Custom survived: Lee Gap Fair, Yorkshire

Standard

“Stallions proud and ribbands prancing

Joyous fiddling and dancing

Isaac Horsfield who was there

He made sport for all the fair.

A handsome show of china ware

Of much variety was there

Cheesecakes plenty might be got

Gingerbread and good tom-trot.”

 

Lee Gap Fair was founded over 800 years ago been chartered by King Stephen in 1139, thus it can rightly claim to be England’s oldest horse fair only the local church is older and the two are linked.  Traditionally the fair took place on the Feast of the Assumption (15th September) and finished on the Nativity of the  blessed Virgin (8th September) and thus was linked to the church.

Making leeway

The fair became a major event People travelled vast distances to attend the fair. In the Middle Ages Lee Gap Fair attracted merchants from France, Spain, Florence and the low lands of Germany. Not only Horses bur cattle, sheep, goats and other livestock were sold at the fair.

Such was the occasion that people attending are said to have married or got their children baptised and hence the fair was good revenue for the church who had a priest on call the whole fair. Miracle plays were also performed to bring the faith to the masses.  The fair was owned by Nostell Priory until the Reformation when it was granted to a Dr Leigh and the fair moved to West Ardsley and took on his name although written as Lee and I am unsure where the Gap came from. However, there is some confusion over whether the Nostell Priory Fair and the current fair are the same continuation as their fair was five days starting on St Oswalds’s feast day on the 9th not 24th and early writers state that it was discontinued ‘centuries ago’.

Interestingly, the Charter does not tie the fair to one site only that it be held in the parish of Woolkirk or West Ardsley. Which is good because its most traditional site was lost to building many years back forcing a new location to be held. However, not only is its location fluid but its function too. Originally it was wool fair only becoming a horse fair as the need for horses through increasing warfare and agriculture forced the necessity.

Fairly well met

On first arrival you think there cannot be a horse fair here its too urban as you survey the neat gardens, hedges and waxed cars in their drives. And indeed, the first site was built upon a few years on. However, soon there appear to be see a parade of cones and then a small handwritten sign Lee Fair at the side of a farm lane. Going down here past some rather large houses the lane snakes down into a small, enclosed field and here 100s have gathered. A detailed sign at the gate informs me of what I can and cannot do there – no racing of horses and silly string stand out!

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A fair assessment?

Attending a horse fair is one of those rare experiences. A completely unvarnished natural organic custom devoid of any tourist pretensions. Indeed, at one point I think I am the only non-traveller there! Certainly, the only one with a camera around my neck which makes me self-conscious as I snap away but despite one boy asking for a photo; I appear invisible and inconsequential to those assembled. Such events always appear to be associated with problems

The horse fair is a window on another world. A world within a world. A world divorced from the mainstream. The stalls mainly sell materials which only suit its close clientele – metal churns, horses’ bits and various nick-nacks. There are of course cloth stalls but again in the main their apparel appeal to those who are there particularly the young girls who view these events as both a fashion parade and an opportunity to meet boys. Indeed, I came across and listened in on one such approach by a boy who runs over and asks ‘excuse me but my friend really likes you will you talk to him?’ None of that grabbing that was parade in the populist media a few years back.

Standing on the corners one comes across groups of old men. They had seen it all before. They appear the more traditionally dressed in their tweeds and barbers catching up with old friends and looking on at the young folk and their courting. Unlike a more formal selling environment with an arena and animals paraded in and out it is in these huddled groups that the horse trading is done. So often seeing or hearing a deal can be a rarity.

Walking around I noticed lots of strands of green, pink, blue materials and soon come across some younger kids attacking each other with kit and then looking like they immediately regretted it and set about removing it from each other’s hair! The silly string! Looks good they heeded then warning!

Every now and then a horse rushes by ridden, trotted or on occasion on its own! The crowd parts and everyone watches – again I am sure they said there was none of this-but I am glad there is because it adds some degree of excitement and authenticity.

Occasionally there are some other animals – chickens and caged canaries seem to be popular, and I see a number wandering around with the birds in colourful quaint wooden cages. The community are keen to maintain their traditions but unlike other customs where such things are kept up, here it seems natural and functional, rather than tradition for its own sake.

A fair representation?

