I have lately become fascinated by local traditions, the older and weirder the better. Late last month, I witnessed 'Beating the Bounds' at the Tower of London, a centuries old territorial battle between the Tower and nearby All Hallows Church. Representatives of the two growled at one another before gangs of children beat boundary markers with sticks. It was tremendous fun, even if I didn't fully understand what was going on.
The full Beating the Bounds only takes place every three years (this year's had been deferred twice on account of Covid) but that interval pales in comparison with the Corby Pole Fair, which only occurs every two decades. Although scheduled for 2022, it had been in my diary since 2019. Last Friday, it went ahead in all its baffling glory.
Corby is a town 23 miles north-east of Northampton and around an hour by train from St Pancras. It's also known as 'Little Scotland', of which more in a moment. No-one really knows when its first 'Pole Fair' took place; it might originate with a Viking tradition of carrying offenders astride on a pole to receive insults and missiles, or perhaps in King Henry III's permission – granted in 1226 – to hold two annual fairs.
Central to the 'modern' Pole Fair, however, is a Royal Charter awarded by Elizabeth I in 1585. This contained six 'rights' and was either a reward for personal services from a favoured courtier, Sir Christopher Hatton, or a token of gratitude following the Virgin Queen's rescue from a bog in Rockingham Forest by local men. She is said to have exempted 'the men and tenants of the manor of Corbei' from all tolls and dues normally payable in her realm.
It's a great story, but the trouble is that no-one has been able to locate Elizabeth's original charter, although local historians have been able to identify a later version granted by King Charles II (of England, Scotland and Ireland) either in 1670 or 1682. This opaque provenance doesn't appear to bother anyone very much.
Anyway, after a night (or rather half a night) at the local Snooze Hotel, on the Friday bank holiday I made my way to St John's parish church whose bells were already tolling at the ungodly hour of 6am. There were patriotic hymns before the vicar (Rev Paul Frost) read out the Royal Charter for the first time. Then he, the Mayor of Corby (Cllr Tafadzwa Chikoto) and the town's oldest resident (85-year-old June Thomson) were raised aloft on chairs for the procession to the second and third readings.
June proved to be the star of the show, waving her arms like Richard Nixon as her chair left the ground. The atmosphere was infectious, and I had the feeling I was the only non-Corbyite to witness the proceedings. On we all processed to the White Hart and the Cardigan Arms, both pubs and historic 'entrances' to what was once the village of Corby. The text of the charter was rather turgid – the vicar joked that he had lost track of the 'aforesaids' – but everyone listened in respectful silence. After the third and final reading (by which point the chairs were coming apart), I heard a lot of people exclaim: 'See you in 20 years!'
After a single verse of God Save the Queen
– this year's Pole Fair had been timed to coincide with the Platinum Jubilee – we were treated to a free breakfast on the Charter Field, which included square sausage and porridge. This was a culinary reminder that I was in 'Little Scotland', and indeed I'd already spotted a few Saltires amongst the jubilee banners and Union Jacks. At the jubilee beacon lighting the evening before (in Coronation Park, natch) we'd been treated to recorded bagpipe music. I'd also clocked the Corby accent, or rather accents; some sounded Glaswegian, others just had the hint of a Scottish twang.
This reminded me of a trip to Newfoundland, which once had such a significant Irish population that the accent took root, passing from generation to generation, even to those with no Irish ancestry. Something similar must have happened in this corner of Northamptonshire, for the 2011 census found that only 12.7% of the town's population had been born in Scotland.
Almost a century ago, that proportion would have been higher. The first Scots arrived in Corby in 1934, lured by a sprawling steelworks constructed by the Glasgow-based firm Stewarts & Lloyds. They were economic migrants, for the Clyde Valley steel industry had fallen on hard times. By 1961, a third of Corby's population had been born in Scotland. The British Steel Corporation closed the steel works in 1980, leading to 6,000 redundancies and mirroring the industry's fortunes back in Scotland.
What remained amid the deindustrialisation were the dialect, Highland dancing societies, bagpipes, a love of haggis and Irn-Bru, and supporters' clubs for both Celtic and Rangers. In 2014, Corby's annual Highland Gathering even held a mock independence vote: 162 voted 'Yes' and 414 'No'. Two years later, a majority in the town voted (this time in a real referendum) for the UK to Leave the European Union.
Back at the Charter Field, we were treated to some tunes from the Corby Silver Band (formed for the 1902 Pole Fair), which kicked off with another rendition of God Save the Queen
for which everyone stood, some rather tentatively. Nearby was the eponymous pole, although it was ungreased and unclimbed because the event's organisers couldn't get anyone to insure it. A rather uncomfortable volunteer was standing guard lest someone throw caution to the wind.
I departed as volunteers were readying the stocks for those refusing to pay an entry 'toll', for I had to get back to London to attend a more national tradition, one that has taken place every decade since 2002. Compared with the Corby Pole Fair, however, the pageantry of the Platinum Jubilee all seemed a bit pedestrian. God Save the Queen. God Save Little Scotland. God Save the Corby Pole Fair.
David Torrance is a writer and historian