View From the Ground

SITE p68-71

When I came to Stockton in Norfolk from America, it seemed there were only three people living in East Anglia - me and the Bells ! Well that's how it seemed in the woods,because there was nothing going on. So we used to go down to the Geldeston Locks and drink and plan and poet.

The idea of Barsham came from California, where both Tim and I had seen an attempt to put on a mediaeval fair. The real inspiration was coming back and responding to merry old England. Tim was very much concerned with the First Barsham Fair, but he had a job which kept him away sometimes. Anyhow, we found a field, and we did the work on site. The work didn't consist of much, putting up a few poles, organising a tug of war and so on. There wasn't much press or publicity. But there was energy emerging from a lot of people, an energy that nobody had known was there. Also, the site was very good for a first fair, because it was an ancient place.

Later, we always made a point of only putting a fair on where the energy of the site was right, usually ancient sites. The First Barsham was at an old gathering place, but that was found by chance. The Barsham church paddock was a very potent site, a meeting point of Telluric forces from far and wide. The church, (originally a St. Catherine dedication) was once a stone circle with outriders in the paddock.

And the Horse Fair site at Mettingham Castle had two Bell Barrows on it and was in alignment with `The Mount', a huge conical mound in a wood, half-a-mile distant where twenty leys meet. That First Barsham site had been a place of festivity, the hanging tree is still hanging there, and I think more than anything else this revival of old atmosphere was responsible for the success of the Fairs.

It was also the beginning of the movements of young people leaving the cities, hoping to find a more harmonious life, a natural order. And it did not take much to focus where people went to - the country was the country if you lived in the cities. And it took only one good event to draw the urban mind to the possibilities of rural existence.

In five years you can almost multiply every aspect of the fair by ten times. One candlemaker became ten candlemakers, all of them new to candlemaking, because suddenly the possibility of craft as an existence was being reborn, both of the necessity of country living and using the mediaeval concepts of barter and exchange.

The craft thing was important, and like a breath of fresh air - a new approach on how to look after yourself. You could have a garden, an old car, a good time, somewhere to sell your work and a feeling that you were a part of something that was new and growing.

The people just kept coming - not just to the Fair, but to live up here, anywhere, in a tumbledown cottage or in the back of a lorry. We had a newspaper. The Clarion gave us communication. There really was a feeling of `another way' in the early days of Barsham.

So what happened was that a hardcore of Barshamites evolved who called themselves the East Anglian Arts Trust, set up to just enliven the East Anglian scene in any way they fancied. It was wonderful, like an open book. Barsham grew and the sweetness grew with it, it didn't go sour.

One of the feelings it created was one of itinerancy of people who were passing, looking for something, and it was this which attracted the travellers even more. There was the essence of the `good deal' – 30p at the gate for three days of madness, which attracted the local people and their children.

Slowly the energy of a peaceful community pervaded the Fairs, almost as though there were no limitations, for example, no age limit, so everybody, kids and older people could help as well. It was simply a space that was being created in a field, especially during the setting up of those Barshams, that was without fear. As soon as you came in the gate, you became part of a community that was giving, and it didn't matter what you could give, because the whole essence of the effort was that it was almost structureless. Consequently, everybody felt useful and was useful.

I remember, in those early site-managing days, just casting my eyes about, looking for jobs for three-year-olds, alcoholics, old travelling rogues, or the vicars wife: everybody wanted to help and that is why it worked. There was only one law on the field which got us through countless crises, and that was to be positive. If a thing seemed ridiculous and impossible, then we'd go for it!

The early fairs all had themes, usually elemental. It was the design and concept of the Fair field, expressing that element, which would give the Fair it's lift. It was a sort of wonderful naivity, in which everyone believed, in AIR for example. The word used most on that field was AIR. So, when the rest of the fair `arrived' there was this airy elevating spirit.

The demise of the Barsham Fairs occurred because of size - the volumes of people that had to be dealt with, the acres of car-park, the thousands of gallons from the loos. Structure crept in and inevitably it collapsed. Had there been no structure, it couldn't have collapsed. What did come out of it was Sandra's book `Build Another Barsham' and the idea to de-structure this thing. We would take the Fair to the people, and the Albion Fairs wound be like a small travelling version of Barsham. For a while, this took the pressure off. But the formula of success was so ingrained, that wherever they went with their expertise, the people found they had a Barsham on their hands.

So seeds were planted in East Anglia, and some of these seeds blew far away, to Devon, Cornwall and Wales. As these other fairs developed, so the finer aspects of Barsham - the mediaeval, acoustic and cheapness became slowly diluted and the heavy metal and more commercial aspects of craft trading arrived.

Barsham was finished and new fairs came along, and are still going on, and some of these are very good. But the fairs now are the fairs of the 80's, being put together by people from the late 70's, whereas Barsham was a fair of the 70's somehow crystallising energy from the people of the 60's.

Of all the Fairs that I remember, by far the most exciting and caring were the Bungay May Horse Fairs. They had a truly anarchic quality which put you up against yourself more than any amount of acid and street theatre could at the `Barshams'. They were raw, encouraging the wilder elements of the community to come together. There was an explosive feeling about (unlike the 'convoy' who seemed like ghosts by comparison) - the horses and gypsies kept the sparks flying. "I 'he police suddenly realised that the so-called hippies had sided with the troublemakers and began to make life difficult. The common land for miles around filled with chrome vans and lurchers , the petty crime rate soared, everyone began whispering and betting excited as the `vibe' built up. When the great day came the whole thing was completely out of control – it was wonderful - the confrontation dealt with as best you could.

One single incident I can recall from those days that seems to me to capture the tension of the Bungay Horse Fair, occurred two days before the second and last fair.

The field had about a hundred well established vans on it, and a few hundred horses running free, when in the pouring rain the `fairground' arrived. I had been waiting to see what would happen between Gypsy and Showman, being old feuding groups - when this monster of a lorry - 30 tons of Dodgem cars piled one on another – roared onto the field - flat out to impress the travellers. It didn't get far - there was an infilled ditch fifty yards into the field and your dodgems went in deep, almost to the lorry windscreen.

Well, the travellers gathered in the rain, sipping tea from the Royal Doulton, silently watching the frantic efforts of the driver to extricate his load. Then the `metal boys' arrived and fitted a one inch cable to the back and took that around a big oak and out onto the road where this huge winch was attached by cables to two more oaks.

The whole thing took an hour to set up and no word was spoken.

Then the roaring started and that cable just got tighter and tighter -the dodgems wouldn't move. The whole situation got like the cable - very dangerous, when into the field gate with sun behind it came the most beautiful palomino stallion, a sixteen hand golden volcano of life and fear. Up top was a deaf and dumb gypsy boy - no saddle, no bridle - just a rope round the beast's nose and some kind of communication that was beyond understanding. He didn't blink his brown eyes, and as the travellers parted, he stepped his mount up to the cable. The noise was terrible, the cable was going to snap - then they just lifted over that steel rope like Pegasus, with such precision and grace that I wept.

The travellers turned back to the vans with a glance between themselves. The showmen went away. And the field was left to the old way of doing things. But the old ways of doing things didn't last - did they?

Keith Payne 1983