On St James’s Day every year (25 July) the small Sussex village of Ebernoe holds Horn Fair. A centuries old custom, the fair is a celebration which takes place on the village common and a main feature is the cricket match between Ebernoe and a local village. At the end of the day, the highest scoring batsman is presented with a set of horns as a trophy – traditionally taken from a sheep which has been roasting throughout the day on a spit in the corner of the common.
Over the centuries the fair has moved with the times – waltzers, burger vans and bumper cars are all present but many traditions have held fast. The Horn Fair song is one such tradition and is sung around the cricket pavilion once the match is over and the horns have been presented.
As I was a-walking one fine summer morn’,
So soft was the wind and the waves of the corn,
I met a pretty dansel upon a grey mare,
And she was a-rinding along to Horn Fair.
‘Now take me up behind you, fair maid, for to ride!’
‘Oh no, and then oh no, for my Mammy she would chide!
And then my dear old daddy would beat me full sore!
And never let me ride on his grey mare no more!’
‘If you would see Horn Fair, you must walk on your way,
I will not let you ride on my grey mare today,
You’d rumple all my muslin and uncurl my hair,
And leave me all distressed to be seen at Horn Fair’.
‘Oh fairest of damsels, how can you say no?
With you I intend to Horn Fair for to go.
We’ll join the best of company when we do get there,
With horns on their heads boys, the finest at the fair’.
They are the finest horns you ever did behold,
They are the finest horns and are gilded with gold.
So merrily, right merrily, to Horn Fair we did go,
A jolly brisk couple boys, and all in a row.
Ebernoe Horn Fair epitomises the stereotype of a quirky English rural custom, this is realised through the symbolism of the horns – the bawdy association with cuckoldry resonates with a time when there were many horn fairs across England, which were boisterous occasions and widespread seduction was then part of the horn fair tradition. The Horn Fair song completes this picture with its suggestiveness of sexual pursuit, seduction and horn associated euphemisms.
Horn Fair in the 21st century is upholding an element of rustic sexual flavour with the annual ‘Dip the Lady’ competition – you need to witness this first hand; just think, young women, bikinis and wet t-shirts – for the ladies the odd cricketer takes part (usually fully clothed). For the more faint-hearted – there are the traditional skittles, children’s sports, hot air balloons taking off and the all important tea tent. The sheep roast sandwiches with mint sauce cannot be rivalled.
The fair is a reassuring sign that these rural customs are continuing, are still being upheld and enjoyed by younger generations and will, doubtless, continue for many generations to come.