diamond geezer

 Friday, July 04, 2008

Fairlop Fair
Come, come, my boys, with a hearty glee,
To Fairlop fair, bear chorus with me;
At Hainault forest is known very well,
This famous oak has long bore the bell.

Let music sound as the boat goes round,
If we tumble on the ground, we'll be merry, I'll be bound;
We will booze it away, dull care we will defy,
And be happy on the first Friday in July.
New Fairlop Oak, Fulwell CrossBack 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 read about that elsewhere. But it all began with a man buying bacon and beans for his friends.
      Mr. Day, a shipbuilder, wishing to have a day's outing in the forest with his friends and employees, fitted up a vessel on wheels, fully rigged, in which he conveyed his picnic party to Hainault Forest, on the outskirts of which, some distance from Ilford, stood the famous Fairlop Oak. The holiday became an annual custom, and gradually changed its character from the simple gathering of a master and his men into regular saturnalia; during which, each year, from the first Friday in July, over the ensuing Saturday and Sunday, riot and debauchery reigned supreme in the glades of the forest and the eastern districts of London.

      The example begat by Mr. Day was followed by other ship, boat, and barge builders, but of late years, more particularly by the mast and block makers, riggers, shipwrights, and shipyard labourers; and more recently still by the licensed victuallers. These ship and boat cars attract immense multitudes along the Mile End, Bow, and Whitechapel Roads, down as far as Aldgate; the crowd assemble in the morning to see the holiday people start on their expedition. The most remarkable sight, however, is at night, when the "boats" return lighted with coloured lanterns, red and green fires, &c.
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.

Fairlop WatersVisit 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.

new Fairlop OakBut 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 proud and tall 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.
So we'll dance round the tree, and merry we will be,
Every year we'll agree the fair for to see;
And we'll booze it away, dull care we'll defy,
And be happy on the first Friday in July.

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