Keepers of tradition

“It’s September already, mate,” I said to my brother on Sunday, as we walked down the church drive after morning service, kicking up already shrivelled, yellowing and brown leaves.

Among the other indications presaging Autumn in the city are the yellow road signs appearing on the roads of Oxford, advertising road closures for Saint Giles’ Fair, an annual fair dating back to at least 1625. It is held on the Monday and Tuesday following the first Sunday after Saint Giles' Day, which is 01 September - except where Saint Giles’ Day falls on a Sunday, which it did this year.

It is almost as complicated as the formula for calculating the date of Abingdon’s Michaelmas Fair, which follows, in sequence with other Oxfordshire towns, in October. It is held, according to Section 38 of the Oxfordshire Act 1985, “on the Monday falling next before 11th October and on the following Tuesday”.

Abingdon Town Council claims that the Michaelmas Fair’s origins date back to labour shortages following the Black Death in 1348 and that “by law, the fair must take place annually in the Monday and Tuesday falling first before the 11th October in the centre of Abingdon-on-Thames.”

However, Section 38 of that same legislation, originating as a private bill, contains no reference to location. Moreover, it also contains provisions for fairs to be held in May, in honour of Saint Mark, and in June, in honour of Saint Edmund of Abingdon – who was born in the town and is commemorated along with Mabel, his mother, on the wall of Saint Nicholas Church, facing the Market Place.

The Saint Edmund of Abingdon Fair and the Saint Mark Fair have long since fallen by the wayside, if indeed they exist at all in the living memory of anyone currently working or residing in the town. However, the much smaller and less disruptive Runaway Fair continues one week after the Michaelmas Fair and this only closes a much smaller section of the town centre, on High Street and Market Place.

Every year, there are social media discussions in the various Abingdon groups around the widespread traffic disruption which is caused by the annual Michaelmas Fair. As one correspondent said in 2017 “council fees are surely the real reason why this important tradition dating back to the shortage of labour following Black Death of 1348 continues”.

Some local traditions are worth keeping for their own sake, some fall by the wayside and some evolve into something much more relevant to the modern age. Abingdon could become the eccentric traditions capital of the United Kingdom and bring people into the town centre, benefitting everyone, especially local businesses.

As keepers of obscure traditions, Abingdon Town Council does alright, but it is not just about municipal pomp and circumstance. We could surely do even better with a dynamic marketing campaign, which seeks to welcome the world to Abingdon, rather than keeping these traditions as local events for local people, just because that is the way it has always been done.