Memories of Stony Stratford

When I was a child, Blind Barley, his dog and his concertina,were a familiar sight in our little town. He was a tall, spare, white-haired old man. He never came out until dusk when, led by his dog, he began his evening round, stopping at street corners to play a hymn from his repertoire. Some of the tunes were sad, others were lively rollicking Salvation Army ones. Occasionally he uttered a fervent 'Alleluia', or 'Praise the Lord'.
When the evening was still and star-lit you could hear him from a long way off, even the gay tunes sounding melancholy in the cold night air. When or where he died I do not know but the memory of his gentleness, piety and patience has stayed with me to this day.

Mrs Elstone lived in our little town at the corner where the Horsefair Green joins Silver Street. In one of her windows stood a glass-topped case in which were displayed a fascinating collection of bone and wooden bobbins, lace collars, cuffs, borders and edgings  of gossamer fineness and a necklace of many-coloured beads. These beads of soft blue, gold and yellow, delicately ornamented with tiny flowers had been used to weight the bobbins on the lace pillow, for Mrs Elstone dealt with Buckinghamshire pillow lace.

She was perhaps one of the last remaining lace buyers in the district, for by the 1920's lacemaking as a cottage industry had practically died out.

In the early 1900's when life was uneventful, one of the most eagerly awaited events of the year was Stratford Fair. It arrived at the beginning of our summer holidays, and for days beforehand we strained our eyes for the first glimpse of the traction engine with its gleaming barley-sugar-stick columns of brass that headed the procession. Of the van dwellers, the one I remember best is the shooting gallery lady. She always drove her own van, sitting proudly erect in the front, her strong brown hands loaded with gold rings. Her dress was a tight black bodice and long black skirt, while on her pile of grey hair she wore a fine big hat of black velvet, lavishly adorned with feathers. Her profile was aristocratic, her cheeks tanned and deeply wrinkled. From her ears hung long gold peardrops that swung rhythmically with every movement of the wagon. When I first remember Stratford Fair it stood on the Market Square, overflowing into Silver Street and on to the Horsefair Green. The steam organ was an impressive sight. Made in Brussels, it sported little painted plaster boys and girls, staring woodenly ahead as they tapped their drums and triangles. 'George Billings and Sons. Famous Galloping Horses. Patronised by Royalty and all the Leading Gentry and Nobility'. Mr Billings was a short, plump, rubicund man. I never saw him without his bowler hat.
Between the wars the Fair was transferred to a field in the Wolverton Road and there it continued until the shadow of Milton Keynes fell upon North Buckinghamshire. Then the field was scheduled for building and people now live where once the Fair stood.

Mabel Coleman, Mursley


Extracted from 'A Pattern Hundreds' (1975) and reproduced with the kind permission of the Buckinghamshire Federation of Women's Institutes