Page 43 - MarketTimesDecember2019
P. 43

 FEATURE • DOWNHAM 43
  Downham Market in West Norfolk is steeped in history, with a link to Lord Nelson and Charles I, and an annual fair featuring a procession of local mayors, horses and carriages that celebrates the days when the town played host to Europe’s largest horse fair. But the town’s oldest tradition and greatest source of pride is its market. Nicola Gould reports
The clue is in the name. It may be a small, unpretentious West Norfolk town bordering the Fens, but Downham Market boasts an ancient market dating back to Saxon times with a charter granted by Edward the Confessor 20 years before the Battle of Hastings took place.
And it retains its traditional role as the heart and hub of community life all these years later.
Located on the River Great Ouse at the edge of the Fens, Downham grew around its market, which has drawn people in from near and far for centuries.
But over time the town became famous for another reason — horses. St Winnold’s Fair held every March from the 19th century would attract thousands of people and up to 10,000 horses changed hands at the event which took place over three days.
The Army was a big purchaser. Some of the horses that took part in the Charge of
the Light Brigade would have been bought at Downham Market and many who perished in the First World War came from the horse fair.
As mechanisation took over, the need for horses dwindled and the fair disappeared around 1940, but was revived about 15 years ago and on St Winnold’s Fair day people line the streets to see a procession of local mayors, horses and carriages led by Bernard the shire horse.
Coun John Doyle, who is chairman of the town council’s market group and a font of knowledge on the history of Downham Market, said the horse market was the largest in Europe.
“The horses used to be corralled in enclosures and the children of the town used to take great pleasure in letting them free to cause havoc in the town.”
He said the tradition of treating the mayors to breakfast in the town hall stems from the fact that the horse dealers would
be busy all day trading horses so they had to have a huge breakfast to set them up.
Coun Doyle is also well versed in the history of the market. It used to be held every Friday and Saturday in the town square which is the obvious place for it in front of the town hall and next to the landmark town clock.
But the square was refurbished back in 2004 and the redesign which included steps made it difficult to accommodate the market, so it moved to the car park at the back of the town hall.
“There was some controversy about the move, with many people feeling it should stay in its traditional location,” Coun Doyle said.
To resolve the issue the town council organised a referendum which came out decisively — about 60 per cent to 40
per cent — in favour of keeping it on the car park.
And most traders say that was the right
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