Category Archives: Fair

Custom survived: Lee Gap Fair, Yorkshire

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“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!

Custom occasional: Corby Pole Fair

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“At Corby near Rockingham, every twentieth year, the inhabitants assemble at an early hour, and stop up all roads and bye-ways in the parish, and demand a certain toll of every person, gentle or simple, who may have occasion to pass through the village on that day. In case of non-compliance a stout pole is produced, and the nonconformist is placed thereon, in a riding attitude, carried through the village, and taken to the parish stocks and imprisoned until the authorities choose to grant a dismissal. It appears that Queen Elizabeth granted to the inhabitants of Corby a charter to free them from town toll throughout England, Wales, and Scotland; and also to exempt them from serving on juries at Northampton, and to free the knights of the shire from the militia law. This custom of taking toll has been observed every twenty years in commemoration of the granting of the charter.—N. & Q. 3rd S. vol. i. p. 424.”

And much as the notes and queries records this is what greats the visitor today on Corby’s most important day.

Be fair

My first and at that time only experience of the Corby Pole fair was unsurprisingly 20 years previous in 2002. I had found out about it from Charles Kighty’s The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain which at the time was one of my sole sources for calendar customs and was curious to see this rare event. However, I must admit it did not impress; true there were the gates and the stocks, but no riding the stang, more of in a moment. It was to all intents and purposes it was just a big funfair sandwiched into a suburb. The sky was grey and the town busy. I did not find it an interesting experience. Thus 20 years later I was slightly wary of what I would experience. To be fair to the fair, I did not experience the traditional proclamation – which the book did not mention, and it was this I was particularly interested in experiencing!

Staying overnight within the village is to be recommended because then you can appreciate the rather surreal nature of being enclosed with a fair village. One of the traditions of the custom is the setting up of the barriers, the tolls, which are then covered with flowers. For 2022 these were set up in three places and decorated with foliage and children’s artwork. Being within the boundary of course also meant no toll!

Fairly early

Fairs like their proclamations and they are always colourful but I would say that Corby’s proclamation is one of the most interesting starting as it does at dawn with the chiming of the bells of St John the Baptist Church in Corby Old Village to gather all the village folk to hear it. I could not hear the bells but fortunately my alarm had got me up early enough and I made my way to the church following the then obvious chimes. There a fair sized congregation had assembled; many of which were press. At the foot of the church steps were three wooden sedan chairs as part of the tradition is the chairing of the proclamation party between the sites. This party consists of the vicar, the Mayor and the oldest resident of the village. Soon the bells stopped and a small choir appeared and started to sing; their sound magically swirling around in the air as the vicar read out the proclamation. Then Rev Paul Frost was given the honour of reading the Charter granted to the village in 1585 by Queen Elizabeth I. After it was read for the first time in public for 20 years of course; the three walked down and settled themselves into their chairs ready to be carried. There was a considerable amount of laughter and nervousness from all involved, as well as considerable press interest, as the volunteers grabbed each corner of the chairs and one by one, they lifted their charges up – first the oldest resident, an overjoyed June Thompson, then the vicar and lastly the mayor, Tafadwa Chikoto.

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The crowd parted and off they paraded down the street to the next proclamation point – a local pub, the White Hart, located at another entrance. Here standing on a wall the proclamation was again read and the party moved back to their chairs…noticing the lack of volunteers I opted to help. Well, it would be another 20 year until I have the next chance and I do not honestly think I’d be able to carry the vicar. Plus I noticed it was downhill from here and surprisingly it was quite easy…and I hoped that it put a good word in for me ‘upstairs’. At the final pub, the Jamb, it had been moved to accommodate the radio show, the chairs were lowered for a final time and the proclamation read for the final time. Then it was time for another Pole fair tradition, missed last time also – the free breakfast! Rather surreally attended by Vikings, knights and ordinary people…

Pole axed!

T. F. Thistleton-Dwyer’s 1875 British Popular customs present and past notes that:

“Why it is held every 20 years has never been discovered, nor why it is called a pole fair. But one theory suggests that when the Danes settled in the area, naming Corby village ‘The BY of Kori’, they brought many customs and punishments with them.

One such punishment, which lends itself to the theory, was ‘riding the stang’.

This involved men who had committed minor offences being carried astride an ash pole or stang. Insults and missiles where then thrown at the punished as they were carried through the town or village.”

Further ‘The Rutland Appendix to Almanacks for 1826’ states

“They went on to describe the demands for tolls from every person who passed through Corby that day with non-payers being made to ride through the town to jeers and shouts from the locals as penance, followed by a period of time spent in the stocks.”

This was one of the aspects I had missed in 2002 and despite seeing the stocks there was no-one in them and at the point of entry I was half minded not to pay so that that I would have to be carried ‘riding the stang’…but I don’t think that was the done thing or not! Photos of the custom show up – including in 1982!

