21st September, Saint Matthew’s Day: the time of Bridgwater Fair
Bridgwater Fair still takes place at St Matthew’s Field in late-September each year, a time that, in childhood memory, was always wet and windy. Was there always mud? I certainly remember going in Wellington boots.
The crowds meant that the walk up the street approaching the field was no more than a shuffle. It was a street lined with ‘cheapjacks’ intent on parting people from their money, persuading onlookers to part with money for goods of dubious quality. The offers were too good to be true, but everyone knew they were, that was part of the entertainment, watching to see who might be taken in.
As the field was approached there was a gateway through which the countless thousands of feet passed. The ground would have been well churned up by the Saturday evening, the closing night of the fair. Were there to have been an emergency, it is hard to know what might have happened; marked exits and escape routes were things of the distant future.
The cheapjack stalls and other such stuff might have been interesting for adults, without whom attendance at the fair would not have been possible, but it was the funfair that was the magnet for a small boy clutching a half-crown. Looking back now I’m sure it was gaudy and garish and completely unsophisticated, but to a child who lived in village of 300 people and went to a two classroom school that had just 40 pupils, this was the most amazing place.
The rides were often frightening, more for watching than trying; there were constant wonders to discover as we pushed through the throngs. I remember tents that were forbidden to small boys, but perhaps my imagination invented them. In my memory, there were at least a boxing ring and another involving the charms of some lady. Did they exist or are they the later interpolations of a mind fed on stories of travelling shows and circuses? Hoop-la stalls and coconut shys, and throwing pin-pong balls into jars to win goldfish, were more the thing for an eight year old; roundabouts and dodgem cars and pennies put in a one-armed bandit.
Is there the same magic now? Computer technology and theme parks have made the delights of the funfair seem pale and unsophisticated. Where do half-crown clutching children find a world of excitement and delight?