As we endure yet another wet month, here comes St Swithin’s Day to fill us with dread. Forty more days of rain is not a happy prospect.
Let’s not forget that the saint can foresee a dry spell too: “St Swithin’s Day if ye be fair, for forty days ’twill rain nae mair.” We can only hope.
The village of Seamer, near Scarborough, marks July 15 by proclaiming its right to hold a fair. Villagers gather to watch as a representative of the Lord of the Manor reads the charter granted by Richard II in 1382.
Although it’s best known today for attracting Gypsies and their horses, this was not primarily a horse fair. In its heyday Seamer was a market town, whose seven-day fair offered “any lawful goods”. The charter also allowed residents to sell home brew for the duration of the fair.
All that remains today is the opening ceremony, the reading of the charter. This was important in the past because fairs were exempt from normal trading conditions, so everyone needed to know when they began and ended.
The annual fair was one of the highlights of the year in rural areas. People worked long hours, and time off was rare. At the fair they could catch up with old friends. Young men and women from different villages could mix, and perhaps find a partner.
Fairs had everything: food, drink, music, sideshows, sports, livestock, and stalls selling a variety of goods. But those who were buying or selling had to be careful, especially where animals were involved.
In the days before plastic, when real cash changed hands, certain customs had to be observed. The first money taken was known as hansel, and it set the tone for the day. The seller would be sure to spit on the lucky coin before it was tucked away in a pocket or purse.
Sellers were keen to get this over with: better to lose money, than to lose the hansel.
Prospective buyers had to be cautious. If they tried to get a lower price by pointing out some fault in an animal, they must make clear that no ill-wishing was intended. If they didn’t buy, and the horse or cow subsequently died, they could be blamed.
A trace of the old belief in ill-wishing can be heard today. If someone makes an offer for a beast that is not up for sale, the offer must be accepted because, “We won’t get any more good out of it.”
After the buyer had paid for the purchase, he might ask the seller to hand back a coin or two. The exact amount of this “luck money” was a matter of local convention. By the late 19th century many traders were refusing to comply, but even today an occasional buyer will ask, “Something back for luck?”
Most of the old fairs came to an end in the 19th century. Some had become too popular with disruptive urban visitors. Many outlived their original purpose, and were reinvented as pleasure fairs. Others, overtaken by expanding towns, were seen as a nuisance.
Eventually the gap left by the old fairs was filled by agricultural shows. Driffield Show on July 18 is a huge, one-day event with a multitude of attractions. For more information see: www.driffieldshow.co.uk Let’s hope the sun shines.