Warm September brings the fruit, sportsmen then begin to shoot

By A J Selby.
Late summer and early autumn is the time for the country fair. We are well blessed in this area with several to choose from – the Gillingham and Shaftesbury Show, Buckham Fair, Dorset Steam Fair, Melplash Show, Dorset County Show and the Frome Cheese Show, to name but a handful. Country fairs, traditionally held around Michaelmas – one of the four quarter days in the calendar – in late September, are no longer fixed on that date, and are now held throughout the summer and early autumn.
The quarter days themselves are a fascinating insight into English history, being the days that the quarterly rent was due, labour was hired and school terms started. They fall roughly at the two equinoxes – spring and autumn – and the two solstices – winter and summer. The first is Lady Day on 25 March and if you ever wondered why the income tax year starts on 6 April, it’s not a random date but it corresponds to 25 March, Lady Day under the old Julian calendar. In 1582 the Gregorian calendar was adopted by the Holy Roman Empire and then gradually across Europe, finally being accepted in England in 1752. It involved moving the dates by 11 days – plus one day due to a skipped Julian leap day in 1800 – hence 25 March became 6 April. It wasn’t universally accepted and stories abounded of peasants who thought they had been cheated out of some of their life, shouting ‘give us back our 11 days!’
Along with the quarter days were the four cross-quarter days of Candlemas – 2 February, May Day – 1 May, Lammas Day – 1 August, and All Hallows – 1 November, hence All Hallows Eve, ‘Halloween’, falls on 31 October. The Michaelmas quarter day – September 29 – was the most important as labourers would sometimes offer themselves for hire for a full 12 months, the farming ‘year’ starting as it does in September. This was the time of year when ground was ploughed and readied for the sowing of winter corn, rams and bulls were prepared for fathering duties and all was done to ensure that man and beast could survive winter.
It was at these Michaelmas fairs that labourers went to offer themselves for work, where farmers took animals to sell for eating and breeding, and the fruits of field and orchard were put up for sale to those who had not ground to grow their own or good fortune in harvest. It was also a place for courting and match-making, as many eligible lads and lassies never ventured beyond the parish boundary and used the fairs as a place to meet and choose a mate. The earliest fairs go back centuries, to the time of the Norman Conquest and probably before, and have changed little in their offerings – the best livestock and produce, entertainment, music and drinking, and place for the great and the good to meet up, and swap stories and parish gossip.
Then it was local merchants and revellers travelling to the fair on foot or horseback, now it’s a queue for the revellers in to the car-park; then it was fat cattle which we probably wouldn’t recognise and now its pedigree and generations of considered breeding; then it was jousting, falconry and jesters, now its ferret racing, falconry and dog agility; then it was the lute, ale, cider and mead, now it’s live bands, beer and cider; then it was smocks and sticks, now it’s still smocks and sticks for a few and everything in-between that and flip-flops and shorts! And we still meet to gossip and swap stories. The basics are still the same, just the times that have changed.
The countryside is at an impasse at this time of year. It’s still summer, just, with September potentially offering some gorgeous weather and the chance to finish the harvest as fields of wheat ripened to a burnished gold are devoured by the combines. There are also hints of autumn as cooler evenings and shorter days signal the change of the seasons. The leaves on the trees are ready to turn colour, our summer migrants are preparing for the off and hedgerows promise plump blackberries, blood red rose-hips and oil black sloes. Pheasants can be seen filling up on beech mast and spilt corn while the wood pigeon is waiting for the autumn sown oil-seed rape to appear. The year is changing, just imperceptibly at present before full-blown autumn, but there is still enough time to enjoy the waning summer and, it is hoped, a wonderful, warm September.

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