Unchanged charm – the Milton Abbas Street Fair is 50


On the date of its ancient predecessor, the 50th anniversary street fair bears more than a passing resemblance to the first one in 1973

In the heart of the Delcombe Valley in 934AD, the town of Middleton was founded – gathered around the Benedictine Abbey, whose patron saint is St Sampson. King Athelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, granted the town a market and a fair, which took place on St Sampson’s Day.

Soon after buying the Milton Abbas estate in 1752, Joseph Damer (later Lord Milton and later still the Earl of Dorchester) took the first steps in an ambitious scheme of demolition, development and landscaping to transform the medieval village and the valley. Sir Frederick Treves says in Highways and Byways of Dorset (1906). ‘He [Damer] found the ancient village squatted indecently near to the spot where he intended to build his mansion, … he ordered the offensive object to be removed. The old, untidy hamlet was entirely demolished as soon as the new Milton Abbas had been erected well out of sight of the great house.’

Milton Abbas Street Fair in 2023. Image: Courtenay Hitchcock

Two hundred years later, the villagers recreated their traditional fair to celebrate its 200th anniversary – on the last Saturday of July, the nearest to 28th July, the original St Sampson’s Day. Local man Chris Fookes says, ‘It all started as a way of fundraising for local causes. In the 60s and 70s, if you had a village fete, you were lucky to make 50 quid. You know, you make 50 quid and think “well, you’ve done all right!” But our idea was to do the village fete thing, but to get it bigger. And we certainly did that with the street fair. In the end, we made about three or four thousand quid!’

The 1973 committee

Chris was asked to open the special 250th anniversary fair this year. His family have lived in the valley for more than 250 years – ‘We were yeoman farmers – you call them tenant farmers now – on the big estate. We had Bagber Farm down at Milborne at one time, and the brewery here (Fookes Brothers the Milton Brewery was founded in 1775) … all sorts of things.’ – and he was on the committee which ran the very first street fair.

Original 1973 committee member Chris Fookes was asked to open 2023’s 50th anniversary fair.
Image: Courtenay Hitchcock

He remembers it clearly: 

‘In 1973 we had a meeting with the Milton Abbey School, and they came on side. They offered all the playing fields, any accommodation they could spare. They were really with us from day one. That first event was actually a ten day festival. First, we had a Civil War battle, which was a ‘King’s Army of the West against the Cavalry’. But the cavalry were children on ponies! We had it in the valley between the Abbey and the school; King Eddies Drive it’s called, though it’s actually King Edward’s Drive. They made a special route down over the hill for him back at the turn of the century. The cavalry came down over the hill, and the king’s army at the bottom there were all murdered! It went really well, the whole of the abbey drive was packed with people. It was as busy as the main street is now, maybe busier. 

Traditional maypole dancing at Milton Abbas Street Fair. Image: Courtenay Hitchcock

‘That was the first Saturday. We had a barbecue and a dance in the evening, and on the Sunday morning there was a service in the Abbey. There were various events the following week, and then the Saturday after was the first Street Fair. And that went really, really well. After that first one, the Street Fair became the principal event.’

Half a century

So how does the street fair compare today, to the first one?  

‘It’s almost exactly the same! The man who ran it originally, Lieutenant Commander Dickie Dyer, was a brilliant organiser. He lived just above the almshouses, and he ran the whole thing. It ran like clockwork and it’s almost exactly the same now – it’s still run just the way he set it out.’

* See more images from the 2023 Milton Abbas Street Fair on the BV Facebook page here

Image: Courtenay Hitchcock


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