Sherborne, Dorset. What could be more exciting on a spring Bank Holiday than a county fair? We were lucky enough to be visiting our friends Sarah and Peter in the lovely village of Trent for several days. And we were extra lucky that our first day took us directly to the Sherborne Fair.
Surely we’ve all been to county and/or state fairs and had the chance to admire the offerings of prideful farmers competing for attention and ribbons for their animals or produce. For us Americans, this fair was just that much more…English, and, thus, that much more interesting.
First of all, the fair takes place on the grounds of not one, but two castles.
Sherborne Old Castle is the ruin of a 12th-century castle in the grounds of the mansion. The castle was built as the fortified palace of Roger de Caen, Bishop of Salisbury and Chancellor of England, and still belonged to the church in the late 16th century.
After passing through Sherborne on the way to Plymouth, Sir Walter Raleigh fell in love with the castle, and Queen Elizabeth relinquished the estate, leasing it to Raleigh in 1592. Rather than refurbish the old castle, Raleigh decided to construct a new building for temporary visits that was known as a lodge. The new house, Sherborne Lodge, was a four-story, rectangular building completed in 1594.
During Raleigh’s imprisonment in the Tower, King James sold the estate to Sir John Digby, 1st Earl of Bristol in 1617. In the 1620s, the Digby family added four wings to the house, retaining the original corner towers. Features include the 1753 lake designed by Capability Brown, which separates the old and new castles. Descendants of the family still own the estate.
Imagine that as the setting for a riotous display of food, games, animals – both farm products and family pets – add in a few hundred children and great weather, and you have a wonderful day celebrating a spring holiday. We particularly loved watching the shire horses and thought herding pigs was a thankless task, but great fun to watch. And who can resist rare breeds of sheep, not to mention the great varieties of designer dogs accompanying the spectators as pets? Let’s not forget the dragon boat races, beagle and bloodhound demonstrations and pony rides, just to round out the festivities. (We missed the ferret races, Morris dancing and the sheep-shearing, unfortunately. One can only take in so much…)
And then there was the food! Some burger stands, but lots of more indigenous cuisine, all of which looked and smelled (and tasted) wonderful.
This is only a one-day annual event, but there is a whole world of tradition and great good fun crammed into it. We just loved it.