Memories of the Houghton Feast in years gone by

The crowds gather for the 1979 parade.
The crowds gather for the 1979 parade.
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A Wearside festival stretching back more than 800 years is back for another year this October.

Houghton Feast may have changed through the generations yet it remains a mainstay on the North East calendar.

A scene from the 1979 Houghton Feast Parade.

A scene from the 1979 Houghton Feast Parade.

Today we look back at some of the people and attractions who have featured in it, and remind ourselves of the Feast’s beginnings.

It is all thought to date back to the 12th century.

Historians believe the Michaelmas festival of the dedication of the parish church of St Michael & All Angels was the starting point for the Feast.

It was the start of a piece of North East history which still remains with us.

In the 16th Century, Rector Bernard Gilpin was the name associated with the expansion of the event.

And hundreds of years later, Houghton’s annual attraction is still a North East favourite which pulls in thousands of people.

Paual Lanagan, chairman of the Houghton-le-Spring Heritage Society, said: “Houghton Feast is our only opportunity to meet up as a community on a big scale. It has had many guises throughout its 800 years, but one thing that’s always been a feature is the coming together of people, from the early church services, to the horse race meetings, the recent fairgrounds and now the community events.”

Highlights through the years have included horse racing, especially in the 1800s when grandstands and tents would be set up. Horse racing remained a popular feature of the Feast until the last race was held in 1938.

As technology advanced, particularly in the late 1800s, steam-powered rides and the fairground became a big part of the celebrations.

A regular site in times gone by was the large crowds of miners and their families who would gather to enjoy the stalls, show booths and roundabouts.

The showman and entertainer Billy Purvis was a visitor, but there were plenty of other attractions for the many visitors.

Competitions included one where contestants could climb up a greasy pole in the hope of winning a shoulder of mutton, while a glass of rum was on offer to the winner of the All Fours race.

A foot race, race in sacks and a quantity of ale could all be competed for.

Later that century there was just as much interest with people coming from villages all around the area to enjoy the attractions. There would be flags and banners everywhere and there were reports of upwards of 18,000 people attending one year.

Sadly, the Second World War meant a downscaling of the event.

Rector Noel Gwilliam initiated what has become the Feast’s modern format with more of an emphasis on the religious aspects.

Ox roasting is a well known traditional part of the event and still plays its part.

And although the Feast may have changed in terms of its attractions, it remains hugely popular.

Houghton Feast is a 10-day festival this year and there will be lots to enjoy. Highlights will include a fairground, traditional ox roasting, church events, and carnival parade.

There will also be a tattoo with pipes and drums, shows, events, and exhibitions, talks and tours, and a chance to enjoy fireworks.

The festival runs from Friday, October 7, to Sunday, October 16, and to find out more, people should visit the excellently detailed website at

News and updates are available at the Facebook page

People can also follow the Feast on its Twitter page @houghtonfeastHQ

Mr Lanagan added: “Long may this annual tradition continue.”

We would also love to hear from people with their own memories and photographs of Feasts down the years.

Have you been a regular down the years and what were your own particular highlights?