Twenty years on and there were new stocks at Stock’s Lane and plenty of people queuing up to be put inside them for their amusing photo. But would there be a stang? Then by chance I was standing by the stocks when three people arrived two carrying a pole between their shoulders…and then as modern electro soundtrack blasted out the entered into a fluid dance, weaving in and out of each other and the pole in an interpretative dance the aim to avoid the stang! Then after much toing and froing one of them was captured onto the stang and was raised into the air and carried to the stocks. It was certainly a very interesting way of keeping the tradition alive and one which was certainly an improvement from 2002 (I could not be sure that they did this then to be honest)

There was also the traditional procession with large figures of important Corby people, including Queen Elizabeth of course and a colourful interjection of Romanian folk dancers – who indeed added a delightfully unique experience at one of the stages. Later in the afternoon was the pageant, and after a technical issue, was a splendid re-telling of the Elizabeth charter giving in wonderful custom.

There were other traditions associated with the custom which continued – the ox roast and the greasy pole – however, unlike 2002, the dreaded health and safety had prevented anyone attempting it and it was replaced by a photo opportunity…shame but also I thought I was glad that the healthy and safety brigade had not stopped the sedan chair carrying.

Fairly old?

The agreed account is that Elizabeth gave the fair but needless to say that no such charter can be found, but Charles II did confirm the fair in 1682, Furthermore, there is evidence of fairs in 1226. Henry III granted the right to hold two annual fairs and markets. Of the Pole fair first documented account is written in Latin which is said to be the charter authorising the event, which states the last time it was celebrated was the 11th of June 1821. Furthermore, The Mercury Herald of November 6, 1936 has an article recalling the memories of a Miss Collier recalls attending five Pole Fairs, the earliest being 1842, 21 years later!1862 appears to be the possible date when after which the 20 years was introduced…but why is unclear! Perhaps it was a cost thing? However, the pole fair is a real boost to the local economy and a joyful experience and as by Laura Malpas in an article for Northamptonshire surprise notes:

“The last five Pole Fairs have come at a time when the people of Corby most needed to be cheered and to celebrate life. In 1922, the effects of the Great War were still evident as the village had lost forty-one men, and the fragility of the peace in Europe was still a concern. In 1942, the country was still in the grip of the Second World War and so the Pole fair was delayed until 1947, when the celebration was sweet indeed. 1962 saw the growth of the new town and an increased population as Corby was strong economically, but the following fair in 1982 was very different. Corby had suffered dreadfully from hardship following the decision by British Steel to close the steelworks and let the blast furnaces go out. However, there was still steel inside the hearts of the people of Corby to survive and thrive. The 1982 Pole Fair was a much-needed boost to the locals, and in 2002, the most recent fair held was a great celebration by the newly revitalised town which even today is still experiencing spectacular growth.”

And one could add 2022 with the cost of living crisis and Ukraine conflict. With the fantastic Viking camp, jousting knights, Morris dancers and all the fun of the fair…2022 was one of those rare things for me; much much better than last time! See you in 2042!

 

 

 

Custom demised: Alnwick Fair Watch

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Many people will remember the latest incarnation of Alnwick Fair revived in 1969 to 2007 which is sadly discontinued. However W Davidson the 1822 History of Alnwick tells of another curious custom associated with a more ancient fair he reports:

“On the Sunday evening preceding the fair, the representatives of the adjacent townships that owe suit and service to his Grace the Duke of Northumberland, and the constables of Alnwick, with several of the freeholders and tradesmen, attend at the castle, where they are freely regaled. The steward of the Court, and the bailiff with their attendants, then proceed from the castle to the cross in the market-place, where the bailiff proclaims the fair in the name of the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, and calls over the names of the various townships that owe suit and service; viz. the townships of Chatton and Chillingham, four men, Coldmarton and Fowbury, four men; Hetton and Hezebrigge, four men; Fawdon and Clinch, four men; Alnham and Alnham Moor, two men; Tughall and Swinhoe, two men; Longhoughton and Denwick, four men; Lesbury and Bilton, two men; Lyham and Lyham-hall, one man; with the principal inhabitants of the borough of Alnwick. “

The role of these men was made clear that:

“The representatives who attend for the several townships in service are obliged to keep watch at different parts of the town the night before the fair, which has been a custom from time immemorial.”

It is also said that:

“On the fair-day the tenants of the Duke within the barony of Alnwick attend at the castle, when the steward and bailiff proceed from thence to the market, and proclaim the fair as before. They then go to Clayport Street, where the fair is again proclaimed, and from thence to the castle. The above townships, by their attendance, are exempt from paying toll in the borough for twelve months, but if they do not attend, they must pay the same till the next year.”

Custom demised: Holne Ram roasting on May Day.

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 In 1853, the curate of Holne in N. & Q. 1st S. vol. vii. p. 353 records a curious:

“At the village of Holne, situated on one of the spurs of Dartmoor, is a field of about two acres, the property of the parish, and called the Ploy (play) Field. In the centre of this stands a granite pillar (Menhir) six or seven feet high.”

Now folklorists have seen some significance with the association of the custom with a menhir suggesting an ancient custom and as such the following is of considerable interest. The author continues: 

“On May-morning before daybreak the young men of the village used to assemble there, and then proceed to the moor, where they selected a ram lamb (doubtless with the consent of the owner), and after running it down, brought it in triumph to the Ploy Field, fastened it to the pillar, cut its throat, and then roasted it whole, skin, wool, &c. At midday a struggle took place, at the risk of cut hands, for a slice, it being supposed to confer luck for the ensuing year on the fortunate devourer. As an act of gallantry the young men sometimes fought their way through the crowd to get a slice for the chosen amongst the young women, all of whom, in their best dresses, attended the Ram Feast, as it was called. Dancing, wrestling, and other games, assisted by copious libations of cider during the afternoon, prolonged the festivity till midnight.”

