Garstang: Set Fair!

Garstang: Set Fair!

This picturesque Lancashire market town has gone down in history as the first ever Fairtrade Town. Mairead Mahon went along and discovered that community remains at its heart.

Images by Lynn Harter.

Garstang is equidistant between the bustling cities of Lancaster and Preston but once you set foot in this small market town, they could be a million miles away. Since 1974, it has formed part of the Wyre district of Lancashire, although it does retain an elected town council. Its history is a long one.It was granted its Market Charter by Edward 11 in 1310. Today, the town’s most famous landmark is its Market Cross, which is a scheduled ancient monument. Everyone knows where it is and it remains a popular meeting place so if you’re ever lost in the town, make your way to it and just wait to be found! In 1897, it was restored as part of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. It’s believed that stocks used to stand nearby.

One of the oldest features of the town is Greenhalgh Castle or what remains of it! It was built by Thomas Stanley, the first Earl of Derby in 1490 for the very practical reason of defending his estates which lay in the area. It did help to keep the peace but its glory days came to an end when Oliver Cromwell directed his soldiers to demolish it at the end of the Civil War. Canny Lancashire farmers made the best of a bad job and salvaged something from the situation by taking away any stones that they could use. That is why some local farmhouses have stones from the castle incorporated into their structures: an early example of re-cycling! Today, just one of the towers remains but folklore has it that there is a ghost that wanders nearby: it’s said to be that of a soldier who strangled his wife but no-one at Lancashire Magazine has ever seen it!

In the 18th century, Garstang stood on the Great North West Highway, more or less halfway between London and Edinburgh. The coaches that ran this route used it as a convenient stop off for their passengers and, as you might expect, the town prospered by attending to the travellers’ needs. In the 18th century at least thirteen public houses were estimated to be in the town. One of the most well-known was The Cathouse. We may never know why it was called this but, according to the brains at the Garstang Historical Society, ‘cat’ might have been a euphemism for a lady of easy virtue! It was demolished in Victorian times and replaced by a new one-now also demolished- which shared the name but not the possible associations.

Today, the coach travellers are no more, but visitors still come to Garstang as there are masses of things to do here. One of the most cost effective things to do is to enjoy Millennium Green. It was established in 2000 by the banks of the River Wyre as an open space that could be used by all. it is owned by a charity and managed by volunteers and it comes with the wonderful promise that it is secure and will never be developed. Visiting it is almost like a visit to the countryside. There is plenty of wildlife to enjoy: bird and bat boxes have been installed and there are many wildflowers, hedges and copses which have all been planted by volunteers. Many of these volunteers, accompanied by supportive folk from the town, turned out for a mass planting of native English daffodils. Millennium Green calls itself, ‘A Breathing Space for All’ and everyone agrees that’s just what it is. An hour spent here really does refresh the batteries. It is run by volunteers and they do a smashing job!

Volunteers have also been busy with the area known as Kepple Lane and they’ve been so successful that they’ve actually been given the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service. This is the highest award that can be given to a voluntary group in the UK. It is very hard to believe that this award winning park was once Garstang’s waste disposal site. It has far too many good things for us to list here but some of the facilities on the list include: sensory gardens; a gym/trim trail; a community orchard; a toddler play area and, of course, tranquil seating areas. It was a massive project to undertake but Gordon Harter, one of the leading lights in this inspirational project, spoke for everyone when he said that he was ‘absolutely delighted’ with the outcome. Mind you, he and his fellow volunteers cheerfully acknowledge that it’s a little bit like the Forth Bridge; there will always be something else to do!

They certainly like walking in Garstang; so much that they hold an annual walking festival which brings in visitors from far and wide with a wide variety of walks-both town and country- to choose from. It’s a great way to explore the history of the area, while drinking in the super views. As it takes place every May, you’ll have to put a note in your diary for next year. However, don’t think you’ve missed out: there are lots of other fun events to do in Garstang for which you’re not too late!

One of these is the Garstang Show which happens on the first Saturday in August and which regularly attracts 15,000 visitors of all ages. It is over two hundred years old and is organised by the Garstang and District Agricultural and Horticultural Society. There is literally something here for everyone, from the youngest members of the family to the most senior. Naturally, at its heart, are the livestock and horticultural displays which, this year, promise to be even better than ever. It’s a great chance to experience things that we might not otherwise see in our busy everyday lives. This year, amongst many other entertainments, there will also be the opportunity to see a freestyle motocross stunt show, as well as the chance to listen to the glorious music of the Morecambe Brass Band. The Horticulture Marquee will have numerous classes for children of all ages and they can also take part in a fancy dress competition. The Garstang Show caters very well for children and there is a lot to keep them entertained, which can be a relief to hear. This includes an Astral circus tent, with tightrope walking, aerial acrobatics and circus workshops which should keep the youngsters happy.

