Fair days

The seaside town of Criccieth in Gwynedd is well known for its castle, but it's also renowned for its fairs. Preserving the history of the fairs, which goes back several centuries, along with other stories, folk tales and songs has been one of the 'Names, Legends and Songs' project's objectives as part of Criccieth's intergenerational initiative.

According to the local councillor and historian Robert Dafydd Cadwalader: ‘Fairs are an important part of our history and heritage. In recent years, the way people shop has changed, and the number of stalls has reduced, so the future of the fair is uncertain. Perhaps by telling the story to a wider audience, I hope that they will continue.’

Ffion Gwyn, an art teacher at Coleg Meirion Dwyfor, is also a councillor who has been researching the history of the fairs and the other items that have been shared by the ‘Criccieth – Names, Legends and Songs' account on the People’s Collection Wales website, and like Robert Cadwalader, she has been creating paintings that have been used in a montage, along with old photographs (some posted on the Old photos of Cricieth and its people Facebook page) to interpret the stories.

The images within this item represent three elements that have been an essential part of fairs over the years: the stalls selling all kinds of goods, the funfair, and the horse fair. Traditionally, the main horse and cattle fair was always held in May, although livestock were sold at all fairs. The last horse fair was held in Criccieth in 1949. Bala was also another town in north Wales that was famous for its fairs – in particular the Mayday Fair:

This image is part of a series of pictures taken by the photographer Geoff Charles of the Mayday Fair at Bala in 1952. You can browse the whole collection here.

The funfair first came to Criccieth during the Victorian era, like many other towns in Wales, and it continues to be part of the two fairs that are still held in the town to the present day, the first on 23rd of May and the second, the Big Fair, on 29th of  June. But in the olden days, several fairs were held during the year in Criccieth, with four main fairs: the St Mark's Festival Fair (25th April), the May Fair, the Mid-Summer Fair or the Gŵyl Ifan Fair (at the end of June) and the All Saints (Calan Gaeaf) Fair held during November.

The fairs coincided with the seasons of the year and were, therefore, important days in the farmer's calendar. Traditionally, the fairs would be an opportunity to employ servants and farmhands for the coming season, as well as buying and selling animals and agricultural equipment in particular; this was customary in most parts of Wales. Here, for example, is a poster with a message printed on behalf of the Mayor of Cardigan confirming the date of the town's employment fair in 1861:

According to tradition, farmers in the Teifi Valley would be required to have the winter wheat in the ground by this Halloween Fair – the fair that is usually held on 10 November. In Carmarthen and the surrounding area, the John Brown Fair, held on 15th April, was an all-important date and by which farmers aimed to turn the cattle and finish planting potatoes. It is thought that the following photograph, contributed to People’s Collection Wales by Carmarthen Museum, is that of the famous John Brown Fair held on Lammas Street, Carmarthen the early 20G:

The famous photographer John Thomas has some great photographs depicting fairs in Wales’ villages and towns during the 1880s and 1890s. They are mainly livestock fairs, from Penrhyndeudraeth Fair in Gwynedd to Tal-y-bont, Ceredigion, Llanidloes and Llanbryn-mair in mid Wales, and then down to Maenclochog. One can really imagine the hustle and bustle and bargaining that went on in days gone by.

Back to Criccieth and one development that saw a significant increase in the number of visitors to the town on a fair day was the arrival of the railway. The item notes that ‘The coming of the railway in 1867 brought even more livestock to and from the town and bedding from Manchester, carpets from other parts and crockery from the Stafford Potteries for the ladies running the lodging houses to accommodate the growing numbers of tourists.’ By this time, and indeed, since the beginning of the 19C, the town centre had moved from the foot of the castle up to the new road, built in 1807. The stalls would extend along this new road as well as running run down towards the shoreline.

With generations of Criccieth residents and the local area having shared the experience of going to the fair – for fun, to buy or sell goods – it is fitting that Criccieth Fair has been chosen to feature on one of the colourful Friendship Benches’ designs that can be found in the town. Both benches were recently repaired and painted by Coleg Meirion Dwyfor students with designs provided by Ffion Gwyn, who was commissioned to create the artwork that tells local stories and celebrates the town’s traditions.

The Friendship Benches were created as part of Gwynedd County Council’s Intergenerational Bridging the Generations project. According to Councillor Sian Williams, Chair of the Town Council: ‘... the benches welcome people of all ages to sit together and share a conversation. It's great to see the response to them in the community and the positive experience it has been for the students in creating them after such a difficult year because of the pandemic.’

The artwork on the bench located on the ‘Maes’ – close to the traditional location of the fairs – is based on the rich history of the fairs, where animals were bought and sold, market stalls and entertainment of the funfair, which are still very much a part of today’s fair. Running through the middle of the ‘Maes’ is the river Cwrt and the sacred spring reportedly used by John Rowlands for his sparkling water bottling factory in the 19G – John 'Ginger Beer' as he was called: this is another of the 'Criccieth – Names, Legends, and Songs’ stories.

We at PCW have been really pleased to learn that the QR codes located on the back of these Friendship Benches, once scanned on people’s phones, will allow them to connect to our website so that they can read more about ‘Criccieth – Names of Legends and Songs’ items, bringing the People’s Collection Wales to the heart of the community!

If you have photographs of visits to fairs you would like to contribute to the People’s Collection Wales, or if you are interested in historical fairs and have a story to tell, let us know; you can contact us via email: [email protected], or on social media  Facebook or Twitter

You can also learn more about Wales’  Fairs and Markets and  Fun Fairs by browsing these collections on our website.

(Additional information for this blog was kindly provided by Criccieth Town Council’s Clerk, Dr Catrin Jones.)





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