Stow Fair

Stow on the Wold where the cold wind blows’ is nearly 800 feet up in the Cotswolds and all roads seem to lead to its airy height. High roads and low roads from far off Cirencester. Gloucester. Tewkesbury, Evesham, Warwick. Banbury and Burford, and from nearer encircling golden-stoned villages, like Upper and Lower Swell. Upper and Lower Slaughter, Evenlode and Adlestrop, whose station platform was immortalised in Edward Thomas’s poem. In Highways and Byways in Oxford and the Cotswolds (1919) Herbert A. Evans writes: ‘There is something in the very names of the villages which, as was once felicitously said, makes the traveller feel that life is still worth living.’

Stow_Horse_Fair_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1576364Stow Fair was always and still is one of the most celebrated in England. A charter of Edward IV authorises it being held twice a year in May and October, and although it no longer has the enormous sheep market it used to when Stow was the centre of the Cotswold wool nude, it is still a red letter day in the gypsy calendar. When I first went, decades ago, I felt a bit like an intruder but I realized  that as soon as I’d made a deal or two I felt welcome.  The gabled Bell pub was packed by 10 am when I last went ‘You want a lurcher puppy?’ asked an old diddicoy from Barnett with a nut brown, creased up face. ‘Well,’ I said, hesitating. ‘Only 12 weeks and he’ll kill anything – rabbits, hares, chickens, pheasants, anything.’ I  declined.

Outside, sandwiched between the roads to Adlestrop and Maugersbory, a steep field fell away facing out  across the Evenlode valley towards Oxfordshire. Among the bustle of people were groups of coloured horses and ponies tied to the pub railings, or to yellow rubbish skips, or under sycamores – hundreds of them, their heads down, dozing and unperturbed. There were mares with tiny foals at foot, stallions being walked up and down by old men, and every so often a cry of ‘Mind yer backs!’as bowling down the Maugersbury lane came young men driving sulkies behind wild-eyed two year olds with their heads held high; or boys showing off their young horses, trotting alarmingly fast, riding bare- back with a halter and a rope and their legs stuck right forward to balance.

Munnings painted that sort of thing, and there is no change today. Children are whisked up into their parents’ arms, a highly made-up, dark-eyed, lady with greased black curls, carrying a purple and orange plastic baby bath, flattens herself against a tree to let them pass. At Stow and Appleby, Barnet and Ballinasloe, horse dealing and the way of showing off the horses is a tradition. The price of a horse, which might be as much as £8,000, often bears no relation to its worth. The dealers like to keep their money in horses and to deal between themselves.

On down the field, lining a triumphal way, are stalls selling glittery, razzle-dazzle ware. The crowds wander by, pushing fancy prams and greeting each other. Young girls, with their midriffs bare to biting winds, eat candyfloss and wander down between the caravans, on the look out for the boys with the mobile phones and the Shogun four by fours who drive slowly through, making sure that everyone notices them. There are a few old time travellers, with round-topped caravans, lurchers, chickens and camp fires, but most have moved on to shiny chrome caravans which flaunt blue and white bohemian cut- glass bowls in the frilly curtained windows, alongside crinolined china ladies holding up lampshades as though they were parasols. Along the way you can buy, among other things, gold lace cushions in the shape of beans, red and green birds in cages, mohair cardigans with sequinned applique patterns and huge padded shoulders, gold-studded boon or yellow ‘dealer boots’. There is a sign saying ‘Advice given on all subjects by a true born gypsy’ outside the showiest caravan of all.

As I wend my way home along the High Street, there is a long queue outside the fish and chip shop. Some of the antique shops have shut. The new Stow people have turned their backs on Stow Fair and the new locals are annoyed by the traffic jam and feel threatened by the gypsies. They are lobbying to put an end to it.  I hope that never happens.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Philip Halling

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