By Kate Romano, CEO Stapleford Granary
I love a fair, a fête, a carnival, a Village Day; it’s the melting pot of spectacle, entertainment and reality, played out in an open-air setting, which is both fantastical and ephemeral. They have their origins in religion, in mythical-allegorical pageants and processions. In England, they have roots in the Victorian mechanical steam fairs, before that, in menageries, circuses and exhibitions. And before that, in Charter Fairs (the right to have a fair and collect rent from it) and Mop Fairs, whose primary purpose was the hiring of labourers (the ‘mop’ being a little symbol of your trade worn on your jacket). Wondrous, improbable, unsavoury, Samuel Pepys wrote about the pitiful sight of dancing mares at Bartholomew Fair and his approval for acrobat Jacob Hall’s Dancing of the Ropes (‘a thing worth seeing’). Thomas Hardy's description of wife-selling in the opening chapter of The Mayor of Casterbridge was inspired by a similar real-life incident at a Dorset trading fair in the early 19th century.
Our Village Day at the Granary (now in its second year) doesn’t have steam-powered roundabouts, acrobats or dancing animals, nor are we selling wives. But the principle remains the same. Public outdoor events are the story of the people who come to them and those who create them; a living, dynamic tradition which reflects the popular culture in which it operates. This year, on Sunday 17 July, we welcomed around 800 visitors to the Granary, 19 artists and stall holders, 40 musicians, 10 cooks and food sellers, 24 young bakers and 1 celebrity judge. 27 staff and volunteers ensured that everything ran smoothly and safely. On a blisteringly hot day, the shade of the courtyard tent kept everyone around 10 degrees cooler than they might have been and a plentiful supply of iced coffees, Pimm’s, cold drinks and water stations ensured that everyone was happily hydrated.
That's our bit. So where does the magic happen? In the colours and textures of the stalls created by artists and craft-makers; earthy pottery, antiques, rugs and woven baskets jostling with bunches of flowers and stained glass, tiny paper books, printed paper, chutneys and cheeses. In the spontaneous singing, drumming, clapping and dancing to live music and the surprise flypast from a WW2 Harvard (just for us!) In the hundreds of variants on the ‘bee headbands’ made and modelled by our youngest visitors and in the places where people chose to sit and eat, talk, drink, meet friends, all creating the buzzing, vibrant atmosphere that suits the Granary well.
And the impact of a Village Day doesn’t stop when the day ends. You take a bit of it away with you; something you bought or created, a song stuck in your head, a prize you won or a new acquaintance you made. I hope that all our brilliant entrants for the Junior Bake Off will keep on baking, encouraged by the words of adjudicator Ian Cumming. The winner of the 8-12 category was 9 year old Kimberly for her inspired Alice in Wonderland tea cup cakes. Wilf (age 5) who was the winner of the youngest age category couldn't stay for the adjudication but he came back later with his mum after everyone had gone. We cheered his winning cake and he proudly put on his winners apron for a photograph. ‘I just can’t believe that Ian liked my cake’ he kept saying - a marvellously layered colourful bake topped with an artist’s mixing palette and brushes made of fondant.
‘It’s got to be a bit different to everyday life’ said Graham Downie, historian and chairman of the Fairground Association of Great Britain, reflecting on the ever-evolving tradition of the fair. ‘The important thing about fairs is that they always innovate, they must always present something new because the people who come expect to see something new.‘
Innovation is crucial to all that we do here at the Granary as a charity and an arts centre. Beyond the spectacle and entertainment, our Village Day has its roots in our cultural values, beliefs and our desire to be a welcoming, inspirational place for everyone. Last year’s Village Day was born out of the pandemic, addressing the isolation and disconnection we all felt during and after lockdown when community spirit and social lives were superseded by the need for safety. You could feel the palpable relief and emotion at being able to do normal things again - like eating together and listening to music.
This year's Village Day seemed to signify a readjustment back to familiar patterns of life. We celebrated this by introducing new ideas; a headline folk band (Mishra), the opening of our new cafe, more hands-on activities, forgotten local history stories and Liz McGowan’s environmental art exhibition. I’m excited to see how our Village Day will continue to innovate and grow over the years as a reflection of our own community and I hope everyone who visits the Granary will be part of that evolution with us. Our heartfelt thanks to all of you who joined us and made the day so special.
The image at the top of the page is a print made by John Walmsley in 1841. It depicts a view within Bartholomew Fair showing some of the various stands and stages, people crowding to watch the shows, actors and jesters on the stages to the left, a 'Chinese Wizard' at far left and a 'Gin Palace' in the background. Reproduced with permission from the British Museum.