Nottingham Goose Fair memories: ‘Big George, The Gentle Giant and my dad.
UP UNTIL THE EARLY NINETIES, ‘George the Gentle Giant’ was a Scotsman who would visit the fair each year who I remember as a youngster being a travelling attraction. Big George Gracie was a Lanarkshire man who measured fully 7ft 3ins tall, weighed 28 stone and stood in size 18 shoes. His size was caused by a brain tumour in his pituitary gland, as I understand.
Gentle Giant – George Gracie
The big man’s living was to allow people to come and stare at him on a fairground sideshow stall for a few pennies. People would pay their money and file around his pen. The big man was a most affable fellow, in spite of it all.
I recall dad took me to the Goose Fair one early October Saturday afternoon. After the various round of coconut shies, rifle ranges, Waltzers and confectionery, dad decided we would go and see George after spotting a garish ‘Scotland’s Tallest Man’ sign..
What followed was extraordinary to my young eyes. Dad walked in, me trailing behind him hand in his huge strong hand and greeted George like he had known him all his life – as he did everyone in fact. Big George instantly recognised dad’s very strong Scottish accent and they began talking like two brothers…far from home. It should be remembered that this was the 1960s when distances had a different conception and where having family 300 miles apart in England and Scotland, as I did, felt like having relatives on the moon.
George was from the village of Forth in Lanarkshire whilst ma daddy and me had family just a few miles away in Uddingston and Bellshill. The two men sat and talked and talked for what seemed like a very long time, maybe an hour passed instead of the prescribed two or three minutes, everyone else,the sightseers filing past being ignored, These two ‘brothers’ from the auld country, talking of young days, people, places. In a world of kinship and brotherhood, of blood being thicker than water. Two Scots lads who had found themselves meeting in strange circumstances.
I learnt something that day from this extraordinarily tender scene between that giant of a man and my big rough, tough dad.
‘We must always love our own, Stuart’ John said as he bade a fond goodbye to a newly met friend in George,
And I always have…
In 1993, after having mobility issues from an overworked heart, gentle George passed away from cancer, the same illness that had made him so large claiming him at the age of 53 years.
God Bless, George.
I’ve written about Nottingham’s ancient travelling fair that boasts a history of over seven hundred years previously and although seldom ever visiting in the past few years it’s always evocative of younger days in Nottingham. This might partly be because I just pass by it so very often. On certain days a week my journey into the city of Nottingham can mean passing by the large, garishly-lit spectacle up to four times so it’s something of a constant reminder.
This year has presented only the second occasion when the fair has run over five days (the previous time was on the fair’s 700th birthday). It’s the night time view that impresses of course and that has never changed. From the main Mansfield to Nottingham road, the huge happening on the Forest recreation ground can simply not be ignored. Even from the car a rumbling tumult can be felt as people pour from all directions towards the annual honey pot. This year for the first time I even heard it from my own home which stands some three miles away as the crow flies.
It’s a regular Friday evening routine for me to travel to the city to run with a friend who lives a few minutes walk away from the fair and this Friday we decided to take our little training jog around the perimeter of the fair and even after all these years, and without the personal interest in it I still have to say it is immense. Approaching it the aromas, the busy whirring fairground engines and the screams of fairgoers overwhelm the senses with the sheer size of it. Every year I wonder if this tradition is finally diminishing like so many older customs and entertainments. I look for signs that it is shrinking in size or maybe that there are less people enjoying themselves on the rides or tucking into the array of foods on sale, but truthfully I see none.
It’s been a long time since the Nottingham Goose Fair was held in the city’s Old Market Square and much, much longer since the geese the event was named after were walked with specially tarred feet all the way from the Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire fens or from distant Norfolk. You can’t buy a female servant there anymore which amazingly you could in the early days, nor sadly can you visit the boxing and wrestling booth or the Wall of Death. Much if it is the same as it ever was though, ideal for a mushy pea and mint sauce frenzy, spending a few pounds scaring yourself half to death on the rides and buying the youngsters some candy floss and a toffee apple after winning them a large cuddly toy. The perhaps surprising thing is that Goose Fair does relatively little to reinvent itself but goes on strongly year upon year. It would be a brave man that would bet on that not continuing for a long time to come yet.
Saturday evening and it’s the last night of the Nottingham Goose Fair 2009. My partner Melanie and I decided to make the short journey to the old travelling funfair, now, almost unbelievably, in it’s 715th year. Like many profess to, we just went for a walk around, to take in the sights, smells and atmosphere of the huge event.
