by Lisa De Silva
With the summer season upon us fairs, fetes and festivals are springing up everywhere. Lisa de Silva brings us all the fun of the fair and explores the history of these annual festivities in Sussex.
In a ritual that has endured since the 12th century, every summer weekend towns and villages across Sussex are busy setting up stalls, putting up bunting, making cakes and jam and preparing the village green for the fun and festivities of local fairs, fetes and festivals.
Full of community spirit, uniting all ages and classes, our annual village celebrations are a stalwart of the Sussex summer season. Over the years, these traditional events have adapted and moved with the times and here we take a closer look at the history and evolution of this engaging feature of our popular culture.
Most fairs held in Sussex can trace their ancestry back to charters granted during Medieval times, when the creation of a fair by royal charter was widespread. Prior to this, people had still gathered together to trade and enjoy a drink in an informal way, usually on the feast day of the local parish saint. As the people from the village all came together to celebrate this day, it was natural for the day to develop into a market or celebratory fair. It was also customary for the lord of the manor to collect any taxes on trading that took place.
However, following the Norman invasion in 1066, the rights to control these gatherings passed to the King, who then passed them down to his local ‘tenant-in-chief.’ This often led to disputes over who had the right to any sales tax and in these cases a direct appeal would be made to the King. There is evidence of this in the village of Hurstpierpoint which was first granted a charter by King Edward 11 in 1312, to celebrate the patron saint of the village, St Lawrence, by holding an annual fair. At that time, John de Warenne was the chief tenant to benefit from any trading taxes. But after Lewes Priory and the Bishop of Chichester both laid claim to the money, de Warenne was forced to appeal to the King who found in his favour.
One of the oldest royal charters in Sussex was awarded to Battle in 1122, with other villages and towns following shortly afterwards, including Pevensey (1207), Robertsbridge (1225), Eastbourne (1232), East Grinstead (1247), Burwash (1252), Wadhurst (1253), Cuckfield (1255) and Mayfield (1261).
The fairs gradually established themselves as an important part of village life and usually lasted several days or even weeks, providing an opportunity to sell goods and services or hire labourers. In many places the fairs developed into specialised events for selling sheep and horses and gradually evolved into agricultural shows, many of which are still held in the county today.
Attracted by the crowds, those with an entrepreneurial spirit saw the village fair as an opportunity to make some money and soon side stalls became a regular feature offering pies, cakes and sweets for sale, games of skill and luck and various trinkets and bric-a- brac to buy. Entertainment was also on offer and those attending the fair in Medieval Ditchling would have been treated to the spectacle of wrestling competitions, bear baiting and cock-fighting. Over time sword-swallowers, theatrical booths, magicians, puppet and circus shows, along with roundabouts and fairground rides were added to the attractions. The modern travelling fairground, along with many circus companies have their origins in these fairs.
The tradition of the village fete probably evolved from these larger fairs. Deriving from the French word for feast or festival, the timing of fete days originally revolved around the agricultural timetable. After the winter months had passed, the soil prepared and the crops planted, there was a short lull during the early summer before harvesting, which was perfect for taking the day off and having some fun. These days were eagerly anticipated and servants in the larger houses were allowed time o to attend, making the fete a day when the whole village could come together to enjoy the festivities.
The focal point was usually the village green and it was a time to show o the best of the community, whether that was growing local produce and flowers, baking cakes and making jams or playing music and country dancing. Often the ladies of the parish made items to be sold at the fete to raise funds for charitable causes and today, many of these community events still include a fundraising element. So, unlike the traditional fair which had its roots in commerce, it is generally acknowledged that fetes were motivated by charity, for the benefit of the community or a specific local cause.
Over the years, the village fete has embraced traditional games such as tug-of-war, hoopla and guess the weight. Villagers have taken donkey and fairground rides, tried their luck on the tombola or played ‘bowling for a pig,’ a skittles-style game where the visitor wins a live piglet. Today dog shows, snail-racing, archery, as well as a game of the Sussex sport of stoolball, are all common features. Arts festivals and open houses are also very popular today, championing art, jewellery, ceramics, wonderful food and drink and even camping and glamping.
Whether driven by nostalgia or the opportunity for all generations to come together and enjoy a day out, village fetes, fairs and festivals are thriving. So next time you buy a cake, watch a puppet show or throw the hoopla, spare a thought for your ancestors in whose footsteps you are following and enjoy the festivities.