Tag Archives: Fair

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.

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Custom survived: Rothwell Trinity Fair Proclamation Day

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Rowell Proclamation (14)Fair enough

“I ******* love Rothwell…where else do they get you up a 6 am so you can get bladdered early”

Not perhaps the most erudite introduction to Rothwell (pronounced Rowell), a small market town but perhaps correct. For this is a town which retains a curious and unique custom, which I must admit I had never heard of until recently.

On the Monday after Trinity Sunday, which falls either in late May or June (usually more often in June), this quiet and often bypassed town. However, on that day, often a normal working day, the pubs and restaurants of the town open and serve a very early 6 am pint! Everyone has a drink, even the horse! So important is this aspect, indeed it was probably one of the reasons the custom has survived, that its advertising flyers were beer mats!

This is perhaps a rather antisocial customs for a number of reasons, least of all the fact it starts so early, requiring an overnight stay. So I booked myself a small hotel in the town so that I wouldn’t have to get up that early…6 am is early enough! Booking in the concierge remarked “I have to tell you there is a proclamation outside the main entrance at 6!” if that would put me off. I replied “It’s why I am here…good to see they are bring the custom to my door.”

I woke early, around 5.30 and made the short journey to the west porch of the church where the festivities begun. For a short time, I was the only one and then a large group of teenagers appeared, then another and an even larger group…I immediately thought  “if you’d asked some teenagers to get up at this hour..the response wouldn’t be positive, but get a promise of fighting and you get loads!”

A local couple obviously realising I was not local asked:

“Have you been here before? If not you’ll enjoy it, it’s weird”

Soon enough I could see and hear a procession climbing from the main street towards the church followed by a large number of people. The procession consisted of a brass band, the bowler hatted Bailiff on a horse with his bowler hatted officials accompanied by his bodyguard of halberdiers holding a type of medieval lance. I noticed that the older members held full sized ones whereas the younger members carried shorter ones..the significance of which would become self evident later. As the clock chimed the allotted time, the Bailiff cleared his throat and with a scroll in hand he read out the proclamation:

“Whereas heretofore, his late Majesty King James the first and his progenitors, Lords of the Manor of Rowell had, and used to have, One fair in the year, to be holden within the said Manor, which said fair is now by good and lawfull means come to Zandra Maunsell Powell.

She, the said Zandra Maunsell Powell, doth by these presents notify and declare, that the said fair shall begin this Monday after the feast of the Holy Trinity, and so to continue for the space of five days next, after the holding and keeping of it, and no longer, during which time it shall be lawful for all Her Majesties Subjects to come , to go, to buy and to sell all manner of cattle, merchandise and other stuff being saleable ware and allowed to be bought and sold by the laws of this Kingdom. No toll for cattle, stakes for horses, sheep-pens, shows and stalls are charged for as heretofore. And she further chargeth and commandeth all manner of persons within the liberties of the said fair to keep the Queen’s peace in all things upon such penalties as the laws and statutes of this Kingdom are provided. God save the Queen and the Lord of the Manor.”

The crowd gave out a cheer and the band played the National Anthem. As soon as they had finished, the vicar appeared with the traditional glass of rum and milk, called Rowell Fair rum and milk which was intended to keep the bailiff warm. Once drunk, off they went.

Next they stopped outside the newsagent below the church and did it all over again…except this time the gleeful shopkeeper provided beers for the halberdiers and the band.

So far despite an obvious picturesque and old world nature there was nothing particularly exciting about it. Yet, there was an air of excitement especially amongst the youth element that sometime was about to happen.

At the third stop, the proclamation was read, band played the National Anthem, drinks went down and then there was a pause and all hell broke out. It was as if the surrounding crowd collapsed onto the road as any local lad worth his salt tussled and struggled in the street. Their object, to lay claim to one of the halberdier’s spears….the short ones not the full length, a fight for those of course would have resulted in a loss of some of bystanders no doubt. After much to-ing and fro-ing. One of the bowler hatter men blew a whistle and on we went to the next hostelry.

Rowell ProclamationRowell Proclamation (24)Rowell Proclamation (21)

And so and it went on, but at each pub or in some cases sites of old pubs, the fight became more powerful and yet more comical. At one point the conflict appeared to become very aggressive and intense, with one body halberdier struggling under the weight of a number of burly youths. But then the whistle was blown and immediately without quarrel they all stood up brushed each other down with smiles and handshakes and went on! I quickly noticed that the free alcohol liberally distributed to the halberdiers played into the hands of their disarmers. Who remained sober and more able to wrestle the spears off the increasing more ‘drunk’ bodyguards. However, it all appeared well humoured and despite a combination of alcohol and street fighting not usually being a desirable activity, those police present appeared to find no need for intervention.

The crowd moved on and finally stopped at the Rowell Charter Inn, their final stop. After the final proclamation the crowd disperses and with all the pubs and restaurants open, continue to have a breakfast both liquid and solid!

Fair Tarts

Rowell Fair Day is still a time for homecoming with tasty treats such as home cured ham and Rowell Fair tarts, although I was unlucky not to try one, I did notice they were advertised in a shop window. Below is a recipe!

Despite the details in the proclamation I saw no cattle, pens for sheep nor stakes for horses, these have long gone, but at its height it attracted cattle dealers from far as way as Wales, local people advertising the availability of accommodation with birch branches over their doorways. It also became an important horse fair from the seventeenth century, but what with the advent of the train and better roads, all commercial trading ceased replaced by the now all too familiar frenetic sounds of the pleasure fair.

