Back in the mid 18th century, every first Friday in July, much of east London decamped to the Essex countryside for a drunken knees-up. They headed to Fairlop, near Hainault, to feast and be merry under a great tree - the Fairlop Oak. Its branches were said to cast a midday shadow 300 feet in circumference, covering roughly an acre of land, and a seething mass of booths and stalls were laid out beneath its mighty span. This was Fairlop Fair, and over the decades it grew from a simple annual picnic into a tumultuous alcoholic riot. I'm not going to tell you the fair's full fascinating story, because you can readaboutthat elsewhere. But it all began with a man buying bacon and beans for his friends.
The Fairlop Oak no longer stands. It was an extremely old tree even in the 1700s, and gradual decay set in as further years passed by. Huge branches broke free, the hollow trunk was burnt out by irresponsible picknickers, and gales in 1820 brought the remaining wood toppling to the ground. The fair continued nearby but it was never quite the same, and events dribbled to a close at the turn of the 20th century.
Visit the site of Fairlop Fair today, just off Forest Road in the borough of Redbridge, and you'll find a very different place of entertainment. A flooded landfill site has become a centre for watersports, on which brave boarders sail and in which silent anglers dangle. The water's edge is surrounded by a very suburban golf course, and the Fairlop Waters bar and restaurant serves up beer and spicy food to keen clubbers. Peer through the large glass windows and you can see the golf widows beached on the bright red sofas, waiting patiently for their beloveds to return from a lengthy 18-hole round. And not just on the first Friday in July, but every day of the week. Alas the tin hut hosting Al's Adventure House has closed down due to lack of investment, and visiting children no longer run beneath the waving alligator to enjoy two hours of playtime fun. No longer is this a debauched hotbed of annual East End revelry, more a conservative sport and steakhouse hideaway.
But the past hasn't been completely forgotten. Walk west instead of east from Fairlop station and you'll reach the roundabout at Fulwell Cross. The most impressive sight here is the copper blancmange library, but look instead to the grass circle at the heart of the fiveways junction. Here, in 1951, a replacement Fairlop Oak was planted to commemmorate the festival of Britain. A plaque on the wall of the local oak-themed Wetherspoons remembers the old tree as well as the new. This replacement Quercus robur has grown quite a bit in the last 50 years, and now stands proudandtall amidst the traffic at the top of Barkingside High Road. I doubt very much that any East End revellers will journey to Fairlop today and cross to the central reservation to merrymake beneath its branches. But do raise a First Friday glass tonight for London's drunken heritage, for the right to party, and for Fairlop Fair.