by Ross Parish
When I arrived in Nottingham nearly twenty years this week – I remember because of the two things of I knew about of this new city before I arrived – obviously Robin Hood and perhaps less instantly recognised by outsiders, The Goose Fair – the later was on the week after I arrived!
At the time I lived in Beeston and not knowing the city very well or its bus routes decided to cycle from there to the city’s Forest recreation ground, which was quite a way and although I felt I had bitten off more than I could chew, my tiredness was replaced with euphoric amazement. A treat for all the senses.
There are other Goose Fairs – one at Tavistock, Devon and another at Hull but for its size and grandeur Nottingham’s Goose fair is unique. There are many fun fairs, many of them having older origins, but there is something special and atmospheric about this 700-year old event. The size is certainly one of them. It is certainly one of the best fairs to oversee sitting as it does in the Forest grounds with the plateau above overlooking it.
Started by Edward the First in 1284, it has survived cancellation during the plague of 1646, two world wars and its removal from the city centre in 1928. Now it sprawls across the Forest recreation ground, a large area of football pitches and park and ride car park, which is for most of the year rather bland and uninspiring, an island of colourful garish giddy excitement laying in a sea of white caravans and lorries.
Another reason is the anticipation, a week before the roundabout along Mansfield road, the ancient route to the city from North Nottinghamshire, a large white goose appears upon its plinth. A visual sign to its imminent arrival for no words are affixed to it (although occasionally it does inherit some comedy flotsam and jetsam, such as a large golden medallion.) This expectation is also built up by the entrance into the fair from this road. A long walkway like a procession route downwards with the senses excited by the visual delight of the fair looming on the horizon, the smell of kerosene and the sounds of ecstatic children crying ‘It’s the Goose fair!’
Even if like me you are not biggest fan of those heart pulsating spinning rides, there is much to interest. Taking that processional route one enters a strange row of infant orientated rides, a plethora of food stalls and some strange stalls.
Focusing on the strange stalls first, this is again where the unique nature of the fair is again underlined. Over the years there have been cacti stalls, clothes stalls, the fire service, the army and this year the Church of England each taking the chance to promote themselves! Showing that it’s not all fun at the fair but faith as well. I remember three stalls or rides in particular that year which I had never seen before.
One was a Guess Your Age stall. Here perhaps at the cheapest stall of all – a man in a booth with Guess Your Age over it. He called all and sundry and after watching for a while I decided to chance it. He’ll never get my age I thought…but lo and behold he was spot on and £2 was lost.
The second stall is a controversial one and a source of considerable debate between me and work colleague – a flea circus. I peeked inside to see a range of miniature chariots being dragged along and a large magnifying glass. I swear I saw real fleas but according to an expert I know there hasn’t been a real flea circus since the 1950s…does anyone know? I’ve never seen it again!
The third side, sadly absent over the last few years, was a memorable edifice, a large lorry with flashy bulbs with crowd pleasing slogans such as ‘ see the man with the widest gape’ or my favourite ‘ a piece of the Berlin Wall. Believe it or not.’, it could be any piece of wall I suppose but it hardly would be incredulous…could I believe in a ‘Japanese Octopus!’? Of all things! More easy to believe are the atrocious spellings. Inside one is witness to a strange selection of aborted animal foetusess (sic), stuffed ‘dare I say it’ fakes and antique relics from older exhibits slowly in many cases in a slow gentle decay. A giant was clearly made of paper mache over a chickenwire frame. One always left it laughing but by the look of the owner I am not sure that is their desire! Perhaps they got sick and tired at not being taken too serious! Again I had never seen a freak show until I had seen the Goose Fair.
The food stalls are a varied phenomenon as well indicating the ethic mix of Nottingham, however the minty mushy peas are the central food focus for those that come and the largest at the junction of the row and the main centre of the fair is always packed, sending the smell of peas and mint into the air from frothing vats…I’d never had minty mushy peas and now twenty years on it’s the only way I have them now!
Elsewhere the demand for the new has seen the traditional rides fall by the wayside, but again not here. Over the years, those rides have survived and so we can find Victorian and Edwardian originals such as the Helter Skelter, a cake walk, a waltzer and gallopers all of which have certainly working far into a second century. Together with these, one can encounter on and off, a wall of death and a hall of mirrors all traditional stuff!
The reason for the fair’s unusual name was due to Nottingham laying on a convenient point for goose traders from Lincolnshire, indeed over 16,006 to 20,000, were annually driven up from the fens for sale here. The sale of geese at this time being associated with the rather convenient, for those breeders, belief that eating geese on Michaelmas was considered lucky, and helped the consumer avoid debt.
Today the fair is rather lacking is geese, although I did spy two children with Geese hats! One tradition which every year appears to be threatened with disappearance is the Cock on a stick, chicken shaped (surely it should be a goose) sweet on a stick. The tradition goes back to the 19th century and has continued through one family. It is said that this confections came over from Italy with the Whitehead family. It’s a Goose fair tradition as our the crude jokes made about it no doubt!
Well obviously tastes change, few people eat geese, but perhaps one can could suggest 1752 was the result. This was when the calendar changed, and such the fair moved from 21st in September (ideal for a Michealmas goose) to the first Thursday in October (not ideal!) and perhaps this resulted in the shift from fowl to fun! Yet this is of course unimportant for the Goose Fair remains one of the greatest of England’s travelling fairs. Twenty years on I have not missed a Goose fair!
For more on traditional Nottinghamshire customs and ceremonies check out Ross’s website at: