1000 words, published The Bridge, local magazine for Horrabridge, near Tavistock, Devon, December 2014.
Goosey Fair: An Incomer’s View
October blows in and a man in the pub is telling us about his car being broken into on Whitchurch Road. The police told him he was just one victim of the annual Goosey Fair crime wave. Watch out for dodgy geezers, everybody warns. If there is a hawker on your front step, his mate is probably round the back.
The fair gets closer and we start picking up warnings about shops and roads being closed. There will be park-and-ride at Yelverton, for cripes sake.
A lad at the door says he is a reformed offender, selling packs of cleaning materials. We have seen him or his mates before. They always seem to be from the north east and Devon must have bad lads of its own. He does a good impression of deep hurt at all the Goosey Fair suspicion he is meeting and we give him the price of a pint, rather than buying his expensive J cloths. Then check the shed.
On the day of the fair, we decide to walk in, from Horrabridge. But traffic cones and diversion warnings are still outnumbering the visitors by the time we get to the livestock market, where Ward & Chowen have made a good effort to put some country back into what was once a farmers’ day out. There is one of those stalls which answers your questions about where farmers and horsey people get clothes you never see in Marks & Spencer. David Buncle of Westcountry Falconry, Peter Tavy, and a Mongolian steppe eagle, are shivering in the drizzle. A burly man with feathers in his hair is hauling geese out of the back of a van. Gripped firmly by the wings, they submit surprisingly quietly.
Inside the mart hall, George Mudge of Collaton, a former shearing champ, now a contractor and kit supplier, Is taking the summer growth off some of this year’s lambs with a pair of sprung blades. You can still buy them for £20, he mentions, but you have to know how to sharpen them to make them useful.
South Africa now produces most of the world champions at this game, he says, because over there, manual labour is still a bargain compared to £1,000 for powered clippers and 60 percent of the country’s 16 million sheep are still clipped by hand. Over here, even with mechanisation, George reckons “it’s the only 21st Century job where you take a sweat towel to work”. Farmers have to pay £1.20 to £1.40 for a clip and most fleeces will fetch only about 75p.
“When I started, you got half a crown to shear a sheep and it was the same for a haircut,” he muses. “Now a haircut is £6.50 plus.”
We put our Know Your Sheep book back in the rucksack and head for the heart of the fair, where we can manage with our own archives of Know Your Tat. Our leaders place great faith in unshackling the British entrepreneur but no trader is less regulated than the fairground boys and the market traders, surely, and they have hardly changed their game in living memory. Elvis and Marilyn Monroe still decorate the rides and a lot of the music is not much newer … although down by the dodgems in Bedford Square, some young feller-me-lad is playing drum’n-bass through a speaker worthy of the Notting Hill Carnival. Even the rasta stall majors on good old Bob Marley, though. The air smells of cheap sweets and curry sauce and the main entertainment is from barkers selling knife sharpeners and miracle whisks. It must have all been very exciting when most of Tavistock had never seen a black man or tasted noodles and the dodgems were the nearest you got to X-box-style car chases.
But then, there is no point judging a fair on its good taste and maybe they know best. You might have thought the plastic rifle had had its day but every other little boy is carrying one on the road home. Halfway up Plymouth Road, a couple of Sikhs look misplaced with their blingtastic range of household ornaments but an elderly white man in a pony dealer’s coat is handing over £25 for a horse made of gilt and mirrors.
The heavens open again and we dive into a woollens stall where the boss gives us a tip for making wool waterproof – put a teaspoon of olive oil in the rinse.
There is not a lot of local produce but with city visitors on their way, we are interested to find a stall selling Countryman Cider from Milton Abbot, with credentials going back to 1853 and tourists welcome – http://tinyurl.com/onv3xfq/
Back in the livestock mart for yer actual live geese auction and Helen Hambly, a young farmer from Callington, explains to us how it works. Most of the geese come in from professional farmers, who know the cost of the final fattening for Christmas and are happy to sell it on. Most of the buyers are smallholders hoping to beat the £65 it costs to buy one oven-ready from Helen. We have seen their like before, bearing the scars of D Day in the orchard, and we resist the temptation to bid.
Back in Horrabridge, our barmaid is raving about the miracle whisk she bought and we wish we had got one. We did get three pairs of coarse socks for £4 and some chops for tea, from a nice stall run by Frank and Sue Martin of Pizwell Farm, Postbridge – regulars at local markets in rotation with their partners in Meatdartmoor.co.uk. Visitors were asked to sample a beautifully tender “mystery meat” and name it – ox tongue, it turns out, stewed and shredded.
It’s been fun. But our impression is that the preparations were for something much bigger and more dangerous – which presumably it was, when Devon converged from all directions to meet the likely lads of Goose Fair. Is it all still worth it? You tell us.
* This report comes from The Shed, producers of media materials and small repairs. See