Shaftesbury’s Gold Hill Fair Pulls In The Crowds

It’s difficult estimating how many people attend Gold Hill Fair. There are no tickets or turnstiles. And because the event takes place around the High Street and Park Walk, people can come and go as they please. But it was obvious to anyone attending on Sunday that locals still love it. And why wouldn’t they? It’s fun and it’s free!

“Gold Hill Fair is not about money making for us,” said Rotary President, Guy Lowton. His volunteers organise the event. “It’s not our biggest fundraiser. As a project it has been going for some 30 or 40 years. We do it because it’s good for the town and it brings people in,” said Guy.

Shaftesbury loves a test of physical endurance! Hundreds of people watch the Gold Hill Cheese Run or Cycle Ride. Gold Hill Fair’s challenge is equally tough. People have to pull a van up and along part of the High Street. I met Mark Henstridge, Dave Mitchell and Cara Thorner from Stalbridge Linen, who arrange and sponsor this test of strength.

The Stalbridge Linen team

Mark has done this many times himself, so he knows how entrants need to pace themselves when they try to get a 1.5 tonne van moving. “Lock your arms and lean forward. It’s all in the legs,” he said. I nodded in response, as if I was ever going to give this a go! “You don’t have to be a big bloke to do it,” he smiled.

Dave confirmed the distance. “58 metres. I stepped it out,” he said. And Cara revealed the extra surprise. “There’s a speed bump on the road!”

Cara introduced me to the winning ‘Build Squad’ team. Chandler Thick, Jack Lever, Jake Martin, Miles Fielding, Nail Arap and Sean Martin looked suitably pleased and proud. After all, they’d pulled! Sean assembled the squad. “My cousin works for Stalbridge and asked me to get a team together,” he said.

The winning team

Cara was impressed at the lads’ speed. “They raced up there. They did it in 22 seconds. We had to run up the hill, because we were doing the timings, just to make sure that we could get to the finish line! 22 seconds is amazing,” she exclaimed.

It was even more impressive when you recall how muggy the weather was on Sunday. “We were struggling to get a team”, said Dave. “And then one of the Blandford rugby players and a chap from London jumped in and said that they would pull.”

The organisers reckon the van pull could become a bigger event, next year. “We’re going to speak to the Guinness Book of Records,” said Cara. “We’ll see if they want to get involved with it. We are going to get more teams in,” she added.

“We’ve just been told that Blandford Rugby Club might enter six teams next year,” said Dave. Already, the organisers seem keen to fire up the competition. “I think we should make the point that Shaftesbury Fire Station’s record time has been broken. So that’s a challenge to them now,” smiled Cara.

Each winning team member received an individual prize – a crate of cider. Perhaps if Guinness get involved next year, the team will be rewarded with stout instead of Thatchers?

Music plays a big part in Gold Hill Fair. It fills the streets, literally, as the Shaftesbury Town Silver Band lead a ‘Who’s Who’ of town clubs and organisations in a procession along the High Street.

This year, there were additional instruments. The Tibetan Monks, who were displaying their sand Mandala at Gold Hill Museum, joined the parade, marching at the rear. As monk Lakpur blew his loud, bellowing horn, a little Jack Russell watching on from the side of Coppice Street almost jumped out of his skin.

“This is the Longhorn,” the monk explained. “We play this when we invite somebody to be our guest in the temple and we blow it in the monastery before we pray.” The horns form part of a Tibetan music tradition but Gold Hill Fair has been on the traditional English folk music and dance calendar for years. “A lot of the local Morris teams have come here for the fair,” explained Geoff Knapman Bagman of The Bourne River Morris Men, who are based near Bournemouth.

The Bourne River Morris Men

Different dancing groups, many wearing top hats and leg bells, were lined up outside the Town Hall. Their white trousers and shirts glowed in the sunshine as they waited to perform in the High Street. Geoff pointed out different clubs and explained how they followed dances that are rooted in different regions of Britain.

“They dance border Morris from the Welsh borders,” he said pointing to one group. “There’s clog dancing too, which is usually from North Lancashire. Holly Copse Molly’s group’s style comes from East Anglia.”

Geoff’s club dances Cotswold Morris. Their dances were collected in that part of the West Country from the 1890s. It was agricultural workers who recorded the dance steps but the precise details of any North Dorset or Shaftesbury dances have been lost. Locals possibly performed with long poles carried over their shoulders. “From Dorset, there was a tradition of dancing using long staves and that was resurrected some years ago,” said Geoff.

In between the line of stalls, stands and mini marquees on Park Walk, there was more movement to music. The Shaftesbury Arts Centre’s cast of ‘Mack And Mabel’ was recreating the crazy capers of the Keystone Cops. The members dashed around, to the sounds of a piano playing silent movie music, pretending to apprehend some comedy criminals. The show, which opens next week, is based on the life and love of the Hollywood Director responsible for the classic silent films.

From Hollywood, it was just a few steps down to Hawaii. I rejoined Guy and his Rotarian colleagues, who were wearing bright, short shirt sleeved shirts and floral garlands as they manned their fundraising bottle stall. “It was a former President’s idea,” said Guy. “We’re under pain of death not to turn up wearing anything other than Hawaiian.”

For every six well-wrapped bottles of water, there was one containing wine. If you picked the right bottle, the group rang the bell to tell everyone.

Guy was pleased by the turnout, which appeared similar to 2017. “I would say it is comparable. I think the Fringe seems to be much busier and there are more events going on. That might have an overspill effect,” he said.

Treats on offer in the Rotary Tea Tent

And even though much of the event is about good fun, as soon as it ends, Rotarians will concentrate on giving cash to good causes. “We have a meeting next week to discuss where we put our funds. We try and keep our charitable donations local to the Shaftesbury area and surrounds. And there are some Rotary International projects which we can support if there is a natural disaster somewhere,” Guy said.

Arranging a fair requires a lot of work and Guy is keen to recruit new Rotarians to help. “It’s not an organisation where you have to be in a particular profession,” Guy said. “We have all sorts of people, male and female. All ages. It’s really about people wanting to put something back,” he said.

Thanks to the time invested by local Rotary volunteers, this Shaftesbury tradition will return for another year in 2019. So that means we all have plenty of time to work on our van pulling technique!