One of the most important towns in medieval England lies 100 miles north of London, at what's now the far west end of Norfolk, where the River Ouse enters The Wash. That'd be King's Lynn (originally Bishop's Lynn - its name changed along with the dissolution of the monasteries), a major port which thrived on trading cloth with Northern Europe by sea. As London's wealth grew Lynn's fell back, until in the 19th century the mouth of the river silted up and little maritime activity remains. The town is now somewhat isolated, but easily and cheaply accessible from the capital (an off-peak ticket costs just £24, less than half the price of a jaunt to Norwich). There's much to see and do, easily enough to fill a day. And once a year the Mayor takes a ride on the dodgems.
King's Lynn's Valentine celebrations kick off the UK's annual fairground season. For travelling showfolk winter is a time for repair and renewal, but as spring draws near they emerge with rides gleaming and head for Norfolk to showcase their wares. There is a reason for this seemingly random choice of location, which is that in Victorian times the finest creator of mechanical fairground rides was based in the town. Frederick Savage'syard turned out steam-powered merry-go-rounds and automata of all shapes and sizes - if you wanted a brightly coloured horse with a pole shoved through its middle, Fred was your man. It therefore made complete common sense for the first travelling fair of the year to convene in King's Lynn, the better for everyone to see what was new, and the tradition has stuck even though Savages is long gone.
But the Lynn Mart, as the February fair is known, goes back a lot longer than that. Henry VIII sanctioned two trading fairs in the royal port each year, one in the summer and one around Valentine's Day, and before long only the latter extravaganza survived. The funfair aspect became more important over time, but the event still opens annually on Valentine's Day (or, if that's a Sunday, the previous day) and runs for approximately two weeks. One of King's Lynn's market squares is taken over - the so-called Tuesday Market Place - and the showpeople start setting up their stalls and rides a few days before. If you live in West Norfolk, trust me, this is big. And also ancient, because King John first granted a market charter to the town in 1104, hence this year's Lynn Mart is advertised as the 812th.
Officially the fair opens at noon. It also opens with one of the most brilliant civic ceremonies I have ever attended, in that the town's dignitaries assemble with all due solemnity and then have a lot of fun. And this is entirely due to the location of the aforesaid ceremony, which is on the dodgems ride in the corner of the square. All the cars are cleared out of the way, creating a natural stage with all-round visibility, and also conveniently covered in case of rain. I took up position outside the Nougat and Rock caravan (toffee apples a speciality) amid a growing crowd of older residents and young families. The local press were in full attendance, and high fashion was conspicuous by its absence.
Bang on twelve the procession arrived, appearing up the street from somewhere past Nando's. At its head was the town's chief beadle, resplendent in top hat, followed by further mace-wielding officials in cocked hats and lace collars. There were rather more people behind that I was expecting, many carrying further regalia, as if the entire set of town hall staff and councillors had turned out. Gold chains and draped animal furs were in evidence, along with at least one sword, plus those over-feathery hats that female dignitaries wear, in a marvellous display of civic pride. Some of those walking inbetween had more of a landowning vibe, and the beadle greeted one man in a smart Barbour as "Hello Sir Henry", he being the recently-knighted local MP. You just don't get this kind of thing in Tower Hamlets.
There is something wonderfully incongruous about seeing the entire top brass of an English market town arrayed across a glowing dodgems floor. They chatted, they shuffled, and they waited until the appointed time, marked by the beadle ringing a brass handbell three times. After a short prayer a female councillor read out the official proclamation, kicking off with some oyezs, then issuing a liberal scattering of forthwiths, and stumbling occasionally over words like "pertuity", "thenceforth" and "customed". With all due legalese invoked, she rounded off by hoping that during the period of the Mart "all such persons suspected of evil behaviour do avoid the town and the liberties thereof". Oh how we chuckled.
The Mayor was up next with a welcoming speech, ensuring he covered the traditional topic of what the weather was like (dry, as it turned out, if bitterly cold). He looked forward to his spin on the dodgems, and risked a joke about it being similar to teaching his wife to drive, which the crowd let him get away with. After further bell-ringing the chairman of the Showman's Guild stepped up - it was like being in the presence of fairground royalty - and looked forward to a fresh year of health and safety-friendly amusementing all around the country. Everyone then sang, or mouthed, the National Anthem, before the beadle gave his bell a damned good clanging and the Mart was officially open.
Almost immediately the great and good moved to exit the floor on which they'd been standing, or more likely dived for a nearby dodgem car and clambered in. I loved the almost immediate descent from ceremonial to pleasure, carried out with proper deportment at all times, but still just that little bit anarchic. And what a sight to see officialdom in its hats and robes crammed into tiny cars, first waiting for the off, then heading off round the arena bashing into one another with abandon. In most cases husbands drove their wives, certainly the Mayor wasn't taking any chances with his spouse, although Sir Henry deferred control to a frillier co-pilot. After a few circuits I actually found myself laughing out loud at the sheer absurdity of it all, and the glee that these previously staid souls took from ramming headlong into one another.
By the third session of dodgeming the clientèle was very different, all the dignitaries having headed off elsewhere and the true residents of West Norfolk having taken their place. Elsewhere around the market square a wide variety of other rides were underway, many providing an elevated (and rapidly spinning) view of proceedings. Teenagers slunk round the fair stuffing candy floss, kids careered down the big helter skelter, and the showpeople on the "try your skill" stalls hoped that someone would eventually be interested in winning a cuddly minion. The Lynn Mart is closed this Valentine's Day because it's a Sunday, but it's great to know a medieval tradition continues in the heart of the town, and to be reminded that the 2016 season is now underway so spring can't be too far behind. [news report][thirteen photos]