The Old Fair of Abinger has its origins in the churchyard fairs of the Middle Ages. St James' Church at Abinger Common was one of the main halting places for pilgrims as they wended their way along the ancient tracks of the North Downs to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury. It was also used by those undertaking the famous pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain where the body of St. James - to whom the church had been dedicated in the 13th century - was entombed. The travellers would be fed, watered and entertained by the villagers with minstrels and merriment and plays would be performed to return the hospitality. These fairs were to evolve much later into an annual event which was held in the village each July to celebrate the Feast of St. James and which continued into the 1930s.
The centrepiece for these activities over the hundreds of years was, and remains, the church whose Arcadian peace was shattered one Summer's morning in 1944 when a flying bomb scored a direct hit. It was to assist in raising funds for the church's restoration that the then Rector was inspired to revive the concept of the churchyard fair in mediaeval style. The first such fair took place in 1956 and the tradition has been continued for over fifty years. A proportion of the monies generated still contribute to the upkeep of this magnificent church while substantial payments are made to a number of charities and various local amenities.
In the Beginning
When Dr. Chapman revived the fair, all agreed it had to be as authentic as possible. Volunteers were sent to research on rural modes of dress, the cloth, the colours and the type of games and diversions which would have been seen at that time. Homespun was the key word for apparel and the colours would have been those available from nature. Bolts of hessian (sacking) were ordered from the mills and we gathered at a house in Harrison's Lane where the kind owner and expert showed us how to dye this to the appropriate drab colours in her bath, but not from onion skins, blackberries or woad!
Designs were simple. The men would wear a length to the knees, cut at the fold to allow the head to go through, sewn at the sides with a gap for the armholes and gathered in by a rope. Legs and feet had to be bare, apart from sandals, with the legs criss-crossed with thongs. Hats were design-free so a squashed trilby with a few pheasant feathers or the wife's beret pierced by a long quill were all acceptable.
The women wore similar attire but to the ankle and this would allow a little leeway as a blouse could be worn underneath without ruining the effect but adding some femininity. The head-covering had to be of any bonnet-type design, but nothing fancy!
Although this authenticity went on for many fairs as far as the men were concerned, vanity got the better of many of the women and we started to modify and subtly change our fair-costume until we had something which was both flattering but still roughly pertaining to the period. So a few wimples started to appear as headgear, colours became brighter and, shame to say, eventually one or two ladies actually went so far as hiring a ready-made outfit, preferring to be attired as gentlefolk rather than peasantry.
The amusements were simple but satisfying to all ages. Ducking for apples, bowling for a live pig (no animal rights then!), tossing the sheaf, rides on a donkey, and much more. The stalls sold only what could be produced at home – cooked cakes and pies, home-made wine, knitted toys, flowers and plants, toffee apples and other delights. There was choir-singing in the church and entertainment of the period in the centre ring, much of which is retained to this day.
Everyone in the village took part and everyone dressed up. Even if you were among the halt, lame or pregnant, it was expected that you would contribute if only to sell programmes. The village could be very sniffy about anyone who wouldn't join in!
The Abinger Fair was the highlight of our year. We were proud of its growing reputation and the togetherness it brought to the whole population of the village, whatever class or creed. The children who danced the Maypole are now mothers themselves and those of us who were very young parents then are now grandparents in our seventies!
Many well-loved stalwarts of the fair have passed on – Fred Cox, Bert Randall, Toby Pridmore, the Rodericks from the Abinger Hatch, and so many more. But they will all be hovering around on the 50th, keeping a watchful eye on how things are going. So many years, so many friends and so many memories.
The Mediaeval Fair
As the pilgrims called at churches such as St. James', Abinger, on or near their route, the villagers held churchyard fairs to give them food, drink and entertainment, in return for which the pilgrims often put on a play. The present Old Fair of Abinger, which was begun in 1956 by the then rector, Dr. C.T. Chapman, and is in aid of local and national charities, commemorates these churchyard fairs and is held annually, usually on the second Saturday in June on the village green by the church. The villagers are in mediaeval costume.
It was on this green that for some years up to 1933 on the festival of the patron saint of St. James a pleasure fair was held although some 215 years before it was spoken of by Aubrey as “a fair kept on St. James' Day for cattle, etc. … now much decayed". At that time churchyards had become places of assembly and trading (as was the custom originally in pagan burial places) and these had to be prohibited by statute.