It’s seldom I’ve visited the fair in the past few years and one change that is noticeable is the lack of the old sideshows which were very much the essence of Goose Fair for me. Attractions such as the Boxing Booth, where local worthies would get up to challenge travelling fighters are sadly missed. ‘Mouse Town’, which is fairly self-descriptive and wonder to us kids, is no more either. Other omissions might well be down to the more easily breached sensibilities of 2009. It’s hard to imagine a giant Scotsman being allowed for people to gawp at, nor a ‘bearded lady’ for that matter.
The children love it all of course and even in these days of sophisticated X-Boxes and other high-tech amusements, it’s good to see that same wide-eyed wonder that I probably had all those years ago when I was their age.
It’s important to leave a little space in your stomach for a taste of the fair I always think and I have to say I was very restrained on this visit. I had a tub of the traditional mushy peas with a large splash of mint sauce as well – lovely! I managed to forego other such delicacies as Brandy Snaps, Candyfloss and the vast array of fudge on show. Curiously the foodstuff perhaps most synonymous with Goose Fair – toffee apples were nowhere to be seen. Another point, where my seafood? Maybe these have been replaced with the smattering of noodle concessions, posh coffee vans and Panini bars that seem to have sprung up.
The Forest Recreation ground where Goose Fair is held is very handy for the main arterial Mansfield Road which leads straight up and over into the city. It houses one or two excellent pubs and is something of a traditional ‘crawl’ who prefer the relative sanity of its public houses to some of those in the centre of Nottingham. Last evening after the Fair, Mel and I wandered along to Fade Bar or The Hard to Find Cafe to quote it’s other name. It’s an interesting old building with a nice mixed clientele and good quality and varied drinks. The conservatory area is a great addition to this pub/cafe and is nicely atmospheric. I tried a pint of the excellent Aspells cider from Suffolk and an equally tasty pint of Erdinger Weissbier. Happily, one of my favourite Nottingham hostelries is but a few yards from the front door of The Hard to Find… and what better conclusion to a typical Nottingham Goose Fair night than a pint in The Lincolnshire Poacher with its fine ales, quality continental lagers and friendly surroundings. Roll on the first weekend in October 2010…
Why not come along with me now for a walk on the Fair…
If there’s one thing that always heralds the notion that Autumn has arrived in Nottingham it’s the opening of the historic Goose Fair. This ancient congregation was always traditionally opened at lunchtime on the first Thursday in October, running until late Saturday night over a three day duration. The demands of commerce now decree that the centuries old fair, which initially began in the city’s Old Market Square for matters of trade and now resides around a mile north on the Forest recreation round, opens a day early on the Wednesday evening, ignoring the old tradition.
The rush hour Nottingham traffic that snakes past the site of the fair predictably takes a peak over at the mass of lights and activity in the far distance. Straight ahead is the traditional large goose figure that is placed on the pretty traffic roundabout once a year at this time. Local people even have their own name for the characteristically crisper air prevalent as the new season commences. ‘Goose Fair weather’ they call it and what better description could one need? I note though a steady drizzle of rain this evening – the first in some time – so many times do the fair traders and attendees appear to have had a poor deal with big boots, raincoats and heavy knitwear being necessary for the traditional slog through the mud churned up by thousands of footsteps viewing the rides, amusements and food stalls.
I know that winter is but around the corner as I tread a steadily mounting covering of dry, crispy leaves along the paths and quiet lanes of my daily runs. Beginning as a trickle and eventually sometimes becoming a ploughing movement through the surrounding deciduous woodlands where bracken lays waiting to snag my footfall. Running is incessantly pleasant during the drier day of Autumn, but with every step I am aware that the stiffer test of winter exercise is just around the corner, waiting to test my resolve over the dark months once again.
The city makes various attempts at offering new amusements and festivals throughout the year and the success of one old favourite, but in a new setting, is probably about to be repeated next week. The Nottingham Robin Hood Beer Festival ran for many years at this time, held at the old Victoria Baths. An immensely popular institution within and without the city, the show had to move on or die as the venue was no more. A stroke of original thinking however now sees it housed in the Nottingham Castle grounds. The festival sports a large marquee and live music from the bandstand. I managed to miss its inaugural appearance at the stately old venue last year due to being on a protracted stay in Western Canada. No such luck this year but a visit and a few ciders down in the heart of Nottingham will provide some consolation and a pleasant night out with friends.
