From dancing bears to three-headed sheep - all the fun of the fair in bygone times

Houghton Fair in Houghton Market Place during Houghton Feast.
Houghton Fair in Houghton Market Place during Houghton Feast.
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Conflicts, carnage and revolutions - Houghton Feast has out-lasted them all over the past 800 years.

Believed to date back to 12th century Michaelmas celebrations, the early festivals marked the dedication of St Michael and All Saints Parish Church.

Ox roasting at Houghton Feast October 1976.

Ox roasting at Houghton Feast October 1976.

Today the dancing bears and amulet hawkers are gone, but the ox roasting and fairground still prove popular - as do variety shows, parades and fireworks.

“Houghton Feast is an event with something for everybody,” said local historian Bill Hawkins. “There are activities and events for all ages and interests.”

Country folk would pour in from the 23 villages surrounding Houghton, and beyond, to enjoy “all the fun of the fayre” in the Feast’s early years.

The slick patter of quack doctors extolling their wares was commonplace, as were performing dogs, boxing booths, three-headed sheep and even a “headless lady”.

Later generations of visitors enjoyed waltzer rides, as well as the Wall of Death, Murphy’s Proud Peacocks, Noah’s Ark and House of Nonsense.

Bill Hawkins, local historian

“But the traditional ox-roasting ceremony dates from later medieval times, when poverty-stricken villagers were fed by churchman Bernard Gilpin,” said Bill.

The passing of the centuries brought an ever-changing kaleidoscope of topical entertainments - from “Puffing Billy” trains in 1830 to steam-driven roundabouts.

And those brave enough to shin up a greasy pole could win a shoulder of mutton, while a glass of rum was on offer to the winner of the All Fours race.

The popularity of the Feast dwindled, however, in the early 20th century, until revived by another Houghton rector – Canon Gwilliam – after World War Two.

Houghton Feast Parade October 1983.

Houghton Feast Parade October 1983.

“Later generations of visitors enjoyed waltzer rides, as well as the Wall of Death, Murphy’s Proud Peacocks, Noah’s Ark and House of Nonsense,” said Bill.

“The dancing bears and three-headed sheep are, thankfully, gone – but there is something for everyone at the Feast.”

Houghton Feast fireworks October 1990.

Houghton Feast fireworks October 1990.