The image above is taken from the ‘St Giles’ Fair’ album, published by Snowpetrel Photography on Flickr in 2010–2012. The album provides a curious insight into the life of the Fair, with some especially remarkable portraits.
Each autumn St Giles’ Fair descends upon Oxford with the force normally reserved for Freshers’ Fridays at Purple Turtle. It is loud, it is overpriced, and it’s a lot of fun. The Fair smells like candyfloss and makes your stomach lurch — it’s both the rides and the food. If usually the city centre is full of tourists, University scholars and tutors, office and retail workers with equally dead eyes, on the first Monday and Tuesday in September the population changes. St Giles’ and the streets to either side of the boulevard become a playground for families with young children, for groups of teenagers, and for language students on dates.
The Fair has evolved over centuries from the St Giles’ parish wake of the Middle Ages into St Giles’s Feast of the Renaissance. Elizabeth I observed the Fair in 1567 from the windows of St John’s College — the institution that has owned the street since 1555 and has preserved this annual festival, having the ability to shut down one of the main Oxford roads at will.
Each autumn St Giles’ Fair descends upon Oxford with the force normally reserved for Freshers’ Fridays at Purple Turtle. It is loud, it is overpriced, and it’s a lot of fun.
In the 1780s the Fair became the place to sell and buy children’s toys, and by 1880s it also involved rides and stalls, a menagerie, sparring saloons, freak shows, waxworks, and steam-powered roundabouts. As time went on, the rides became the main attraction, growing more sophisticated and entirely replacing the now-dubious practices of travelling zoos and circus performers. Old favourites — such as the merry-go-round with its gilded horses and the circus-spirited helter skelter — have stood the trial of time and now are showcased alongside the pendulum rides, the Mega Spin, and the Sky Flyer.
The Fair is an assault of all senses: it smells of burned fat from the burger vans and of pyrotechnics; it is full of noise, with every ride playing its own music (hello, Eurodance! it’s been a while) and regular announcements that tickets are sold on the premises. There is delighted screaming from the Storm Bomber and unhappy crying from a child whose parent is trying to lead them away from the Fair. There are giant plush toys in the shape of Minions and poop emojis you can win at the arcades, and there are fresh glazed doughnuts suggestively placed beside Nutella jars. There are schoolteachers trying to avoid their students, and schoolchildren trying to pair up for the rides in a strategic fashion. It is Oxford as you do not get to see it very often, maybe ever.
It is Oxford as you do not get to see it very often, maybe ever.
The Oxford History website has a collection of contemporary accounts of St Giles’ Fair from 1838 to nowadays. One of my favourite passages is from the Oxford Chronicle, published in 1889:
The stalls extended on the west side from Little Clarendon Street to New-Inn-Hall Street. At the top of St Giles’ Blandy’s Ghost Illusions formed the attraction. In close proximity was a flying trapeze, which was a novelty. A thick wire was erected about 30 feet high and 40 yards long. To this was attached a handle with wheels, which with slight pressure ran swiftly down the wire. The public were invited to take hold of this handle, throw themselves from the platform, and then experience the peculiar sensation of flying through the air. At the end of the wire was a padded board to prevent injury to the aerialists, and a net underneath in case of a fall. This was well patronized, not by men and boys only, but on Monday by numerous females, who ascended the platform and made the flight quite regardless of the audible comments of the onlookers at their temerity. After a time the proprietor of the trapeze was informed that the journey would not be allowed to be undertaken by females.
These days, of course, females have no modicum of shy gentility left, and so can happily climb onto any sort of ride, eat in public, and shoot targets with an air rifle — in the hopes of bringing home a giant stuffed white tiger, as spoils of a legal hunt.
After a time the proprietor of the trapeze was informed that the journey would not be allowed to be undertaken by females.
Personally, I went onto the Sky Flyer, that carousel-like ride with double sets of swings rising higher and higher into the air, until they are level with rooftops. I drove a little stubborn dodgem (twice!) and had a Jumbo Hot Dog with both ketchup and mustard. I did narrowly avoid the temptations of pick ‘n’ mix and balloons, but I did so while wearing trainers and kissing my partner, and so I hope a Victorian gentleman would still have enough reason to be upset with my behaviour.
The Fair is open from eleven in the morning until eleven at night, and early on Wednesday any trace of it will be gone. Plastic bags of brightly-coloured candyfloss, rows of teddy bears with front paws too short, ticket booths, signboards with almost recognisable faces of Pierce Brosnan and Aishwarya Rai, neon lights, scores of Disney-themed toys, gaggles of kids, motionless trucks, vans and food trailers, solemn fair workers in neon-green vests that say ‘The Boss’ — all of it will disappear like an illusion. For another year the boulevard will remain quiet, respectable, stretched from one graveyard to the other, St Magdalen to St Giles.
The words of an old student song come to mind: ‘Gaudeamus igitur / Iuvenes dum sumus.’ Life is short but here we are, and we have ten pounds to spare, and that is an absolute treasure on this night that feels like adventure and autumn.
Current album: Kesha, Rainbow
Current book: Lydia Davis, Can’t and Won’t
Current TV series: The Great British Bake Off, Series 8 (2017)