Soon it will be time again for pumpkin patches to be raided in time for ‘Guisers Night’ as we of Scots origin call it. I can’t say I’m terribly enamoured with some of the assumed North American ways of celebrating the pagan festival but I must admit there is some atmospheric appeal that I just cannot quite define. Of course the quickly following Guy Fawkes (Bonfire) Night will lead to a thousand childhood memories of collecting material for the huge fires we had, acquiring fireworks and dressing up a ‘Guy’ for pennies in public. The smells of the fire, gun powder, and not least toffee apples, bonfire toffee and honeycomb are never far from the imagination in at this time
Some see Autumn as a time of death in the sense that vegetation withers and dies away. All around us nature begins to fall asleep and I can’t argue with that perception. I would counter though that the season has a surety about it – one that tells us that life rolls on and on and there is some comfort in that when we think of the dark, dank months ahead. Any good gardener will till you that Autumn in often the beginning of things, when plans are made, things are planted in readiness for the future too. I like the Autumn. I love to see the shiny conkers lying below my feet – so tempting to pick up and collect just as I did as a boy. The chestnuts too in the nearby woods, to be taken home and roasted if an occasion allows. There is so much beauty to this time of year which those of us who like to experience all four season – for better or worse – understand and immerse ourselves in
I’ve noticed a lot of writing interest in the new ‘Nottingham Eye’ recently – probably quite rightly as it is a huge and dominant current addition to the city landscape. It was a classic double-take I experienced when wandering down St. James Street and into the Old Market Square two Sunday evenings ago to be confronted by the huge construction in the latter stages of being erected .
Here in Nottingham, people are well used to such sights of course. The annual Goose Fair invariably provides at least a brace of such rides come October each year and accentuates the night time view over the Forest site along with hundreds of other gaily-lit attractions. The Nottingham Eye however appears to completely dwarf even those huge fairground rides. Read on and take a ride on the Nottingham Eye!
It’s almost that time of year again, Goose Fair time here in Nottingham!
The Nottingham Goose Fair goes back over 700 years and is arguably the largest travelling fair in the country. It’s origins lie in the Old Market Square in the city where it was a livestock fair that traders would bring their wares into the city through the various ‘gates’. Nowadays it’s situated on the Forest Recreation Ground on the outskirts of the city, (yes it’s one of the places where Nottingham Forest used to play).
Always traditionally kicking off with the Lord Mayor ringing a bell on one of the rides on Midday of the first Thursday in October and lasting until late on the Saturday night, the fair now starts a day earlier.
Nottinghamians can still occasionally be heard to refer to ‘Goose Fair weather’ – the type of days and nights we all recongnise, characterised by an Autumnal ‘nip’ in the air. In truth it’s usually lashing down with rain at fair time! There is even a kind of unspoken ‘uniform’ for visiting the fair which included wellington boots, thick jumper and waterproofs!
The Goose Fair is strictly a huge travelling funfair these days which gathers around a mile from it’s original site in the Old Market Square in the city. Formerly the gathering was based on a livestock market. Geese, being a popular dish at that time of the year in those days, were driven in their thousands from reputedly as far away as Lincolnshire and Norfolk. The story goes that the geese would have their feet encased in tarmac-like stuff for their feet to survive to walk.
Around Nottingham which was a walled city in those days, there are still many roads named ‘Gate’ Warser Gate, Wheeler Gate for example. These were actually the sites of real gates at the walls of the town. Goose Gate still exists and is on the east side of the city which would support the geese coming from those eastern counties story.
The Old Market Square in Nottingham is reputed to be the largest in Europe but as the fair grew ever more huge the site had to be changed to it’s present day one where it still thrives early every October.
The only connection apart from history nowadays is the large model goose placed amongst the flowerbeds on the main traffic roundabout near the fair to denote festivities. Unfortunately it was kidnapped one year by students for a prank though now sits proudly back in place as observed on my drive home last night.
As a lad the big thing was to get the old man to treat you to a ‘Robin Hood’ bow and ‘arrer and the famous Lincoln Green hat with a feather. You’d also count yourself unlucky if you didn’t return home (exhausted) with a goldfish (which invariably died the next day) and a 2000 year old coconut with not a thimbleful of milk in it won by dad’s unnerring aim on the shies. This was always hung from a back garden tree for the blue tits the next day after finally opening it with a pneumatic drill and sledge hammer.
The boxing booth, where a drunk or two would always jump up and volunteer for a good leathering was always very entertaining before you stuffed yourself stupid with mushy peas and mint sauce, hot dogs, candy floss, toffee apples a cock on a stick, brandysnaps and gaudily coloured fudge.
I’m away down there this year I reckon for some rough magic. I’ll be the one with the luminous neckband and the Elvis mirror…