyone in danger by showing off ‘charged up and down, and over hurdles’. Lawlessness was a common problem and so large was the fair that by the 16th century it was necessary to set up a Court of Pie Powder. This a common feature of large fairs was a court which provided quick settlement on disputes and could punish lawlessness. Wife selling was a custom associated with many fairs and one immortalised by Thomas Hardy in his 1886 The Mayor of Casterbridge. Renamed Weydon Priors one of his characters, Henchard, sells his wife for five guineas. Wife selling was not unknown in the days before divorce was relatively easy and affordable. An account records that a man called Henry Mears bought Joseph Thomson’s wife for 20 shillings and a Newfoundland dog – he was originally asking 50 but the account states both parties were happy. I am not so clear as the wife’s opinion.

The fall of the fair

The 1800s was perhaps the final heyday of the fair. By the end of the 19th century it was in decline. William Cobbett in his Rural rides visited the Fair in 1822. He had been a regular attendee for 40 years previous and found it already depressed:

“The 11th of October is the Sheep Fair. About £300,000 used, some few years ago, to be carried home by the sheep-sellers. Today, less perhaps, than £70,000 and yet the rents of these sheep sellers are, perhaps as high, on average, as they were then. The countenances of the farmers were descriptive of their ruinous state. I never, in all my life, beheld a more mournful scene.”

Reports suggest that despite being still the biggest fair in the South in 1867 each year less and less hops and cheeses were being sold.  Sheep and cattle continued to be trade until just after the Second World War. In 1948 only 1400 sheep were sold – a far drop from the 100,000s. The rapid progress of modernity, better roads, rail and communications meant such large meetings were unnecessary. Although the pleasure fair continued to thrive as in many places. In 1957, the last livestock auction was held and then so few animals were sold that the auctioneers deemed it unprofitable. So the fair stopped and unlike other fairs such as Nottingham Goose fair so did the pleasure fair. The booths were bought by a building company Dunnings Associates using them for storage. They themselves went bankrupt and the buildings fell into disrepair. The site is now a light industry site with the Fairground Craft and Design Centre continuing the name and tradition of selling.

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 Fairlop Fair

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There you are just about to write a piece about a demised tradition…and lo it gets revived! The Fairlop Fair is one of these!

It’s my party!

Tradition has it that the fair begun in an unusual way. Virtually all fairs in England start with either ancient unknown origins or from a charter. No this one. No it started from a private party. It is said that in the 1720s landowner, Daniel Day decided to have a party on the first Friday in July for his friends whilst they collected his rents. This was under an ancient oak called the Fairlop Oak. This feast of bacon and beans then precipitated into something bigger. By 1725, more people joined in and soon stalls appeared! These sold at first innocent products- gingerbread men, toys, ribbons, puppets and these grew so much that in 1736 some were prosecuted for liquor selling and gambling!

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The fair was certainly an event first and fair after. Day liked to make an event of it. He was an eccentric and it was his tradition to arrive at the fair on horse drawn boat with much fanfare from some musicians. The fair grew and grew and by 1750 over 100,000 people were attending from across London and such that in 1765 it was reported that:

“a great number of people meet in a riotous and tumultuous manner .selling ale and spirituous liquors and keeping tippling booths and gaming tables to the great encouragement of vice and immorality.”

In 1767 a bough fell from the tree and Day saw that as an omen and fashioned it into his coffin. Not even death of its creator Day had an effect. Not even the authorities banning it in 1793. The Fairlop Oak fell in 1820 this did not even stop it! Not even the loss of the wood around it and its conversion to arable land in 1851. The Fair continued with controversy for in 1839 the Religious Tract Society counted 72 gaming tables and 108 drinking booths.

 Fair enough

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Despite all these issues the Fair continued to 1900…then nothing is heard until 2011! The organisers are to be congratulated in creating an event which distilled the feeling of the fair with various acts. Back was the original beanfeast. Costumed characters abounded…lots of beards particularly. In memory of the booths which consisted of the ‘living skeleton’ and the ‘real live mermaid’ we had the Fairlop Freak Show presented by the beared ladies and booths with a dancing mermaid. A story boat recreated Mr Day’s traditional boat on wheels! This arrived from Mile End and held candlelit tours! It is a splendid vehicle. There were strolling players, particularly the Highwaymen and musicians in costume which gave a real genuine flavour to the proceedings. Traditional aspects abound such as Tug of War, palmists and jugglers.  A fantastic dragon which was so real looking you could be mistaken it was real!

Of course there were fairground rides – small scale and traditional in nature and some modern aspects – singers and dancers- but after all the original fair would have moved with the times.

But gone were the gambling stalls of course until a few years time perhaps!