The custom appears in Black’s Guide to Devonshire who records:

“PLOYFIELD playfield where the ram feast is celebrated every May day a lamb being caught slaughtered and roasted and old games following the banquet.”

When it  died out is unclear. However, it is thought that the custom moved to July the 6th and involved catching ram from the moor,  dressing it with roses and leading to the Plat Park’ where it was slaughtered and then roasted. The meat was then apparently sold off and a day of games continued. In the end a ram was provided for the roast with little ceremony and in its final entity became the village’s fete which apparently still continues it a sanitised format today.

Custom demised: Visiting St Margaret’s Well, Wereham

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In the centre of Wereham in Norfolk © Richard Humphrey :: Geograph Britain and Ireland

Patronal days were found in every Parish in Britain, but the Reformation removed many of them. In most cases they were simple feasts held in the church but in other occasions they might have involved other sites.

Such appeared to have in Wereham Norfolk. Here in the T.K Cromwell’s 1829 Excursions in the county of Norfolk records:

“To the west of Wereham Church, Norfolk, a well, called St. Margaret’s, was much frequented in the times of Popery. Here, on St. Margaret’s Day, the people regaled themselves with ale and cakes, music and dancing. Alms were given, and offerings and vows made, at sainted wells of this kind.”

It appears that Cromwell is the original source of this account and John Chambers wrote his 1830 A general history of the county of Norfolk as he repeats verbatim except oddly the last line:

“…to the west of the church is St. Margaret’s Well, at which, in the times of popery, the people diverted themselves on that saint’s day with cakes and ale, music and dancing; alms and offerings were brought, and vows made: all this was called Well worship”.                                        

When this was and the exact details I have never been able to find out, perhaps Cromwell had local knowledge. The well however was  first noted 1450, and is marked on the 1884-5 O/S in the square as Margaret’s Well and now appears to have been lost buried under the tarmac of Margaret’s Hill which inconveniently is in the middle of road making it an unlikely place for any such frolics unless you left with your ale from a local pub that is.

Of course many wells were associated with such customs but why this one is recorded amongst many others is unclear and unfortunately we may never know.

Water appeared important on St Margaret’s Day, in weather-lore Steve Roud in his 2006 English Year notes:

“St Margaret’s Day was often expected to be wet; if it was, it was termed ‘Margaret’s flood’.

It appears perhaps by visiting her spring they can always get wet come what may! Interesting the church website notes:

“The main fundraising event of the year is the Church Festival, which takes place on the Sunday nearest the feast day of St Margaret of Antioch (20th July).”

It is clear that St Margaret’s Day is not forgotten locally

Custom revived: Chipping Camden’s Cotswold Olympicks, Gloucestershire

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He [Dover] spares no cost; this also doth afford
To those that sit at any board.
None ever hungry from these Games come home,
Or e’er made plaint of viands, or of room

Nicholas Wallington

When one thinks about Olympics one thinks of Greece and the four yearly major events that travel around the world. But like the Japan Olympics the Coronavirus crisis cancelled the Cotswold one as well. Unlike the ‘real’ Olympics – the Cotswold Olympicks has an older pedigree.

The name of the game

The Cotswold’s games is a new name for what was and is called Dover’s Olympicks. Robert Dover who was a local lawyer is said to have started the games in 1612. Why is unclear but it may have been that he felt that physical exercise was important or that he wanted to bring all classes together in a single enterprise and as such the events included a wide range of county pursuits ranging from horse-racing to wrestling, hound coursing to sledgehammer throwing. The games would take place on the Thursday and Friday of Whitsun usually lying in mid June or late May. These games took place in the amphitheatre of a hill fort called now Dover’s hill. One of the features of the custom would be the erection a wooden Dover’s castle where small cannons would be fired to start the event off and fireworks at the end.

The custom soon attracted fame. Prince Rupert is reported to have attended the Games in 1636 and at the same time a collection of poems celebrating it was also produced called Annalia Dubrensia (Annals of Dover). The poetry called it “an occasion of social harmony and communal joy” and was written by noted poets Thomas Randolph, Ben Jonson, Thomas Heywood and Michael Drayton. The common theme was that the games were celebrating and reviving English social life, stating that it was peaceful and well behaved and contradicted views that it allowed “drunken behaviour and sexual licence”. By this time the Games had acquired their title of “Olimpicks” which was approved by Dover especially as it secularised the events. It is thought that because Dover was brought up in a Catholic family he was reluctant of course to let people know and make people especially Puritans to think he had revived the pre-Reformation church ale.

The games outlived their founder – although there has been some debate that he may not have founded it but re-founded it. This was despite some disapproval of the event from 17th Century Puritans who disliked the event being associated with Whitsun and many local landowners forbade their workers to attend it. As the custom had support from James I, it was perhaps not that surprising and especially when the English Civil war broke out it was stopped.

