Across the UK the first of May has long been a day for celebrations and festivities, often with a bit of ribboned pole-dancing thrown in for good measure. London too has a long history of springtime frolics and debauchery, often spread over several days, although the focus of these mass celebrations has shifted somewhat over the years. Up until the 17th century the capital's main spring gathering was held in the Haymarket, just up the road from Charing Cross. It's certainly wide enough.
As the name suggests, Haymarket was once the place where Londoners came to buy hay. In Tudor times it had been a country lane on the edge of town, bordered by hedgerows and fields, before becoming the unofficial spot for lining up carts loaded with hay and straw for sale [map]. It also proved the ideal spot for an annual spring cattle market, plus associated rowdy merrymaking, which became known as Saint James's Fayer. Slowly the surrounding area became built up and Haymarket was paved over, after which the hay vendors were required to pay fees for their thrice-weekly pitches. The first theatres came a little later, but this broad, busy thoroughfare was already unsuitable for a fortnight of lewd drunken activity. A less central location was sought, and in 1686 the May Fair moved on. You can probably guess where to.
During the reign of James II, most of the area northwest of St James's Park was muddy pasture alongside the lowly Tyburn brook [map]. At the time there were no local people to complain about London's annual May Fair moving in, save the residents of a few grand houses backing onto what is now Piccadilly. This sprawling sideshow took over Great Brookfield meadow each year on May 1st and continued for a full fifteen days. It attracted wild revellers from all over London and the home counties, as well as countless thieves, charlatans and lewd women, keen to escape the bounds of the city and indulge in raucous excess. Over the course of a fortnight much ale was quaffed, much money was wagered, much flesh was feasted upon and much seed was sown.
As London continued to spread westward, the new inhabitants of north Piccadilly became resentful of the fair on their doorstep. They feared for the morals of their wives, servants and children, threatened by corruption in this iniquitous "nursery of vice". Rich residents petitioned the courts for the fair's removal, initially without success. Then, as the suburbanisation of the area continued, landowners moved in to erect new houses on these riverside fields. Edward Shepherd laid out a densely populated warren of streets - Shepherd Market - at the heart of the old fairground site in 1735. But it was not until 1764 that the Earl of Coventry successfully used legal means to force the entire bacchanalia to move elsewhere. [meaty lost river thesis]
With the May Fair's departure the area headed rapidly upmarket to become the exclusive aristocratic neighbourhood of Mayfair we know today [map]. Shepherd Market ended up as one of the poorer areas, relatively speaking. It's never quite shaken off its reputation as a haunt for shady backhand deals and prostitutes, but now thrives as a backstreet enclave of restaurants, pubs and galleries. Narrow taxi-choked lanes weave off Piccadilly past grimy buildings which look like part of the set of Oliver, leading to a hodgepodge of bollarded alleyways where hedgefunders buy lunchtime gifts for their partners and well-groomed socialites dine alone behind plastic sheeting, while delivery vans unload in the tiny square where Edward Shepherd once sank his duck pond. All that remains as a historical hint of former overindulgence is a blue plaque above the back door of a Lebanese restaurant.
In 1764 the May Fair moved on, five miles eastward, re-establishing itself in a field just outside the small village of Bow [map]. Here it amalgamated with the existing Bow Fair, a long-standing booze-fuelled shindig held a few days after Whitsun. The event had previously been nicknamed the Green Goose Fair, not only because of the spit-turned meat on offer, but because 'green goose' was a slang term for women of ill repute.
The crowd's behaviour here was just as atrocious, with Londoners arriving in their droves by road and river to take out their frustrations on this tiny rural backwater. But as Bow's population grew so too did the number of complaints from local residents, as before, until in 1823 the fair was banned altogether "due to rowdyism and vice".
Today the site of Bow's 'Fair Field' is marked by a plaque on the corner of where else but Fairfield Road [map]. Once little more than a grassy track on the edge of the village , the lower end was soon lined by some tidy Georgian terraces, several of which survive. But as for the plot of the Fair Field itself, its somewhat downbeat legacy is as a town hall that's no longer a town hall, a nightclub that's no longer a nightclub, a school that's no longer a school and a station that's no longer a station.
This striped building partially resembling an ocean liner is Poplar Town Hall, one of the first examples of modernist civic architecture, opened in 1938 by former mayor and Labour Party leader George Lansbury. It was downgraded to mere offices in the mid 60s, when Tower Hamlets council was created, but still provides an impressive (if slightly shabby) presence facing Bow Road. In 1957 Fair Field's reputation for vice and criminal activity was rekindled briefly when the Kray Brothers opened their very first club, the Double R, nextdoor. Barbara Windsor and Jackie Collins came round a few times, as did the police. Today only a car hire portakabin marks this doubly notorious location.
As for Bow School, which is the secondary Ashley Cole went to, that's been empty since 2014 when the pupils moved out to a shiny newbuilding beside the Lea. Their old classrooms are supposed to be turning into a much-needed primary, but peering through the railings at the mothballed playground suggests that legal or financial encumbrance has crippled the project. Which just leaves the ex-station, Bow's first, whose platforms were carved across the former Fair Field about a decade after the May Fair ceased [map] [map]. Its razed cutting has since been used by the DLR for maintenance and storage, presenting a somewhat bleak panorama on the trackside immediately to the north of Bow Church station. Peer through the railings from Kitcat Terrace, and what was once a field of dreams is now an inaccessible mostly-vacant hole.
As a resident of Bow Road I'm both saddened and relieved that London's premier spring festival no longer takes place so close to home. Whilst it would be really convenient to have a major fairground a couple of hundred yards up the street, I really wouldn't want drunken merrymakers urinating on my doorstep, nor do we need countless prostitutes hanging around outside the Co-op. But it's a shame that London no longer delivers a full-on springtime festival to which we're all invited. These days London's only long-term drunken revel is Winter Wonderland - a tame commercial affair at the wrong end of the year, in the park facing the posh estate that evicted the May Fair 250 years ago.