Bampton Charter Fair boasts something that few other events can ‐ it has been in existence since 1258. That's over 750 years! It always takes place on the last Thursday in October which occasionally means it clashes with Halloween.
Bampton is a small town on the River Batherm on the fringe of Exmoor National Park. It may have had a Roman fort and it certainly has some Saxon remains including the unusual circular churchyard. The castle mound is all that remains of the 11th century Norman Castle.
The origins of Bampton Charter Fair
Although now in ruins, Bampton Castle would have been a landmark in the town when the Bampton Charter Fair was first celebrated. No-one knows quite when the October St Luke's Fair originated, although it was mentioned in 1212 and certainly existed before the town received its royal charter.
Traditionally, Bamford Fair sold sheep and cattle and this three-day fair was one of the largest such trading events in the South West. It was held in two fields next to the Chapel of St-Luke-Outside-the-Town, hence it original name.
It became known as the Charter Fair when Henry III granted a Royal Charter to Bampton in 1258. It is one of the oldest Charter Fairs in the country and is a wonderful historic event to attend if you are holidaying near Exmoor in late October.
In the early 1800s Bampton Fair saw the trading of around 14,000 sheep ‐ imagine all that baa-ing and bleating! Many of the animals and visitors arrived by train until the railway closed in 1963, which led to a decline in the fair.
2,000 ponies were once traded at Bampton Charter Fair Pony Sale
From the 1880s to the 1980s Bampton Charter Fair also incorporated Bampton Pony Fair and Sale. This was when many ponies were rounded up on Exmoor and sold, partly to ensure there was sufficient grazing for the remaining wild herd during the winter and to retain the strongest of the breed while letting poorer stock go. At its height some 2,000 ponies were traded ‐ more noise and a lot of clearing up afterwards no doubt!
Due to frequent brawls and merriment, houses were boarded up and shops had removable windows especially for the fair! Women did not attend the fair until the 20th century as previously many auctioneers offered their clients free drinks which fuelled the drunken party atmosphere.
The Pony Sale still goes on today, selling ponies, horses saddles, tack, farm machinery, collectibles, furniture and “fur and feathers” which is mainly chickens and ducks.
The sale starts at noon at Luttrell Farm and gathers quite a following. It's fun to attend if you have never been to a livestock sale ‐ just keep your head still and your hands firmly in your pockets or you could easily find yourself with an unintended new pet!
The Bampton Charter Fair was (and still is!) opened by proclamation and then the Lord or his steward would sit in the Tollbooth and take toll payments from anyone who did business as part of the fair ‐ a tidy income.
Lottery funds re-invigorate Bampton Fair
In 2004 in conjunction with the Pennymore Singaround Folk Club, a grant from the National Lottery enabled Bampton Charter Fair to improve its infrastructure and encourage local craftsmen and food producers to attend.
Today Bampton Charter Fair has plenty of live street entertainment and interesting stands and activities. Pubs and halls host concerts, music workshops and craft demonstrations. An interesting collection of archive photographs of the fair is also worth browsing.
Now enjoying a new lease of life, the Bampton Charter Fair is a family orientated event which celebrates the rich heritage of Exmoor life. Do consider attending and preserve this historic event, which celebrated its 750th anniversary in 2008.
Have you ever attended Bampton Charter Fair or can you add more local information about the fair's colourful history? We'd love to hear your comments below.