However, you cannot keep a great custom down, especially one which was centred around fun and frivolities and thus coming of the Restoration it too was restored. Sadly Robert died in 1652 and so did not see its revival. It was his son Captain John Dover took it over, but he died in 1696 and it based onto one of his sons , Dr. Thomas Dover.

Game over!

However, the Games were not secured, perhaps without its guiding hand, they soon become associated with drunk and disorderly behaviour. Despite Thomas’s great interest in his grandfather’s Games, by this time he had moved away and let the organisation be done by others only having an honorary presidential capacity.  After his death in 1742 the Games were held a further 220 times over the intervening years through various promoters gaining the name Dover’s games although the family had no longer an association.  Poet William Somerville described it in 1740 as “just another drunken country festival” where chairs, and forms, and battered bowls are hurled/With fell intent; like bombs the bottles fly” and writer Richard Graves in the Spiritual Quixote of 1773 as a “heathenish assembly’ with: “six young women began to exhibit themselves before the whole assembly, in a dress hardly reconcilable to the rules of decency.”

After Thomas. Dover’s death in 1742 the Games continued under a variety of promoters, right through the 18th as this advert from 1812 states:

“On Thursday in Whit-week, On that Highly-renowned and universally admired spot called Dover’s Hill, Near Chipping Campden. Glos. The sports will commence with a grand match of Backswords for a purse of guineas, To be played by 9 or 7 men on a side. Each side must appear in the ring by 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Or 15s. each pair will be given for as many as will play. Wrestling for belts and others prizes. Also Jumping in bags and dancing. And a Jingling Match for 10s. 6d. As well as divers others of celebrated Cotswold and Olympic games, for which this annual meeting, has been famed for centuries.”

By 1845 the reputation of the Games was calling for their demise. The local rector Reverend Geoffrey Drinkwater Bourne, claimed that the 300000 attendees were all drunk and disorderly and that it attracted the lowest scum between Birmingham and Oxford. The event by that point was organised by local publican, William Drury, who would have been very keen to get alcohol sold there in return for his £5 fee for the event. It may have been that there were underlying reasons for local people to have it curtailed as the hill which was common land and oddly enough the consent for enclosure was given to the very same rector in 1850. Lo and behold in 1852 it was stopped this was despite very little record in court papers for any prosecutions associated with the event.

Thus by the time of T. F. Thistleton Dwyer British Popular customs present and past (1875) he reports:

“The vicinity of Chipping Campden was the theatre of the Cotswold Games, which, in the reign of James I. and his unfortunate successor, were celebrated in this part of England. They were instituted by a public-spirited attorney of Burton on-the-Heath, in Warwickshire, named Robert Dover, and like the Olympic games of the ancients, consisted of most kinds of manly exercises. The victors were rewarded by prizes, distributed by the institutor, who, arrayed in a discarded habit of James’, superintended the games in person for many years. The meetings were annually held on Whitsun Thursday, and were frequently attended by an immense number of people.”

It was a dead custom the land was portioned by local land owners and enclosed. Dover’s hill might change forever and with it gone his games

Back to the game

The way back to its survival happened when fortunately the land was acquired by the National Trust opening up the possibility of public access to what had become known as Dover’s Hill. Then in 1951 someone thought of reviving the games for the Festival of Britain, amazing just under 100 years since its cancelation. However, its celebration again was sporadic; foot and mouth disease in 1952, the Coronation in 1953 prevented regular observation and it was not until 1966 that it was regularly organised. Its significance in the history of the Modern Olympics was recognised  by the British Olympic Association as the ‘first stirrings of Britain’s Olympic beginnings’ when they made their 2012 bid for London.

The organisers excellent website state the various games played:

King of The Hill One of the traditional events at the Games, this antecedant of modern events like the pentathlon involves individual competitors competing at 4 separate events (in the lower arena). These events are: Static Jump (jumping as far as possible from a standstill), Spurning the Barre (an old English version of the Scottish tossing the caber), Hammer Throw and Putting the Shot. The combined total for all four events decides the winner. Entries for this event open at 6.30pm on the night of the Games. Entry is open to all adults over 16.

 Championship of the Hill A true crowd pleaser! The traditional team challenges of ancient rural Games, updated for the 21st century! Teams of 6 participents (many from local pubs or other groups) compete against each other in a series of ever-more-frantic, and ever-wetter games! These games vary from year to year, but generally include relays involving wheebarrows, dustbins, hay bales, slippery running surfaces and lots of water!  Very limited team entries are available for this event, but you must notify us beforehand. We reserve the right to refuse entry if this event reaches its maximum of 6 teams.

 Running Races After a few years’ absence, the running races will be back this year.  The course will be entirely cross country and entirely on Dover’s Hill.  There will be a 1 lap (c. 1 mile) and a 3 lap (c. 3 miles) race.  

 Tug O’ War One of the traditional rural sports, (and former Olympic sport), and still taken very seriously. Teams of 8 people pit their strength against opposing teams, in a series of ‘pulls’ culminating in a final in front of Dover’s Castle on the Lower Arena. A limited number of team entries may be available. Please let us know your intention to enter before the Games.”

and then finally the most famed:

“Shin Kicking The media’s favourite (for some strange reason!). One of the sports which took place in 1612, and we’re still doing it to this day (although we’ve made it a bit safer since those days – Steel toe caps are banned, and we allow the use of straw to pad shins).”

