BARNSTAPLE S ancient fair celebrations got underway 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

BARNSTAPLE'S ancient fair celebrations got underway 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 to observe the ancient rite.

After Mayor Ian Roome proposed a toast to the Queen, the great and the good sang a rousing rendition of God Save the Queen, perhaps to the bemusement of passing shoppers on the street below.

In proposing a toast to Barnstaple Fair, Ramon Henderson, president of the Showmen's Guild of Great Britain, said that his family's links to Barnstaple spanned many generations.

"It's nice to come back to the town and be made to feel so welcome; the reception we were given last night was like going out with old friends," he said.

In his response to the toast, Stuart Maskell, managing director of Longclose Ltd, said the fair represented a particular time and place for people in the town.

"The fair brings its own sights, sounds, smells and friendly faces; all in all it's about proper Devon folk having a great time," he said.

Keith Burley's toast to the prosperity of Barnstaple was responded to by North Devon Police Commander Kevin Harris.

Supt Harris said Barnstaple was one of the best kept secrets in the South West. "The town has great community spirit, great leisure resources and is a great place to live, work and raise a family," he said.

In proposing a toast to the fair guests, the Mayor said they should be proud of making Barnstaple the town that it is but there were difficult challenges ahead due to the current economic climate.

"Due to cuts is spending we will have to take some difficult steps and that will not be an easy exercise for the town council," he said.

"But I am sure that Barnstaple will rise to the occasion as it has done many times before; we need now more than ever not to remain insular but to work in partnership to share what Barnstaple has to offer."

Responding, Cllr Brian Greenslade said the magic and the mystery of the fair had never left the community.

"The fair brings communities together and brings people into the town," he said. "The fair and carnival contribute to the prosperity of Barnstaple and in difficult times, they will help to lift some of the gloom caused by the economic downturn."

While its origins are lost in antiquity, 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.