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Bartle Fair, Reeth: the good, the bad and the ugly

Binge drinking is not a modern phenomenom, it seems

Reeth is deep in Swaledale in the northern Yorkshire Dales. It is a tranquil community, surrounded by sumptuous landscapes dotted with sheep and cattle. In days gone by, however, it was at times, far less tranquil, despite being much less populated. Binge drinking is not, it would seem, just a modern phenomenom.

Reeth’s Bartle Fair

Reeth’s Bartle Fair was traditionally held on St. Bartholomew’s Day. This was the day by all accounts on which it’s charter was granted in the 17th century, by King William and Queen Mary. Only the monarch could grant a charter to hold a market in those days, and it was recognition that a town, or village, was growing in importance in the area.

A Fair was usually an annual event, and in Reeth’s case, a time for a dispersed community to come together, to enjoy some of the pleasures of the outside world. There were animal sales, stalls to wander round. People from outlying farms could catch up with family and friends, perhaps not seen for quite a while. Essentials would be bought for the coming months. And those little luxuries to give that extra bit of enjoyment.

6 times a year

The Bartle Fair was hugely successful. At the height of the town’s prosperity, Reeth had up to six fairs a year as well as a weekly market. However, this success soon caused some problems. People began enjoying the event a little too much. Some local of the local men from the area took the saying ‘Work hard and play hard’ a little too much to heart.

Notoriety – and demise

Over the years, though, Reeth’s fairs and markets became somewhat notorious. The people lived a hard life, and took full advantage on what should have been fun days. “On some market days, drunken men came reeling shouting and quarrelling out of the inns, and even at mid-day some awful fighting took place but especially so when night came on.”*

Having binged on beer, men would come rolling out of pubs, spoiling for a fight. Throughout the day but especially when darkness fell. You can imagine how the good folk of Reeth felt about that, and how they reacted. Gradually the number of fairs reduced and eventually they ceased altogether. The markets remained – they were an essential part of local life – but a Fair? Well that was a luxury that could be done without given the trouble it caused.

The Fair was revived as a one-off to celebrate the Millennium but there are no plans to make it a permanent annual event. We think of binge drinking, and all that comes with it, as a modern blight but not so. It has happened in generations past, and caused just as much damage.

* Quote from Reeth.org .


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