This later as they suggest has taken on a life of its own and indeed could be seen as a custom within a custom.

Game set and match

I experience the Cotswold Olympicks back in the mid 1990s. Chipping Camden is a delightful village and the modern Cotswold Olympicks as they are now known is a great addition. Like the origin games, Robert Dover dressed in his ceremonial coat, hat, feather and ruff (the original a donation of James I) albeit this is now an actor starts the event. He then rides in to ceremonious applause. A reconstruction of Dover’s castle is set up on the hill’s amphitheatre. The event started with some Morris dancers – Chipping Camden a traditional team – although there was no real evidence the Morris were originally involved but they sort of come with every rural event these days.

There was a real fun atmosphere there and watching the events was both exciting and amusing. For those who miss It’s a knockout its zaniness and bizzareness will be very familiar. Special interest was the shin-kicking event of course and although no days its much safer the contestants – perhaps I should say combatants – there was determination on their faces. After adorning their white coats and stuffing their socks with a shin pad and then with straw and then more staff and even more straw they were off. It was intense and rather comical as so stuffed with straw a number of times they went to take a kick and fell over together. The competition was difficult to work out who was winning to be honest as they held on to each other and started kicking – it was like a weird ballet! Their coats being more and more dirty until one fell and they were the winner!

The event ended with a huge bonfire being lit and we were all given wooden torches and encouraged to light them. A horn sounded and we were encouraged to start our journey down into the town and as it swayed through the streets in the darkness a dragon on light. It was a magical ending to a great revived event.

Custom contrived: Grindon Hedgehog rolling, Staffordshire

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Yes you did read that right! Hedgehog rolling. However, whilst you may think you have identified one of the main sources of their unwanted decline and reaching for animal welfare organisation phone number; let me explain.

Grindon is a very small Peakland village, in Staffordshire, but close to the Derbyshire border. It seemed pretty remote especially considering the road taken by the SatNav took a narrow overgrown lane with grass in the middle. Remote places create remote traditions and here Grindon claims hedgehog rolling. Don’t worry no real hedgehogs were involved they use cones.

 (Hedge) hogwash?

The village claim that hedgehogs were kept as pets to remove pests from the home and that they were especially trained to take part in the race. They go on to claim that Lewis Carroll came to Grindon’s hedgehog rolling day and got the idea for the Flamingo and Hedgehog Croquet game in Alice in Wonderland. They also claim the tradition died out early last century. However in Grindon Action Group committee revived it in 2002 and it has gone on from strength to strength since then. This claimed origin all sounds more than dodgy to me and I have been unable to provide any evidence of the custom bar its’ appearance in the Ashover May Day.

Go the whole (hedge) hog

These cone hogs all have painted faces with names beginning with H, Harriet, Herbert, Henry…you get the idea. For these ‘hogs’ which are rolled nowadays are giant fir cones imported from France and they are brushed around the village course by ‘rollers’ armed with traditional besoms (brooms).

The rolling sandwiched between other various events, a fine display of Morris from Black Dog Molly, egg and spoon sack races etc came in age group rounds or heats.

Sonic the hedgehog!

Picking ones’ cone or rather hedgehog and broom appeared to be important to winning. Too large and too heavy and the cone was difficult to manoeuvre similarly if the broom had too long a head it too much force would be produced. Thus it looked easier than it was as the teams had to circumnavigate around a rectangular shape – although the children only needed to go half way! Despite this there didn’t appear to be much difference in the vigour between the ages although sometimes too much force meant the cone pinged off and away from the route.

Making a clean sweep of it

In the Men’s heat it was good to see one of the Molly dancers there, but despite Molly dancing being associated with brooms it appears not to have helped and he loped into last place. Local rivalry holds strong here and it was evident that reputation was important as last year’s winner triumphantly came second!

Perhaps the hottest heat was the husbands and wives which showed there was no love lost and everyone to themselves as the men speeded ahead leaving the women far behind. A gentle hit being more successful in getting you to control your hedgehog. I would feel that a real one would be slightly easier to control.

The day ended with a tug of war, enthusiastically grasped by young and old. The Grindon Hedgehog rolling may be a local event but it was a very welcoming and unusual one so if you happen to be there in July use your map to find it and get involved.

Custom contrived: Corpus Christi Tortoise Race, Oxford

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Dreaming spires, gowns, academic prowess – all things associated with one of Britain’s greatest academic establishment. But tortoises? Perhaps not but for Corpus Christi college and a number of other colleges who compete it has been a strong tradition and bizarre break for the academic.

Tortoise’s cannot regulate their body temperature so it did not look good promising for a race when huge clouds appeared above those dreaming spires. But everyone was in good spirits awaiting the tortoise race at the college’s tortoise fair. Many were having picnics and many were adorned with face paintings which showed their affinity with our reptilian races.

