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Heart's ease - an infusion was said to help mend a broken heart

Monday, 5 September 2011

St Giles Fair

Mitcham, where I grew up in SW London, has had an annual fair since Elizabethan times. By the 1960s this had become a fun fair and outgrown the Fair Green, so it is now held on Mitcham Common. All around, in Streatham, Putney, Tooting, Battersea etc other fairs were also held on commons, heaths or public parks - as they were on the odd occasion when I visited one in Italy. Thus, I grew up convinced that fairs are always held on a green, some distance from houses and offices.

And then I moved to Oxford and encountered the annual St Giles fair, of ancient right, held at the beginning of September, and situated not on Portmeadow or some other green space, but in St Giles, a wide, tree-lined thoroughfare leading directly into the city centre. At one end is St Giles church, which opens during the fair to serve tea and homemade cakes. At the other, landmarks such as the Randolph Hotel, Ashmolean Museum and Martyrs' Memorial; in between, colleges, a couple of pubs and gracious 18th century buildings with an eclectic mix of functions.

And for two days, plonked down in the midst of all this, and spilling over into neighbouring roads, is a fun fair!

This is my fourth St Giles fair, and I still haven't got over the glorious incongruity of it all! Imagine candyfloss and chips being sold outside the Randolph, that bastion of poshness; rides whirling around in front of the Martyrs, and all those venerable, august facades half-hidden by dodgems, shooting arcades and chambers of horrors. Imagine stomach-lurching rides hurtling way above the creamy walls of St John's college, and a Temple of Fun, with Egyptian-esque decoration, appropriately situated outside the Ashmolean, keeper of antiquities. Oh, and a helter skelter in front of the war memorial!

So for two days I stroll through this fair on my way into town, savouring not just the delicious cooking smells, but especially the effect and the juxtapositions and the temporary transformation. Fun fairs are fun and vibrant at the best of times, but the setting for this one definitely gives it an added extra - plus it's great just to see families enjoying themselves, and the young at heart of all ages on a traditional carousel. Admittedly, just watching some of the rides makes my head spin, and I know the traffic diversions and noise are an inconvenience for many (I can hear the music loud and clear from my bedroom!), but I enjoy it. Sadly though, rain is forecast for tomorrow, but I'm praying that there will be a little gap in the clouds, just big enough to ensure that the fair stays dry in St Giles...



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