The notes below were kindly supplied by Larry Underwood, a village resident for many years and describe what the fair was and what it means to the locals who have lived here long enough to no longer be regarded as incomers!
“The Fun-fair or Feast, as it is known by the old traditional families of the village, visits Billinghay every year in October. It is traditionally held on the first Sunday after the 11th October. It has been coming to the village for as long as anyone living can remember. It is always held in the field adjoining the Coach and Horses public house. There is apparently some old and obscure local statute that decrees that the field must be available for this ancient event. I can never remember when this field has been anything but fallow. Over the years, there has been a lot of speculation and rumours about the legal position pertaining to the fair’s right to use this field. Fortunately, it continues to arrive on the usual date each year, much to the delight of the young and old alike.
When we were kids in the late 40s and early 50s, the word would go round the school that the Donkey man had arrived. This was the first indication that the Feast was on its way. This would be a huge relief to all of us because every year rumours would be rife that the fair wasn’t coming that year. The reasons for the doubt always seemed quite plausible but were always unfounded. Even today the same rumours abound just before the feast is due and, unfortunately, we do not have the Donkey Man any more to dispel our fears. Even so it arrived last year as usual and I hope it will continue for many years to come. This five day festival is a vital part of Billinghay heritage. To the old indigenous families it would be tragic if this one remaining festival was allowed to die out. Families in this village are more likely to get together at this time of year than possibly any other, and that includes Christmas and the New Year.
The Donkey Man of my childhood would arrive in a horse-drawn gypsy style caravan. He usually had half a dozen donkeys and, occasionally, a couple of half wild ponies. We were always a little afraid of him and never approached his campsite alone, having been brought up on tales of such people abducting children into a life of slavery. Nevertheless his campsite with its old fashioned cooking pot hung on a tripod over an open fire of scavenged wood from the surrounding hedges, held a strange fascination. Even so, we were all afraid to approach too close.
Preparation for the feast actually began the year before when one of the two pigs most households had fattened up all year was slaughtered. The largest chine, that is the one closest to the pig’s head, was cured in common salt and kept for next year’s feast. A week before the feast was due this chine was immersed in cold water for a couple of days. The water was changed constantly to get rid of as much salt as possible. Vertical cuts about three quarters of an inch apart were made on both sides of the chine. These cuts were stuffed with ground parsley. A dolly tub of parsley was always needed for the stuffing although the amount of parsley was and is a matter of taste. A dolly tub was about the size of an old galvanised dustbin. All the parsley had to be ‘picked’, that is all the woody stalks removed, and then it was washed in cold water, usually under a running tap. This job was so time consuming that usually the whole family did their bit. It was then out through the mincer. The last job was to stuff each of the vertical cuts with as much as you possibly could. This last process was a matter of taste and the amounts were adjusted from family to family. Finally the whole chine was wrapped in a large cotton bed sheet and boiled. The time varied according to the size of the chine. The centrepiece of the whole celebration was now ready for carving.
Not everyone likes stuffed chine but those that do will usually have a portion of chine:
- In a sandwich
- With chips
- With a selection of cheeses and pickles
at least once a day until the chine was eaten. Today traditional chine is hard to find and is usually stuffed shoulder. Although the traditional people regard this as a poor substitute, it is still nevertheless expensive to buy.
There are very few domestic pigs killed today in the village if any at all. As far as I am aware the last family in the village to slaughter and prepare meat in the traditional way (i.e. pork pies, haslets, pig’s fries etc) was Mr Henry Chamberlain’s. Unfortunately, Henry died in 2008. The fare from the pig was very rich with a high fat content. It was ideal for a community whose living was mainly gained from hard labour in the fields or on building sites. There were very few technical jobs available fifty years ago. Today most of these hard labouring jobs have been mechanised. Consequently, the old high fat/protein diet, without hard labour, could be extremely dangerous possibly leading to high cholesterol, high blood pressure, sugar diabetes or, ultimately, a heart attack. This does not stop the traditional locals from having a real banquet with all the trimmings to this day (high cholesterol or not).