What they tortoise at University

Founded by Richard Foxe, Bishop of Worcester and famed for its role in the translation of the bible into English. Tortoise racing is not necessarily appear to come to mind in this setting. However, back in the Trinity Term, local tradition states that a student called Steve Brand, who decided to raise money for RAG by organising a tortoise race as a ‘gentlemanly challenge to Oriel College. Surprisingly, so did Freda from BBC TV’s Blue Peter. According to the College’s journal, the Pelican Record in 1974 the night before the College’s tortoise Christi had disappeared. After much searching he was found in the Cloister’s quad. This moment of freedom, may have affected the result however, the Pelican Record noted:

“Christie, obviously off form after a harrowing night, came third after 21 gruelling minutes and 40 seconds.” 

Tortoises going missing appears to be a bit of a theme. In the 2000s, Balliol College’s Rosa, a winner of number of races was kidnapped the night before and never seen again! Trinity was blamed but nothing was ever proved.

Tortoise racing itself has some history. It was apparently done at the beginning of the last century in Greece being last recorded being done by bored British soldiers on the slope of Mount Olympus using lettuce and shade apparently as lures.

The Tortoise…and the hmmm…tortoise!

In those days tortoises were a bit more common, roll or perhaps, crawl back to the 21st century, and they are not despite this a good field of candidates were produced.

Some of the tortoises however have a long pedigree. Emanuelle from Regent’s College was bought in 1976. Originally thought to be a male and so gained an extra -le. As a regular winner in the 1980s and 90s and even starred in Blue Peter. Indeed it even had a cup named after it.

Over the years there have been tortoises coming and going from Oldham, Sampras, Percy, Archibald, Theodore, Zoom, Shelley. One year there was even a red-eared terrapin for Magdalen College School’s called George! This year there was a large Leopard tortoise which I felt was, being twice as big, quicker than the others as more powerful perhaps. The best name was Aristurtle – the Classic education showing through!

 

Clearly tongue firmly in cheeks as the Oxford Cherwell in 2013 Oxford in suspense for corpus tortoise fair reports:

Sampras, Christ Church’s tortoise. Kishan Koria, the tortoise keeper at Christ Church, says of Sampras: “An understated intellectual colossus (with an IQ of 160+) it has been rumoured that Aesop’s fable was indeed based on Sampras, as was Lewis Carroll’s academic paper on logic ‘What the Tortoise Said to Achilles’.” Kishan adds: “He has been inspired by the Olympics towards a victory for the College who are right behind him.” 

Remember, slow and steady wins the race

Suddenly the bells of the nearby college chimed and everyone descended on an area to the back of the college. We had been watching the College’s cheerleading team – yes I was surprised too – but they were excellent – throwing a man dressed as a turtle into the air when people disappeared to form a large circle crowded around an open space, the arena. To one side were an array of boxes, wooden, cardboard and plastic stuffed with straw and hay in which resided preparing themselves the colleges the tortoises cared for by their devoted keepers. The role of the keeper is a formal elected role in the College and one not taken too lightly and it was clear they really cared for their carapaced charges.

Around the circle was placed lettuce leaves as the goal as this was a race of quickest to the outer circle rather than a flat race. One by one the tortoise racers were introduced with a few words from their keepers. Cheers went up for them from their respective fellow college members. They are very loyal to their tortoises. However, I couldn’t help think that Magdalene’s College’s Oscar d’tortoise was a bit of a cheat being it was a student in a suit! Worcester did apparently plan to bring two Zoom and Shelly but only Shelly turned up. There was Turtellini from St Anne’s, a cute small Aristurtle from St Peters, Percy from University, Emmanuelle from Regent’s Park and getting the biggest cheer Foxe from the home college. Once they add been introduced them and their keepers stood in the middle facing outwards and as the crowd counted down let go of their tortoises and they were off. I must say they moved exceedingly quickly Cheers and come ons boomed from the excited crowd. The tortoises were literally biting at each other’s hills and at one point two grunting tortoises had to be separated. Then only minutes after the whistle was blown Shelly went over the line and the race was finished. Shelly sat chomping his lettuce. Like all racers they then stayed around for photographs and adoration. It was over for another year and as the crowd dispersed so did the fine weather….a huge rain cloud befell the tortoises who were quickly spirited away for some post race fruit no doubt.

Custom survived: Reach Fair and Penny Scramble Cambridgeshire

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Regular readers of posts will have noticed fairs have been covered quite a bit this year. This will probably be the last one for a bit but it certainly is an unusual one to end with. It has the attributes of the other fairs covered here – rides, fast food and an opening from the Mayor. But the opening by the Mayor is more dramatic plus bizarrely it is a Mayor from the nearby city not the village it is in.

Within Reach

There is something ancient about Reach and its fair. I decided to travel to the fair via the Devil’s Dyke path following this ancient Anglo-Saxon entrenchment which ended at the village and one part of the fair even lay along it. Reach itself is a small settlement, a picturesque village, nestled around a green called Fair Green. Officially, it received charter in 1201 it is probably much older and likely dates back to the Saxon period. Over the years like many fairs it has changed. Despite being a small village, it was economically important to East Anglia, even nationally possibly internationally important being noted for selling ponies. These would fill the village and the auction would be held at the Hythe where a large stone still stands called the Auction Stone, the bids being struct for the third time. Over time like nearly every fair in the UK it moved from trade to fun.

