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Feather's Miscellany: Keighworth Gala

...The fair-ground folk were a mysterious breed, dark skinned, gypsy, rough-and-ready folk who traversed the country from one fair and fete to another throughout the summer, bringing laughter and joy wherever they went, excitement into the dullest lives. When they entered Keighworth, the town let itself go!...

John Waddington-Feather paints a vivid word portrait of a Yorkshire mill town letting its hair down during gala week.

Once, and only once a year, Keighworth let down its hair and was happy. Its yearly concession to joy took place in the middle of June in Gala Week, a week of festivities to raise money for the local hospital.

I say it was a concession to joy, because the rest of the year the town was gloomy. Keighworthians had a strong streak of Puritanism in them which opined that if you were happy, you were sinning. Old ladies in Keighworth on the few gloriously sunny days the town enjoyed would push back their headscarves an inch, unloose the top button of their raincoats and observe that they’d suffer for the sunshine later. If you weren’t actually suffering in Keighworth, you were going to; but in Gala Week the townsfolk relaxed and enjoyed themselves.

The town was transformed with bunting and flags. So was Albert Park. There was determination in the air to be happy; to ignore the workplace and the ever-present rain clouds which hung grimly over the town and throw yourself wholeheartedly into enjoying yourself for one week in the year.

The Gala began in earnest the week before Gala Day. Workers arrived with scaffolding to put up a large stage in the middle of Albert Park. It was used by acrobats and the town’s boxing club which held its boxing competition throughout the week, culminating in the finals on the Saturday, when the inter-school sports were also run in the park. And as the stage went up it became an adventure playground for the kids down Garlic Lane. After school each evening, they played around the scaffolding when they weren’t watching with wide eyes the incoming fair-ground folk, towing their great engines and caravans into the park. The engines would power their roundabouts and dodgems, as well as all the multi-coloured lights decorating stalls and peep-shows.

The fair-ground folk were a mysterious breed, dark skinned, gypsy, rough-and-ready folk who traversed the country from one fair and fete to another throughout the summer, bringing laughter and joy wherever they went, excitement into the dullest lives. When they entered Keighworth, the town let itself go!

They’d park their caravans down one side of the park, then set up their stalls, their roundabouts, dodgems and swing-boats; their peep shows and fortune-telling booths, where young girls were told about the man of their dreams and old women were told what the future held in the arcane, blue, crystal balls on the table before them. But it didn’t need any fortune-teller to say what went on in the dark places of the park each night among the young, and what the results would be some months later.

In the park there was something for all ages: hoop-la and roll-a-penny stalls, coconut shies, air-rifle targets, a wonderful try-your-strength machine which looked like an inverted thermometer with a metal plate at the bottom you whacked with a mallet. It sent a pointer zooming up the scale which registered your power. The strongest whacks made a bell ring at the top.

And the noise, blaring out non-stop through the afternoons and nights: the roar of the great engines pounding out to generate power for the whirlitzers and merry-go-rounds which twirled screaming girls this way and that; the shouts of the boothmen and women inviting you to ‘step this way’ and see the Fat Lady or the Smallest Man on Earth; more screams from more girls swinging aloft in gondolas watched by randy young men below trying to get a glimpse of their knickers. And beyond in the bandstands two brass bands blaring away for all they were worth next the beer tent.

And what smells there were! Mushy peas and pies mingling with fish and chips. The stench of engine oil and the sweet sickly scent of candy floss. The evocative smell of grass newly mowed – all assaulting the senses at once.

The highlight of Saturday was the long procession through the town. It formed up at one end in Lund Park, then wound its way through the middle of Keighworth to Albert Park, where a fancy dress competition took place and the floats were judged. It was headed by Keighworth Prize Band blowing for all they were worth. They were followed by a variety of groups and floats: tableaux from the churches and chapels in Keighworth full of saints and youngsters all in white; youth clubs and guilds, escorted by boy scouts and girl guides drumming away for all they were worth. In the middle of the procession came some very posh open cars in which sat the very self-satisfied mayor and councillors, smiling and waving, all decked out in their sable robes and finery. And somewhere in the procession was the Gala Queen, splendidly dressed out, looking like a Hollywood movie star and attended by a bevy of beautiful girls.

Then came the entertainers: wiffen-waffen bands playing on weird homemade instruments and dancing as they played, like the Morris dancers alongside them. Then platoons of long-legged, gaily costumed majorettes prancing all the way to the park. Among the motley procession were newly painted lorries of Keighworth manufacturers and tradesmen carrying yet more tableaux, and all the while alongside them ran men and women in fancy dress carrying buckets and yelling at the crowd to throw coins for the hospital into their buckets. Then two or three more Prize Bands and the Bradford Kilties Pipe Band blowing their bagpipes fit to burst. The line seemed endless but end it did and the crowds lining the streets then made their way to Albert Park.

In the park was an arena where the fancy dresses were judged and where the schools had their races. There also the mayor had to have his say and formally open the Gala. Then the serious fun began and Keighworth romped.

As dusk fell and the night drew in, there was a sudden explosion of sound and light in the arena, heralding the firework display. “Oohs!” and “Aahs!” went up as set-piece after set-piece hurled more and more colour and sound into the night. Rockets by the score soared aloft spluttering thousands of stars into the black void above, crackling and booming at the gaping crowd below. The firework display ended with a multi-coloured image of the Queen as the bands played the National Anthem. And that was that. It was time to go home for the under-teens, parents and grandparents, but the younger folk stayed on till midnight, when the fair closed down.

Keighworth would have to wait a whole year to let its hair down again and give itself up to unbridled joy.

John Waddington-Feather ©


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