Old Swithin fills us with dread

Proclaiming Seamer Fair
Proclaiming Seamer Fair

by Heather Elvidge

As July’s weather continues to surprise, here comes old Swithin to fill us with dread. The saint’s warning is no empty threat:

“St Swithin’s Day if ye do rain, for forty days it will remain.”

Okay, it’s folklore, yet there is some truth in the old saying. Around mid-July our weather tends to get stuck in a rut. If it’s unsettled now, that’s how it will continue for the rest of the summer.

So who was this wet blanket? Swithin, or Swithun, was a Bishop of Winchester in the ninth century. A humble man, he asked not to be buried in the minster, but outside where the rain could fall on his grave. When he died in 862, his wishes were observed.

However, a century later when Swithin was thought a saint, they moved his remains indoors to a fancy shrine. It was July 15. Downpours followed, causing massive floods.

But let’s not forget, the saint can also foretell a dry spell: “St Swithin’s Day if ye be fair, for forty days ‘twill rain nae mair.”

Seamer Fair

Rain or no rain, in a village near Scarborough they mark July 15 by proclaiming an ancient right.

Seamer, set on firm ground at the edge of a huge mere, was already a place of note when in1383, Richard II granted the right to hold a weekly market and a yearly fair. The old settlement became a prosperous market town.

Although best known today for the Travellers’ Horse Fair that’s grown up alongside, the main business of Seamer Fair wasn’t the selling of horses. The charter stated, “any lawful goods”. It also allowed residents to sell home-brewed beer to fair-goers, which they advertised by fixing a branch or bush over the door.

When it came to buying and selling, at fairs and elsewhere, certain customs had to be observed. The first money a trader took was known as “hansel” and it set the tone for the rest of the day. It was better to sell at a lower price, than to scare off a buyer and lose the hansel. The trader would spit on the lucky coin before tucking it away.

By the 1890s the great Sea Mere that gave the village its name was long gone, the land drained and put under the plough. Seamer’s nine inns had been reduced to two. At the annual fair merry-making threatened to overshadow the trading, but even so the fair managed another thirty-odd years.

Today, some Seamer residents are tired of July 15. The day’s events are low-key; all that remains is the fair’s opening ceremony, the reading of the charter on horseback. This was important in the past because fairs were exempt from local trading laws, so everyone needed to know when the special conditions began and ended.

When the old fairs disappeared the gap was filled by new-style agricultural shows. They combined the fun — food, drink, music, entertainment, stalls — with classes for prime livestock and demonstrations of the latest machinery. Today they’re more popular than ever, and Driffield Show is one of the biggest. Let’s hope the sun shines there on July 16.