Reaching out

I arrived a few minutes before the official opening of the fair. Making my way to the centre of the village, to Fair Green, where in this small area were crammed an array of whirling and buzzing rides; a big wheel, dodgems and a Maypole! It was May day after all!

Then at midday, the Cambridge Corporation and the Mayor party arrived. The Mayor being attended by the Aldermen and women in top hats and sergeant at Mace and various dignitaries from the University who processed to the bank and their assembled. They were given flower posies made by the local children, originally to keep the smells away! Below them the whole of the fair assembled waiting for the proclamation and more importantly for the hundreds of children – the penny scramble!

The Sergeant-at-Mace stood forward rang his bell, or rather dropped his clanger as it didnt work, and gave the proclamation:

“The King, by a charter dated at Geddington, the 8th of January, in the 2nd year of his reign, and tested by Roger bishop of St. Andrew’s, Geoffery Fitzpeter earl of Essex, Robert earl of Leicester, William earl of Sarum, and others, granted to the burgesses of Cambridge the following privileges :

  1. That they should have a gild of merchants.
  2. That no burgess should plead without the walls of the borough of any plea, save pleas of exterior tenure (except the King’s moneyers and servants).

III. That no burgess should make duel; and that with regard to pleas of the Crown, the burgesses might defend themselves according to the ancient custom of the borough.

  1. That all burgesses of the merchant’s gild should be free of toll, passage, lastage, pontage, and stallage, in the fair, and without, and throughout the ports of the English sea, and in all the King’s lands on this side of the sea, and beyond the sea, (saving in all things the liberties of the City of London).
  2. That no burgess should be judged by arbitrary amerciaments, except according to the ancient late of the borough existing in the time of the King’s ancestors.

  3. That the burgesses should have justly all their lands and tenures, wages and debts whatsoever, to them due, and that right should be done to them of their lands and tenures within the borough, according to the custom thereof.

VII. That of all the debts of burgesses which should be contracted at Cambridge and of the appearances there to be made, the pleas should be holden at Cambridge.

VIII. That if anyone in all the King’s dominions, should take toll or custom from the men of Cambridge of the merchant’s gild, and should not make satisfaction, the Sheriff of Cambridgeshire, or the Bailiff of Cambridge, should take therefore a distress at Cambridge, (saving in all things the liberties of the City of London).

  1. That for the amendment of the borough, the burgesses should have a fair in Rogation week, with all its liberties as they had been accustomed to have.
  2. That all the burgesses of Cambridge might be free of yereshyve and of scotale, if the King’s sheriff or any other bailiff had made scotale.

  3. That the burgesses might have all other liberties and free customs which they had in the time of the King’s ancestors, when they had them better or more freely.

XII. That if any customs should be unlawfully levied in war, they should be broken.

XIII. That whosoever should come to the borough of Cambridge with his merchandise, of whatever place, whether stranger or otherwise, might come, tarry, and return in safety, and without disturbance, rendering the right customs.

XIV. That any one causing injury, loss or trouble, to the burgesses, should forfeit a £10 to the King.

  1. That the burgesses and their heirs, might have and hold the foregoing liberties, of the King and his heirs, peaceably, freely, quietly, entirely, and honourably in all things.”

Much of the proclamation being largely incomprehensible to the crowd of course but of course everyone was waiting for the penny scramble. It is worth noting that the fair was originally on Rogation Monday later being moved to May Day Bank holiday for the convenience of the attendees. Like many fairs it was a time for homecoming. The second worth noting is that the charter allowed the development of a Pie Powder court to deal with trade offences and civil disobedience. This later point was of importance because it was said that it was the time when local people would fight with their neighbours and the nearby Upware men would make it the day the fought with Reach and got their hair cut! Indeed, in 1852 the local newspaper reported that a serious fire was caused by:

“Dissolute characters… attracted by the Annual Horse Fair”

Charles Lucas records in his 1930 Fenman’s world:

“Between ten and eleven o’clock things begin to get a bit lively as Upware and boxing, or rather free fighting, seemed to be the order of the day…the Wicken and Swaffham police were dealt with summarily, one being pitched into the Lode and the other into the Fen drain…at this time a crank Cambridge, a from Jesus graduate, Richard Ramsey Fielden MA, gave out that he was King and champion of Upware and he spent his time there arguing and fighting the bargees…it was though that he was the originator of the proceedings

Reach for the pennies!

Then after the proclamation the members of the corporation called Colts and Fillies apparent reached into their pockets for their bags of coins and then with very little fanfare we were off. Coins flew through the air. At one point coins fell from the sky like bullets. Below the children were prostrate on the ground, searching every blade of grass for the golden pieces, glinting in the light. I looked down and saw some children making large bundles of coins clutched in his hand beaming widely.

The barrage was constant and just when I thought it had stopped more coins appeared. The children were hungry for it and then it stopped. The crowd disappeared and the sound of the fair cranked up and it was open. Morris dancers appeared and danced. Young children did Maypole dancing – and sadly got tangled up and burgers were sold. Reach fair an obscure oddity and a great day to spend the May Day. Certainly much of the surrounding area agreed people were walking the roads for miles from nearby villages.

