2012 has been a disastrous year for sloes. I was thinking that it must be me, but according to the weekend papers it is true, sloes are conspicuous by their absence this autumn; no doubt something to do with our rotten summer! So earlier this week I was thrilled to discover a blackthorn tree just down the road with enough fruit to make a litre of sloe gin! Halfway through picking, my little dog started leaping around and squealing, then I joined in too – we had both been stung by a vicious horsefly and are still feeling sore and bruised three days later! It seems that sloe gin is definitely off the drinks list this Christmas!
This, together with the planting of a new blackthorn tree at the Oaklands Park entrance to Northgate Car Park this week, has reminded me of the historical significance of Chichester’s Sloe Fair. As an important market city, Chichester had five ancient fairs; the only one to survive is the Sloe Fair which happens to be the oldest, dating back to the early 12th Century. The fair, held over eight days in October, was granted by Henry I to Bishop Luffa in 1107. It became known as the Sloe Fair because it was held in a field just outside the North Gate of the city, where tradition says a sloe tree was growing and of course at that time of year it would have been laden down with the fruit. Unless of course the weather happened to be as dreadful as this year! Sadly, the field in which it was held was tarmacced over in 1961 to provide parking for the new Festival Theatre. In recent times the idea of a fair has changed and today it is celebrated simply on one evening as close as possible to the 20th October with fairground rides and candyfloss. Many people driving in to the city simply know of the Sloe Fair, because of the parking mayhem it causes.
The whole tradition of the Sloe Fair is likely to have died out during the Second World War had it not been for Harry Stroud who continued to turn up each year with his caravan and stall. The right to hold a fair lapses if the continuity is broken and as most showmen were away at war, Harry’s actions ensured its survival. A blackthorn planted to commemorate Harry’s tenacity died in 1998 so this new tree will re-establish his part in our continuing heritage.