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The Traditional English Fair

One of the best places to really experience British life – its ancient customs, traditions and the rapidly disappearing rural way of life – is to go to the fair.


More quaintly historic than even the historical recreations so popular in the United States, an English fair was – and is – an important annual community gathering. Once they were major events for the tiny, isolated villages and towns of old England, when farmers would sell off the year’s harvest and housekeepers stocked on the goods they would need to see the family through the winter.


Even today, when history and modernization have transformed the face of the country, there are still fairs being held every year, quietly continuing their ancient traditions in this day day and age.


‘Are You Going To Scarborough Fair?’


For many, there is no more famous English fair than Scarborough Fair. With a history that went back well over a thousand years, the Scarborough Fair was once one of the most important events in the Middle Ages. Like most major fairs, Scarborough had a charter from the crown, giving the organizers the right to hold a fair in exchange for a share in the revenue; and like most major fairs, the charter was just a royal stamp of approval on an event that had taken place every year for hundreds of years already.


Towards the end of summer, Scarborough would hold an annual market fair for an astoundingly long (by medieval standards) period of forty-five days, attracting thousands from villages and towns both near and far. The event was so popular that merchants would come from as far as France and Germany to do business, sailing their ships into Scarborough harbour and pitching tents in which to hawk their wares on the muddy fairgrounds near Scarborough Castle.


Like most fairs, Scarborough fair was both a chance for merchants to do business and for hard-working locals to have some fun; and for those with little money and lots of time on their hands, the biggest attractions of the fair would be the jesters and acrobats, the troubadours and minstrels, and of course, the ladies of negotiable affection. It was perhaps one of these wandering fairgoers, name unknown, who first sang the words, ‘Are you going to Scarborough fair? Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme…’.


In a way, it is fitting that the greatest legacy the fair has left is its sad, romantic song, for after being held almost every year for over a thousand years, Scarborough fair was discontinued in 1936. The Industrial Revolution had sounded the death knell for the fair: better shops, better roads and greater affluence had already robbed the fair of its importance. As the years wore on, the harbour silted up, fewer and fewer people came and finally, when the wars broke out at the turn of the century, the town gave up holding its fair.


The Midsummer Fair in Cambridge


Scarborough Fair was one of the last major fairs to permanently close. Fortunately, as with most ancient traditions in Britain, county fairs weren’t wiped out completely by the tumultuous changes but continued on quietly, often in much reduced form, while the people waited for better times. After the wars were over and the country was once again at peace, the fairs quickly adapted to the new conditions, gaining a new lease on life and today, are still as strong and vibrant a tradition as ever.


Nowadays, there are two types of fairs: those which still maintain their market tradition, and those which have chosen to emphasise entertainment, becoming more fairgrounds than market fairs. The general rule is that the bigger the town, the more likely it is to move away from the traditional market fair— for example, Hull, Bridgwater, Newcastle, and Nottingham all have historic fairs which have become focused on entertainment. For visitors, a good place to experience a ‘big-city’ fair is the Cambridge,  where theMidsummer Fair is held in the week after Midsummer’s Day.


The largest event of its kind in East Anglia, the Midsummer Fair in Cambridge was granted by charter of King John in 1211 and still takes place on its original site, Midsummer Common, a tree-lined open space just a few minutes’ walk from the city centre. With the River Cam on one side and the ancient buildings of Cambridge on the other, the Midsummer Common is often considered one of the most beautiful fairgrounds in the country. The fair is traditionally held on a warm day in late June; the Mayor of Cambridge proclaims it open, throws pennies to the assembled children and the large crowds make their way to the market stalls, amusement rides and other traditional and not so traditional delights of the fair. Best of all, its free!


Another popular fair, albeit of a slightly different type, is the Nottingham Goose Fair, which in 2005 celebrated its official 710th year of existence. No one really knows the fair’s origin, though legend has it that the name came from the hundreds of geese which were at one time driven from Lincolnshire and Norfolk to be sold in Nottingham. Despite the legend, for many years it enjoyed a reputation for, of all things, cheese! Gradually, more and more people saw the fair as an excuse for a good time and over the years, that’s what it became. Today, the Nottingham Goose fair is one of Europe’s largest travelling fairs, with more than 150 rides and 450 games and exhibitions, as well as all the usual crafts stalls, food stands and other delights you’d expect from a fair.


A historic fair in Lincolnshire


The Nottingham Goose Fair has given itself wholeheartedly over to the entertainment element of fairs, but there are other fairs, more often found in small towns and villages, which still maintain the traditional balance of marketing and mirth. These are the ones which usually most evoke the traditional atmosphere of the country fair — and to find such a fair, there is no better place to go than Lincolnshire.


Considered historic even by England’s standards, the county of Lincolnshire is a rural treasure, quaintly picturesque with the green meadows, thatched cottages and quiet churchyards so emblematic of the idyllic England of yesteryear. Here, in a county time sometimes seems to have forgotten, the last of the great sheep fairs which once made England the world centre in the wool trade is held in the village of Corby Glen, as it has been for the last 767 years. Over a long weekend in October, there are pipe bands and Morris dancers, clay pigeon shoots and dog shows — and come Monday, a sheep auction in Bourne Road.


The Corby Glen Sheep Fair, and countless other county fairs like it, is still the best place for a transient visitor to witness some of England’s slowly dying heritage of country activities: horse shoeing competitions, sheep dog trials or even ferret racing. Many of the fairs have time-honoured competitions for the best cherry pies or best-smelling roses, when all things humble and local take pride of place. There are clowns and fortune-tellers, gooseberry jams and buttered scones. Squint just a little and the trappings of the twentieth-century melt away – and all that’s left is a carefree, timeless afternoon under a golden sun.

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