The strongest link between the Barnstaple of history and the Barnstaple of today is the Annual Fair, which now begins on the Wednesday preceding the 20th September. It has attained world wide fame with visitors coming from far and wide.
The origin of Barnstaple Fair has been lost in the mists of antiquity – but historians have told us that it is almost as old as the Town and dates back to the time of Athelstan. In those days the celebrations would have been the aftermath of a great annual market and lasted for a whole week. Today modern markets for the sale of cattle and sheep are held more often and the annual fair has become an occasion of celebration rather than business and only lasts four days. The fair is organised by the Showman's Guild which celebrated its Centenary in 1989.
The ceremonial opening of the fair survives from very ancient times, the Town Council meets in the Guildhall, where various toasts are honoured with a spiced ale which, according to tradition, is made from a jealously guarded recipe handed on from generation to generation. Whilst the toasts are being honoured, "fairings". (a form of sweetmeat) are handed around. On the reading of the Proclamation a large stuffed gloved hand "garlanded" with flowers is hung from a window of the Guildhall. The gloved hand represents the hand of friendship and the hand of welcome to the thousands that come to the fair. At 12 o’clock, a civic procession forms at the entrance to the Guildhall and the proclamation is read. This ceremony is repeated at the Southern end of the High Street and on the Strand by Queen Anne’s Walk site of the Heritage Centre.