The fair was always open for business on the Friday night. Friday was mainly for the young teenagers. Some families with very young children also took advantage of the sometimes lower prices which were available and it was not usually as busy as other nights.
Saturday afternoon was always a young family time. For mothers and grandmothers this was always a good time to catch up on the latest news and gossip.
Rides were obviously a lot cheaper fifty years ago. The most expensive at that time was the dodgems costing one shilling (5 new pence) and we couldn’t afford many of those. The Steam Horses and Noah’s Ark were usually three old pence. Coconut shies, darts in fact all of the stalls were usually in three to sixpence range. If you were lucky enough to have a £1 (240 old pence), you felt like a millionaire. If you didn’t go mad this would last you all night including candy floss and a hot dog. It’s worth remembering that in those days, the agricultural wage would be about £7 for a 48 to 54 hour week. So you can see that to spend a £1 in one night at the fair was really extravagant. Most kids had been saving for months for this annual event.
One prominent character who attended every year was the ‘potman’. He was the man who replaced all the broken cups and saucers, plates and dishes that had been broken since last year. Most working class families would take advantage of his rock bottom prices every year. Sadly he has died and no-one has filled the enormous gap and service he provided.
Another prominent feature that has sadly disappeared is the bowling for a pig. This was usually run for the benefit of the Royal British Legion or the local football team. No one today would want or be able to accommodate this prize which seems bizarre to the modern society but very much sought after thirty to forty years ago. A pig that had been fattened for twelve months would keep an average family in bacon, sausage, pork pies, haslets and lard for almost a year. One pig would produce nearly a bucketful of first class lard and well over a bucket of the lower grade. The best quality was used to make the pastry for the pork pies, mince pies, jam and lemon curd tarts in fact anything that required a pastry base. My mother always made pork pies in a large enamel dish. They were too big to bake in the ordinary domestic oven but the local baker (Mr George Wilson) would help. There was a notable drop in the quality and taste when the best lard had all been used.
Saturday night is the highlight of the feast for the fair people. It’s the night when all the families meet up at the fair ground and, consequently, the time when most money changes hands. When you had managed to manoeuvre round the ‘potman’ and bowling for a pig, you were confronted with the hot dog and hamburger stalls and Rocky Thomson’s rock stall. It was unthinkable to go home without a bag of sweets from Rocky. You then had a whole variety of stalls such as darts, hook a duck, coconut shies, airguns etc. where all the prizes cost X no of wins and were virtually worthless. There were always bags filled with sawdust on a long elastic which we endeavoured to burst on some poor unsuspecting lad or possibly the girl you most fancied, showering them with sawdust. It was a big laugh to us lads. If you were eon the receiving end you were not so happy. The swing boats were very popular. The aim on these was to get the girl of your dreams to come on with you and then frighten the life out of her. You did this by swinging so high that you were virtually upside down. Sometimes it backfired and you were more scared than the girl.
The Noah’s Ark was also very popular. It was a ride on which you could get close to the girls and, also, it only cost three pence (Just over 1p in today’s money). Consequently, you could get four rides for a shilling the equivalent of one ride on the dodgems. If you were lucky enough to be able to afford a ride on the dodgems, the object was to hit as many of you mate’s cars head on when they weren’t looking but avoiding a similar fate for yourself.
I can only just remember the old Boxing Booths. They had finished by the time I was old enough to go in them. I know you could win One guinea if you could go three rounds with the bruisers that came with the booth. Not many won the guinea but one local family, the Creasey boys, were well known amateur boxers and were barred from entering. I presume they had been winners in the past.
Although the fair still comes at the same time each year, something seems to be missing. I think it’s the smell of the smoking coal fires, mixed with the stem that powered the steam horses along with organ music all mixed with the smells of the hot dog, hamburger and candy floss stalls. There was also the roar of the Iron Duke, an enormous self propelled generator which supplied electricity for all the sideshows and particularly the dodgems.”