Custom Survived: Rivington Pike Good Friday Walk and Fair

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 “When I lived in Horwich in Lancashire (UK) in the early 1950s, we used to walk up to the old hunting lodge on the top of Rivington Pike on Easter Monday. There was always a fair up there – heaven knows how they got up there in those days – and we kids would roll our hard-boiled, hand-painted Easter eggs down the hill and chase after them. Then, having looked at all the stalls and tried out some of the treats, filled with candy-floss and ice-cream and carrying cheap wooden toys, we’d walk home through the Chinese Gardens. ….Then it was back to work for the men on Tuesday morning, and back to school for us. Anyone else ever go up the Pike at Easter? Is the fair still there, and do kids still roll eggs? Probably not, but I’d be interested to hear.”

Mudcat Cafe forum Will Fly in 2010

Rivington Pike arises like a large beacon on the horizon, glinting in the sunlight. It appears to calling people to come, climb and reach the summit and on Good Friday the surrounding towns and villages make the pilgrimage to the top; although perhaps they don’t really know why! Or rather the origins, for today the pleasures of the view, some pace egging or egg rolling and a fun fair are more than enough to pass the day.

This year the sun was shining, a rarity for Good Friday, but again it was late April and more than ever Rivington was a draw. As one drove through the villages, scores of people carrying picnics and surrounded by children appeared to heading to it. The closer one became, the road became more and more choked up with cars jockeying for position, for someone to park. At the slopes thousands of people were gathered and hundreds of cars, each possible place was filled and after a while a small gap on the road was found. Parked I made my way to summit and joining the thousands who had decided to.

Pike walk

How long people have been walking to the summit is not really known. It is known that a fair was established in 1900 on the lower slopes, having moved from an original Whit Sunday. This became a major draw card for visitors however it is only here because of the large numbers not caused by them! A local newspaper reports how in the 1920s that the holidaymakers of Lancashire towns such as Chorley would make a beeline for the hill:

“Chorley people will tonight commence the Easter holiday all the more cheerfully in the knowledge that there will be no extended stoppages at local mills over the holiday period. Chorley people as a rule do not go away for the Easter holiday, though the day excursions being run from the town are expected to be fully utilised. Weather permitting there will be the traditional trek on Good Friday to Rivington Pike.”

Such large numbers attracted more than just fairs and Christian groups would ascend the Pike to orate on the Good Friday message. It is very probable that the walk to the top was by church congregations to celebrate Good Friday. Today the message is still there, proclaiming ‘Jesus Saves’ on a banner across the Pike but no organised services appear to be there. An account from 2009 at least suggests local people remember the importance of the day in the church:

“A special mention must go to an excellent and original effort from a couple of charity fundraisers we witnessed at the Pike, dressed as Jesus and The Queen. Complete with wooden cross and thorny crown Jesus ascended the Pike where he spoke to the multitude offering to perform a “sponsored walk on water”. The characters were portrayed in a completely inoffensive manner, and very popular with the crowd.

Just keep climbing

It was so hot and the walk was punishing, perhaps reminding those of the Passion, and when one thought one was close there were still more to go. Finally past the delightful gardens which cloak the slope, the moorland opened up and the Pike could be seen as could the snake of people reaching the top. As one got closer, crushed eggs could be seen by the wayside. Worn eggs or those who didn’t make it.

Then finally the Pike was in reach and its swarmed with people of all ages. I watched as one by one the stream of pilgrims reached the summit and ceremonially placed their hand on the odd monument at the summit. Each person did it and in one crevice, flowers were placed to remember someone who was not able to reach it this year. I asked one of the people who was most determined to place their hand there. ‘It’s a good luck for the rest of the year’ they said.

Just keep rolling

As I surveyed the area, it was evident that this was a family affair – three or sometimes more generations made it to the top. Speaking to Jean, in her 70s, she said she been going on and off since the 1960s and remember her grandparents coming with them. Why? Well the view was amazing, the fair was always a draw and the pace egging. Yes, for on the top hundred of children had assembled with their coloured eggs to roll down the steep slopes. Unlike other places, such as Fountains Abbey, where the rolling is organised with prizes, here it was completely impromptu – well as impromptu as climbing a hill with some pre-prepared eggs can be. Everywhere eggs were tumbling and in some cases children too down the very steep slopes. The dogs around getting confused by the balls they could eat as well! This again was a generational thing, the adults having as much fun rolling – without any kids and playing an egg rolling equivalent of dodgeball or dodge-egg! A real tradition untainted by commercialisation.

Finally after admiring the rolling, the views and enjoying the sunshine I walked down, trying to miss the flying eggs, to the fair below. This laid on a dirt track below the hill but apparently was once on the upper slopes holding on, on those fierce Good Friday winds, precariously holding on, the bouncy castles almost bouncing off. A small fair but popular, Northern soul tracks pumping out of the hook a duck stall…creating a special northern feel. The Rivington Pike Good Friday walk is one of those sort of spontaneous customs which are rare today, it may have had a fair attached to it, the walk still appears rain or shine, wind or calm conditions, to be the goal. I was just thankful that it was warm and sunny!