The proclamation appears to have survived the periods which killed most customs, the war years, but by 1968, it appeared to be at risk as a result the Rowell Fair Society was formed and its work has been very successful in preserving this unique custom if the crowds are anything to go by.

Yet the Proclamation Day is one of those great customs, surviving 800 years, and with its curious mix of pageantry and punch-up should survive many years to come.

Clearly not everyone was out in Rothwell that morning. I later over heard a conservation between two women explaining the day. One saying in reply

“ I wondered my I was woken up by the sound of the national anthem.”

– images copyright Pixyled Publications

Rowell Proclamation (47)Rowell Proclamation (43)

Custom survived: The Nottingham Goose Fair

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Goose that laid the golden egg

Nottingham’s Goose fair is unique. Indeed there are many fun fairs, many of them having older origins, but there is something special and atmospheric about this 700 year old event. The size is certainly one of them. Started by Edward the First in 1284, it has survived cancellation during the plague of 1646, two world wars and its removal from the city centre in 1928. Now it sprawls across the Forest recreation ground, a large area of football pitches and park and ride car park, which is for most of the year rather bland and uninspiring, an island of colourful garish  giddy excitement laying in a sea of white caravans and lorries. Another reason is the anticipation, a week before the roundabout along Mansfield road, the ancient route to the city from North Nottinghamshire, a large white goose appears upon its plinth. A visual sign to its imminent arrival for no words are affixed to it (although occasionally it does inherit some comedy flotsam and jetsam, such as a large golden medallion.) This expectation is also built up by the entrance into the fair from this road. A long walkway like a procession route downwards with the senses excited by the visual delight of the fair looming on the horizon, the smell of kerosene and the sounds of ecstatic children crying ‘It’s the Goose fair!’

Having a gander

Even if like me you are not biggest fan of those heart pulsating spinning rides, there is much to interest. Taking that processional route one enters a strange row of infant orientated rides, a plethora of food stalls and some strange stalls.

Focusing on the strange stalls first, this is again where the unique nature of the fair is again underlined. Over the years there have been cacti stalls, clothes stalls, the fire service, the army and this year the Church of England each taking the chance to promote themselves! Showing that it’s not all fun at the fair but faith as well.

The food stalls are a varied phenomena as well indicating the ethic mix of Nottingham, however the minty mushy peas is the central food focus for those that come and the largest at the junction of the row and the main centre of the fair is always packed, sending the smell of peas and mint into the air from frothing vats…

What’s good for the goose….

Elsewhere the demand for the new has seen the traditional rides fall by the wayside, but again not here. Over the years, those rides have survived and so we can find Victorian and Edwardian originals such as the Helter Skelter, a cake walk, a waltzer and gallopers all of which have certainly working far into a second century. Together with these one can encounter on and off, a wall of death, a guess your age man, a flea circus and freak show. This later attraction, sadly absent over the last few years is a memorable edifice, a large pantecnicen with flashy bulbs with crowd pleasing slogans such as ‘ see the ….. ‘ or my favourite ‘ a piece of the Berlin Wall. Believe it or not.’ To which I sorry I cannot believe…nor can I  believe in a ‘Japanese Octopus!’ Of all things! More easy to believe are the atrocious spellings. Inside one is witness to a strange selection of aborted animal foetuses, stuffed ‘dare I say it’ fakes and antique relics from older exhibits slowly in many cases in a slow gentle decay. One always leaves it laughing but by the look of the owner I am not sure that is their desire!  On a wild goose chase Despite the obvious reason that Nottingham lay on a convenient stopping point for goose from Lincolnshire, indeed over 16,006 to 20,000, were annually driven up from the fens for sale here. The sale of geese at this time being associated with the rather convenient, for those breeders, belief that eating geese on Michaelmas was considered lucky, and helped the consumer avoid debt.  However, despite this a legend is told of an angler who was engaged in angling in the Trent, near Nottingham. In a time he felt or saw a bite that had been made. Unlike modem anglers he jerked the line high up in the air, together with the catch, which preyed to be a large pike. A wild goose happening at that time to be flying overhead espied the fish in the air, which he at once secured. Not content with the pike, he carried off with him the rod, line, and angler too. The story goes on to relate that when passing over the Nottingham Market Place, either from fatigue or other cause, the goose dropped his booty of man, fish, and tackle. Very strange indeed to relate, the hero of our story alighted very comfortably, unhurt. To celebrate this exceeding good luck a holiday was proclaimed, and there was great rejoicing among the good folks of old Nottingham.

Can’t say boo to a goose

Today the fair is rather lacking is geese, although I did spy two children with Geese hats! One tradition which every year appears to be threatened with disappearance is the Cock on a stick, chicken shaped (surely it should be a goose) sweet on a stick. The tradition goes back to the 19th century and has continued through one family. It is said that this confections came over from Italy with the Whitehead family. It’s a Goose fair tradition as is the crude jokes made about it. Why no geese? Well obviously tastes change, but perhaps one can could suggest 1752 was the result. This was when the calendar changed, and such the fair moved from 21st in September (ideal for a Michealmas goose) to the first Thursday in October (not ideal!) and perhaps this resulted in the shift from fowl to fun!

Yet this is of course unimportant for the Goose Fair remains one of the greatest of England’s travelling fairs.

copyright Pixyled publications