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St Giles Fair

Annual 2-day funfair takes over Oxford's central thoroughfare.

The fair will take place on Monday 9th & Tuesday 10th September 2019

Public transport

Buses travelling into and out of Oxford from the north will be diverted. Bus stops will be moved. For full details visit the Oxford Bus Company and Stagecoach Oxfordshire websites.

Road closures

Road closures in the area of St Giles' will apply from 12.01am on Sunday 8th September through to 8.30am on Wednesday 11th September 2019. The usual diversion routes will be sign posted.

Full details can be found on the Oxford City Council webpage.

History of St Giles Fair

Despite how much we like to complain about traffic disruptions, we in Oxford rather like a merry excuse to block off main roads. Witness July's Cowley Road Carnival, and the renowned St Giles Fair, which for two days dominates the thoroughfare at the northern end of the city centre, turning it into a fairground complete with candy floss and assorted hustle and bustle.

As the Fair is a slightly moveable feast, hold onto your hats for the date-calculation details:

"Since the nineteenth century, St Giles Fair has been held on the Monday and Tuesday following the first Sunday after St Giles Day (which is always on 1 September). This means that when 1 September is a Saturday, the fair is held at the earliest possible time (3 & 4 September); but when 1 September is a Sunday, the fair is held at the latest possible time (9 & 10 September)."

Queen Elizabeth I was in attendance in 1567, though sadly not in the thick of the action on a waltzer. Rumour has it that she viewed the revelry from the comfort of St John's College rooms. Sceptics note that this was still a few decades before the first recorded Fair. But as films like Shakespeare in Love have shown us, monarchs got up to all sorts.

Non-genteel entertainments, some of the attractions wouldn't be out of place on Coney Island. The Oxford Chronicle of 1889 goes into great detail describing the novelty of a thirty-foot high zipwire! After harmless rides and good times had by all, the ride was deemed unsuitable for females. The fair's un-PC history was to continue. The area turned into a zoo as Day's Menagerie brought five hundred exotic animals such as lions, tigers, vultures and wild wolves; you could also enjoy various mind-readers and a guy shooting fruit off a lady's head (with permission).

John Betjeman wrote about the Fair in the 1930s, reckoning it the largest fair in England, and reporting on the still-prevalent freak-shows. We find it surprising that such exploitative 'entertainments' persisted that far into UK history, but extant culture confirms it. A fictional 'freak' appears in publicity for St Giles Fair in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress; our titular anti-hero marries Baba the Turk, the starlet with a heart of gold and a beard of great size.

At the records of flip-flaps, Thurston's Bioscope and some flying pigs, I had to stop reading in incomprehension and mild jealousy at how much fun it would've been. There are plenty of great stories and records and the Pitt Rivers Museum holds some artefacts from the fair, including publicity for a renowned flea circus. Have a look at Oxford History for a selection.

So where did it all begin? Parish councils instituted 'wakes' to help communities have fun. And this one was attached to the Saint's day of the parish church which gave the street its name. Organised fun? Why not?!

The earliest record of the Fair comes thanks to an incident in the Session Rolls of James I, in which someone swore "six insufferable oaths" and got fined. A historically useful application of swearing, then. At this point it was still known as the Wake, later as the Feast, and finally in the late 18th Century, a Fair, due to the toys on display and for sale. By the time rides and amusements for adults were involved, public lairiness increased until some called for the Fair to be discontinued. Fortunately it survived through Victorian times, when cross-country travel allowed day-trippers to visit from as far afield as Wales.

For those interested in matters of practicality: "The present fair is organised by Oxford Council in association with the London and Home Counties Section of the Showmen's Guild of Great Britain. The rights to hold the fair at St. Giles are shared between St. John the Baptist College Oxford and the local council."

After an opening by the Lord Mayor on the Monday morning, there are plenty of mechanical means of being flung around at altitude, a fun house unfortunately not hosted by Pat Sharp, and gentler attractions for the younger kids. 6pm customarily brings a slight price increase, though. If fluorescent lights and vertiginous drops leave you in need of some 'introvert-time', St Giles Church is usually open to provide refreshments and sanctuary. 2018 sees the debut of the Double Decker Bus Bar alongside the other food and drink stalls.

Thus the annual celebration endures. Even the first Fair after the outbreak of WWI, attended by many khaki-clad soldiers, was described in the Oxford Chronicle as follows:

"Despite the chilling influences of the war on pleasure, despite a restriction on hours, St. Giles Fair is still going strong. If they had the power to stop it, the City Council would have probably have done so. But the masses of the people in Oxford and the surrounding country districts are evidently as attached to the Fair as ever and it has rarely been more crowded" - Oxford Chronicle, reported in The World's Fair, 19 September, 1914.

For more information, have a look at the Oxford City Council webpage.

September 6, 2010

Review of St Giles Fair 2010

Whilst waiting for a friend of ours to show up, we walked all the way around the stalls at the St Giles street fair - it took us half an hour. Admittedly, our pace wasn't brisk, with hundreds of people out despite the rain, but I still feel I can say without exaggeration that the fair is rather large.

There were numerous stalls and vans labelled unlikely things, such as "Fine foods" and "Who'd a tho't it?" serving all the usual suspects; burgers, candy floss, toffee apples, sweets and hot dogs. A nice little touch, however, was the Jamaican food stall opposite the entrance to Cornmarket Street, serving Jerk chicken, fried plantains and corn on the cob, amongst other delights. The Carvery van wasn't too shabby, either, serving a range of meats in baguettes for reasonable prices (considering funfairs don't tend to be cheap).

Sadly we didn't go on any rides because, according to my friend, she doesn't "really like... fun", but after a roast pork sandwich it may just have been that the thought of being turned upside down and swung downwards some metres by the largest ride there didn't seem very appealing. There was an impressive collection, with two carousels (one faster, one slower), several of the things I believe are called 'waltzers' but nothing has ever reminded me of ballroom dancing less, a giant whirligig (this may not be its actual name, but it's the best anyone in the office could come up with) that was taller than the buildings on either side, and many many stalls with unmissable classics such as 'Hook the Duck', 'Coconut shy' and, of course, the haunted house. We even saw a fortune teller, but, at the kind of age when discussion of 'the Future' causes no small amount of panic, we didn't go.

One thing we did try was the 'coconut' shy; the idea being to knock cans off a shelf using skill and coordination. We should have realised that neither of these were in abundance in our group, but the lure of the giant stuffed animals was too much. I am very impressed by the lady who won a giant animal; I would have chosen a lurid green crocodile myself, but there's no accounting for taste! (See picture 4, to the right, taken by James Lyon and generously shared with us - the pictures I took on my phone didn't come out quite as I wanted them to...).

Even through the rain, and obstacles presented by our lack of coordination, the funfair had enough to offer that, despite my gloomy friend, we had fun! We didn't win anything, but we went home happy and fulfilled (the roasted corn on the cob is amazing in the cold). The St Giles fair takes over St Giles street every year at the beginning of September, and has existed in one form or another since the 18th century! Go along for a couple of hours and see what all the fuss is about.

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