Old Lechlade

written early in the 19th

To-day the steeple town is full of bustle and excitement, for it is September Horse Fair. This is usually called “Flea Fair,” or it should be “Harvest Bug Fair,” because about this time harvest bugs disappear from the grass and stubble, and the farm hands and gleaners are no longer tormented with the troublesome insects.

The broad market-place in front of the inn and beneath the shade of the spire is packed with horses and people. Farmers and dealers, hands in pockets, stand in groups or saunter round the square, viewing the animals. Here a prospective purchaser opens the mouth of a well-groomed horse to examine its teeth; another lifts up a fore-foot and scrutinises that, or feels the fetlocks and knees. He is in want of a couple of good horses, for Poppet is getting a little ancient, and Colonel has a nasty limp on the near hind leg, and there is extra work to be done this autumn. But the bidding will be keen, and the farmer is considering whether or not he will be justified in making the outlay, though he knows something must be done.

There are several types of yeomen about the square and some individuals who have come from afar off, for the horse fair is attended by breeders and dealers from many of the Western Counties. There is the tall bronzed son of Somersetshire, with highly distinctive dialect; the bluff and hearty moonraker, dwelling near the breezy downs, spruce and clean shaven, or with stiff, bristling moustache and side-beard; the comfortable-looking Berkshire man; the thin-featured, gentlemanly Oxonian, and the short, sturdy, thick-set man of Gloucestershire, whose home is upon the strong-blowing Cotswolds. In addition to them are the loiterers and sightseers— the wooden-legged pensioner rigged in Sunday best; the town tailor, crippled in both feet; and, to be sure, the old blacksmith of ninety years, who has absented himself from the forge to-day in order to note the condition of the horses and the fashion in which they are shod.

Higher up the broad street are vans and vehicles with materials for constructing the merry-go-rounds, cocoa-nut shies, and stalls for gingerbreads and knick-knacks. They stand in lines, waiting for the horses to be sold, which will be by noon or soon after. When the dealers have finished they will occupy the square and the space before the inns, and the travellers will exhibit their wares for the young men, women, and children to buy. The afternoon and evening will be devoted to pleasure. Then the people will flock in from the villages round about and the streets will be full to overflowing.

It was a happy decision that fixed the site of the church alongside the market-place in the centre of the town. This was most convenient in former days, for the fairs and festivals of the people were then more closely associated with the church than they are at this time. When the strolling players came to act their crude dramas they had their stage built close to the walls of the sacred pile, usually in the churchyard itself, or if the church abutted on the street, there they erected the scena, and, assisted by the monks and priests, proceeded to act their pieces. The travelling minstrels and ballad-singers, fiddlers, dancers, and wrestlers assembled and made merry, while the image of the good Saint Lawrence, with book and gridiron, looked down upon the mirth from above the lofty window. The stocks stood near to warn the people to be of good behaviour. The last to suffer the ignominy of them was a tippler of the town nicknamed” Billy the Bold un,” he having been duly apprehended and imprisoned by one Robert Constable, constable of Lechlade at that time.

A more important fair was held near the river on St. John the Baptist’s day. This was attended by a crowd of merchants, traders, and purchasers, who came, as to a universal mart, to supply their domestic wants for the following year. The merchants were classified according to the wares they had for disposal, and streets bearing such names as “The Drapery,” “The Pottery,” “The Spicery,” and so on, were formed in the meadow. The monks, nuns, and priests of the churches and priories, the Lords of the Manors and their tenants came to buy plate, pottery, armour, cutlery, wine, wax, spices, linens, woollens, provisions, and other necessaries. With the rise and increase of shops in the towns, the pedlars’ and merchants’ fairs decayed and soon ceased to be held.

Floods also interfered with the emporium in the meadow, and it was moreover said to interrupt the harvest work, for doubtless the rustics were not content to labour in the silent fields far from the noise and hubbub of the fair.

To supplement the fairs there were the regular weekly markets, held within the town from the beginning of the thirteenth century downwards. They began about noon on Sunday and were continued until the following Monday night. The market comprised local produce, such as fresh meats, fish fried or baked, pullets, geese, pigs, green cheeses, curds, cream, oaten cakes, and loaves of bean flour and bran—eaten by the labourers.

The Black Death and the Peasant Revolt brought about a scarcity of agricultural labourers. Much land that had grown corn crops was consequently laid down and converted into sheep farms, and no part of the country was better adapted for this than were the stony Cotswold’s, lying high and dry above the half-drained marshes and swamps of the Valley.

During the seventeenth century agriculture improved again and cheese and malt became the chief products of the country between the Thames and the Cotswold’s. The channel of the Thames was cleaned out from Abingdon to Cricklade and weirs were made in order to allow the boats to pass freely upstream. Barges with a carrying capacity of eighty tons came alongside the Lechlade wharves, and no less than three thousand tons of prime cheese were brought into the town from the villages and farms annually in waggons and conveyed by water to Oxford and London.

Now all the horses are sold and led away from the market-place, with the halter of each one following fastened to the tail of the near one preceding. A few farmers only remain, chatting outside the ancient inn, in which they have partaken of a light luncheon. Presently they depart, some by motor, this one by the high market trap, or on horseback. The proprietors of the merry-go-rounds and cocoa-nut shies make haste to occupy the square with their paraphernalia and get ready for the afternoon and evening sports. Several aged inhabitants of the town loiter in the locality of the inns, eager to talk of the fair, as it is, and as it used to be.

“What d’ye thenk an’t to-day, Anngel ?” inquires the old shepherd of the carter standing near.

“I sin better an’ I sin wuss. ‘Tis a very good lot o’ ‘ossen, takin’ on ‘em all together, but the faayer yent nothin’ like so good as it used to be, an’ Hampton comin’ sa nigh ‘andy this un ‘tis oni the riff-raff yer to-day, like. Tha be a leetle smaller than I ‘ev a knowed ‘em, but, as I ses, I sin wuss. Tha be tarblish good, considerin’ the dry saazon we’ve hed,” the carter replies.


These sites cover the ox18 area of Oxfordshire England, including  the following villages, OX18, Alvescot, Bampton, Black Bourton, Burford, Broadwell, Carterton, Clanfield, Kelmscott, Kencot, Langford, Lechlade, RAF Broadwell, Shilton, Parish Pump, Oxfordshire Events,


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