Sadly, fairs and antisocial behaviour seem always to go hand in hand. One only need to delve into the records to see. The earliest being the 1315 Wakefield  Court Rolls which records three complaints brought against John  de Heton. He was accused of assaulting a man and a woman and overturning a stall, causing the owner damages and injuries totalling a loss of forty shillings. Regular accounts in the local press record thefts, selling of stolen horses and pick pockets litter the 19th century press accounts. Fairs always attract all types and certainly over the years drunkenness, damage to property and indeed bloodshed forced the local residents in 1656 to petition the West Riding justices to have it abolished stating that it was a nuisance and Wakefield market could provide their needs. It did not work of course, especially as the local community had not grasped that the fair whilst open to them was not really for them. By end of the 18th century the fair did indeed last from 24th August (St. Bartholomew’s) until 17th September. As the twentieth century developed it was moved to have the fair only on the starting date- 24th August and its last day and thus gave the name early Lee and Later Lee.   Alcohol was highlighted as a cause for much of the issues and as such there is no license to sell it at the fair.

Fairly well remembered

Julia Smith in the excellent 1989 Fairs, Feasts and Frolics spoke with a Mr J A Rawson, who she met at the ‘latter Lee’ in 1985. She said that he remembered when the fair was on the Baghill site. She says:

“He had been coming regularly for almost sixty years, and was only fourteen when he bought his first pony there for £4. 10S. He recalled once buying a foal and taking it home on the bus! He had spent his working life down the local pit and drove a pit pony when he first went underground. In order not to miss the fair, he would work the night shift and so have the day free. In the past a Welsh dealer had brought ponies and kept them on the moors at Hartshead to fatten them up for a few weeks prior to the fair, and Mr Rawson had often helped to drive them from there to Lee Gap. A Welsh dealer had been at the fair last year but had not returned this year, much to the disappointment of many of the visitors. Forty or fifty years ago, Irish traders also came to the fair bringing crates of geese and pullets, and the locals would buy a goose from them to fatten up for Christmas.”#

Little appears to have changed over the years since Smith’s description although gone have the:

“big chromium-plated gypsy caravans with their displays of Crown Derby china and their owners sitting on the steps, ‘as if they were showing off their homes and vying to outdo each other’.”

But the display of traditional wooden caravans appears to have increased in their absence as the community looks to continue its traditions. Everything else is almost identical to what greets the curious today she states that:

“the edges of the field were lined with horse boxes, vans and trailers. Horses for sale were tethered at the sides of them and tack, leather and ironwork were displayed on the tail-gates which were turned into makeshift stalls. Some of the traps and carts were decorated with delicately painted designs, I saw little actually changing hands, apart from a pedigree pup and a painting. Men huddled together in groups, deep in earnest conversations; it was here the real trading was done. At various intervals a shout would go up, a path would be cleared down the middle of the field and a horse would come galloping through the crowd, its bareback rider putting it through its paces. Buyers and sellers appeared to know each other, and there were shouts of encouragement or criticism as horse and rider sped by. Two minutes later and warning shouts would proclaim the presence of a huge shire horst being trotted, its owner running furiously alongside. Things would

quieten down for a little while and the huddles be reformed, but before long there was the crack of a whip and a pony and trap would dashdown the field.”

Interestingly unlike other fairs Lee Gap has not been swallowed up by its fringe activities and whilst Smith could watch:

“a man swallow and regurgitate a seven foot long chain! In the afternoon he escaped from a series of bonds and chains, accompanied by a good line in patter.

The business of the day was decidedly the buying and selling horses; four small swing-boats and a couple of slot machines were only concession to entertainment, apart from the escapologist of course.”

Today there are no fringe entertainments, certainly no miracle plays, only than the entertainment of meeting old friends, making new ones and silly string.

Of this buying and selling despite the lowkey nature of trading, I was fortunate to watch a number of deals which involved much too-ing and fro-ing, bluff and counter bluff, persuasion and the final slap of each other’s hands in a motion quite rhythmic and poetic. The deal being sealed and the horse sold.

It is a privilege to be able to see the Horse Fair, one which has remained unbroken for 800 years and whilst it may have its detractors its function being so pivotal to its community means it is a custom that on its own is in no danger of dying out as long as it is protected from those outside forces with their blinkered ways of looking at it!

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