Ancient ceremony marks annual Barnstaple rite

BARNSTAPLE’S ancient fair celebrations got under way with a traditional proclamation ceremony in the town’s Guildhall on Wednesday.

The historic civic building was packed to capacity with invited guests, mayors and other local dignitaries who came from all over Devon – and Europe – to observe the ancient rite.

After Mayor Ian Roome proposed a toast to the Queen, councillors and invited guests sang a rousing rendition of God Save the Queen, perhaps to the bemusement of passing shoppers on the street below, as well as Italian guests from Barnstaple’s twin town of Susa.

Mayor Gemma Amprino is currently visiting the town as part of a delegation of more than 40 performers who are set to re-enact an Italian “palio” in Rock Park on Saturday morning.

In proposing a toast to Barnstaple Fair, former schoolteacher and councillor Brian McBeth, said that historically, the fair marked a “vital moment” in the farming year.

“It was the time when livestock was sold off before winter came in and when farmers came into the town, opened their wallets and spent freely,” he said.

Mr McBeth also spoke about taking pride in Barnstaple and celebrating the people who make the town what it is.

“The term ‘Big Society’ has become somewhat of a cliché in recent months but the big hearted society is around us today in this room, this town, and in all our communities in Devon,” he said.

Responding to the toast, Claire May, head teacher of Pathfield School, thanked the Showman’s Guild on the 10th anniversary of the Barnstaple Special Fair.

“On behalf of more than 80 families that attend and benefit every year I’d like to say thank-you for the huge difference the special fair makes to children’s life expectancy and the memories it creates.”

Proposing a toast to the prosperity of Barnstaple, North Devon Gazette editor Dave Tanner spoke of the inevitability of empty shops in any town high street around the country but said the town must celebrate its positives.

“One man’s empty shop is another man’s opportunity,” said Mr Tanner.

“In these days when the economic tide ebbs and flows in an ever more mysterious ways it is up to us in North Devon to weather the storm by sticking together, by working together, and above all, by trading to together to ensure that Barnstaple continues to grow and prosper to many years to come.”

In his response to the toast, Peter Elder, general manager of the Barum Gate Table Table and Premier Inn at Whiddon Valley, said Barnstaple was a great place to live and work.

“It is important that we work together as businesses and as Barnstaple people to make sure Barnstaple is stronger,” he said.

The Mayor used his speech to talk about taking pride in the town and commended local organisations for rallying together to save this year’s carnival.

“Earlier in the year all the pieces of the jigsaw were scattered all over the table but people have grasped those pieces and but the jigsaw back together again,” he said.

“For me that is a fine example of what Barnstaple is all about – something we should all be proud of.”

Responding to the Mayor, North Devon Police Commander Kevin Harris, spoke about Barnstaple’s hospitality and said the town was one of the safest places in the UK.

While its origins are uncertain, the fair is thought to be as old as the town itself and would have originally lasted for a week. It would have featured a cattle, sheep and horse fair with the remaining days being given over to a pleasure fair.

The fair was set by ancient charters, and more recently, by a Local Act of 1852 which permits the town to hold a fair on the Wednesday preceding September 20.

The white glove that is suspended from the Guildhall window for the duration of the fair symbolises the open hand of friendship to welcome those who wish to trade at the fair and the many thousands who attend it.