In Garstang, they certainly do like to keep children happy: they even go so far as to have an annual Children’s Festival. Held in May, there is a colourful float procession, complete with Morris Dancers and lots of bands come along to the town in order to take part. The May Queen is crowned at the Market Cross and several tableaux are then enacted. The rest of the day is devoted to fun: face painting; bouncy castles; rides and Punch and Judy shows. There is no need to worry about the cost as most of it is free of charge, which is good news for parents and grandparents!

We’re aware that mentioning Christmas in the summer is not a popular thing to do but you might want to put this note of a particular event in the diary: The Garstang Victorian Christmas Fair. Obviously, as the time draws nearer, check the exact dates but it is usually held in the evening about ten days before Christmas. The High Street is closed and Father Christmas and his merry band of entertainers process down it. There is so much to see and do: it is quite something, especially as it is a non-profit making event, co-ordinated by the Garstang Chamber of Trade.

August sees the annual Arts and Music Festival which runs a very varied programme for ten days. Where else can you find folk music, jazz, art exhibitions, workshops, children’s events and street entertainers all happily working together and that’s just the tip of the iceberg! The lovely Garstang and District Arts Centre is the hub of the festival and even when it isn’t festival time, it’s worth a trip. It’s home is the Old Grammar School, as originally that’s what it was when it opened back in 1760: a boys’ grammar school. Some people think that when a second storey was added, girls might have been allowed to enter its hallowed portals but there is no concrete evidence for this: it might be just wishful thinking! It eventually closed as a school and by 1969, it had become a bit down at heel: it was almost two hundred years old after all. That didn’t deter Stella Platt and the late Frank Walmsley who saw the potential for an Arts Centre. They set to it with a will, supported it has to be said, by the Town Trust and to this day, it has flourished. It is home to many groups and it also puts on a huge amount of events, as well as showing regularly changing art exhibitions. It really is a triumph.

It's clear that community has been and remains important to the town of Garstang. This is amply demonstrated in the fact that it was the world’s first ever Fairtrade Town in 2000: what an accolade! It is now a worldwide movement-throughout Europe, America and Australia- but it began right here in this quiet little Lancashire market town. It is the stuff of Hollywood movies and brings to mind the Co-operative movement which began in Rochdale. Making Garstang a Fairtrade town was the initiative of local man, Bruce Crowther and the local Oxfam group. They began campaigning in 1992. Their aim was to make Garstang a place that ensured that any third world suppliers would be paid a fair price for their wares. That’s why the town of Garstang is known all over the globe and it deserves to be.

Garstang is a pleasant place to shop. Of course, the ancient market still exists. It still takes place every Thursday, when the stalls set up on the High Street, the same way that they have done for centuries. There are lots of independent shops and cafes too and wandering around the town on a shopping day is a very enjoyable experience. One of the distinctive old features that you can’t help but notice as you move from shop to shop is what the locals refer to as The Weinds. If you ask for directions, it’s very possible that you’ll be told to go down one of them, so it’s probably a good place to explain what they actually are! Well, you may know what they are, even if you’re not familiar with the name. They’re all over Lancashire and different places give them different names such as passages, ginnels or alleys. Trust Garstang to have a prettier name, even if the etymology is a bit hazy!

Now is a good time of year to visit, as it has a well-earned reputation for its summer floral displays. If proof were needed, then the ringing endorsement of winning gold medals at RHS Britain in Bloom competition should do the trick. It’s all thanks to The Bloomers, a group of local people who make it all possible: not too many ‘bloomers’ here, they’re a stunning success, as a gentle stroll around the town will confirm. They have a Facebook page-Garstang in Bloom News- and if you visit it, you will be able to find out more about their work.

Garstang is absolutely bursting with community spirit. The inhabitants are proud of their town’s history and vibrancy but they haven’t taken it for granted, pulling together to ensure that it is constantly celebrated. It is a happy and friendly place to visit: if you haven’t visited it yet, why not go along to an event or simply take a stroll by the river and enjoy this very pretty Lancashire market town.

Article first featured in August 17 issue in the magazine.