diamond geezer

 Sunday, May 19, 2024

Every year on May 15th the people of Cheam hold a charter fair.
They have to hold it on the right day or permission lapses.
It dates back to a market charter granted by Henry III in 1259.

Also much of the above may not be true.

Firstly there is no evidence that Henry III granted a charter to Cheam in 1259 or in any other year. Tradition says he did but no historical records exist to confirm this, so it's all hand-me-down hearsay. There is thus no legal obligation to hold the fair on the right day but they still do.

Secondly there's no evidence that the fair has been held every year. Tradition says it has, indeed local figures have often gone out of their way to hold some kind of celebration even when no large event took place. During one particularly lacklustre 19th century year a resident called Granny Sloper met the terms by sticking a table of produce outside her house, during WW2 villagers set up an ice cream stall with a dartboard next to it and during the pandemic they got some children to play hopscotch in the street. But nobody knows for sure if the fair has ever failed to take place, and over 7½ centuries that possibility seems rather likely.

Thirdly the fair is no longer held on the correct day. In 2011 councillors suggested a weekend would be better for footfall reasons and since then the main fair's been transferred to the subsequent Saturday. But tradition holds strong so something always takes place on May 15th - this year it was a game of badminton outside the Red Lion in which a small group of children took on the fair's sponsor, a local mortgage broker.

I went along yesterday.

I missed the procession. This takes place at the ridiculously early hour of 9am and I was still on the wrong side of London at the time. What happens is that pupils from St Dunstan's school dress in Tudor outfits and are led through the streets by the Mayor of Sutton in his red robes. I didn't feel like I'd particularly missed out by skipping this.

Cheam Charter Fair takes place in Park Road, a historic dogleg behind The Broadway. It pretty much fills the street too, with 80-odd stalls strung out along its length and a very decent crowd of locals milling through. What I most liked was how traditional and rooted in the community it was, from the Rotary Club's Splat The Rat sideshow to the Trefoil Guild's tombola. I can't claim that the prizes in the shoe shop's lucky dip were amazing, nor that anyone genuinely needs a £1.50 'Paint your own Shortbread Biscuit' kit, but the tat level was a lot lower than your average contemporary streetfair.

And sure the usual array of home-baking entrepreneurs had turned up attempting to sell gift-wrapped slabs of Rocky Road, but they weren't winning out because the best cakes were selling out fastest from the clingfilmed trays on the Mothers Union table. And OK multiple Etsy-style craft ladies had turned up attempting to flog things they'd been sewing all winter, but the crowd was actually larger round the Hook-A-Boat paddling pool where a 50p dip could win you a Swizzels fruit lolly. And admittedly a local heating company had dressed up a Worcester boiler in a cape and was claiming it as a mascot, but the good people of Cheam were sensibly giving their table of sponsored gonks a wide berth. The two constables sent to police the event looked like they were having the best day.

Best of all, the Lumley Chapel was open.

St Dunstan's church was founded just over 1000 years ago, and mostly demolished in the 1870s when burgeoning Cheam needed a less dilapidated place of worship. But the Duke of Bedford refused permission to demolish his private chapel so they kept the end section and filled it with all the old memorials and plaques from the remainder of the church. The Lumley Chapel now stands alone in the churchyard beside its Gothic replacement and since 2002 has been entrusted to the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. For Charter Fair day it was unlocked and the local populace came for a look inside, regularly entertained by historian Andrew Skelton giving a quick explanatory tour.

The major monuments are those of Tudor courtier John Lumley and his two wives, he the lucky sod who inherited Henry VIII's nearby palace of Nonsuch through marriage. The most ornate memorial is that of his first wife Jane, the front of which depicts their three children in alabaster standing in front of a recognisably palatial backdrop. The Lumley vault is a steep shallow space just down there, said John, pointing to the ringed flagstone one of us was standing on. Most of the other commemorative clutter is from later well-to-do families, and John went on to point out how many of them had been referenced in a local street name. The only part of the chapel that's properly pre-Norman are the windowy remnants in the flinty exterior, since-filled in, but that's enough to make this the oldest building in the entire borough of Sutton.

If you want to look inside the Lumley Chapel you don't have to wait until Charter Fair day, the key is kept at Cheam Library nextdoor. Unfortunately Sutton council are increasingly skint so the majority of its libraries have just been switched to a Self-Access model which means you can no longer walk in off the street without a library card (or app) and PIN. Staff are now only provided on Wednesdays, Thursdays and alternate Saturdays, and without someone behind the desk you'll never get the key because this is the miserable cheapskate future austerity has delivered.

In better news a key is also available at the next building I visited, although that's recently had its Saturday opening hours cut thanks to the same cultural budget squeeze imposed last month, damn you Eric Pickles.

I finished off my visit in Whitehall.

That's Whitehall the 520-year-old timber-framed house, one of the cluster of wooden Tudor buildings in Cheam along The Broadway. You can tell it's special just by looking at it, and if it's open you can also see how a recent splash of lottery money has improved the offering within. First up is a little gift shop offering Cheamy publications and a foursome of Cheamy badges, then you're free to head off and explore across two storeys and a spacious attic. A few relics from Nonsuch survive downstairs, displayed alongside a rather splendid model of the very splendid palace. A lot of rooms however display little but information panels, for example a Cheam Discovery Trail you could follow or a look at the former agricultural bounty hereabouts - specifically lavender, peppermint and watercress.

Upstairs the interior decoration gets a bit more thematic and focuses on former residents, which I think is why the largest attic room is full of maritime ephemera and makes seashore noises. I would have like to read more about the actual building itself, for example the marvellously steep and twisty attic staircase, but maybe I missed that part. When you're done there's also a decent sized garden which contains a 20 foot deep well, suitably railinged off, and perhaps a cafe too if council accountants have deemed it worthy of keeping open. And all this is free to visit (it was £1.60 last time I came in 2009) but perhaps that's a condition of the lottery funding. Hurrah anyway.

Cheam might look very 1930s, but at its heart are Saxon and Tudor treasures and a medieval Charter Fair, making it unlike almost anywhere else in London.

If charter fairs are your thing a reminder that Pinner's is coming up in 10 days time, although that's more high street fairground and a mere 14th century youngster.

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