You are sure of a smile if you visit Great Dunmow, and never is this more the case than at Christmas. Petra Hornsby finds out more
All smiles in this market idyl
Nestled in the Uttlesford District in the west of the county, the town of Great Dunmow has a most intriguing tradition for which it is renowned both locally and much further afield. This tradition – along with a lively high street where thriving businesses maintain the heart of the town and a popular comedy venue – illustrates perfectly the town’s unique nature.
The Flitch Trials date back to 1104 and the Augustinian Priory of Little Dunmow. The then Lord of the Manor, Reginald Fitzwalter, and his wife dressed as peasants and appealed to the prior to bless their union following a year and a day of marriage. The prior, impressed by the devotion of the couple, gave them the blessing along with a flitch (half a pig) of bacon. In gratitude, Fitzwalter revealed his identity and bequeathed his land to the priory on the condition that every year a couple demonstrating similar devotion would also be similarly rewarded.
In 1832 the tradition, which is held in high ceremony and in good humour, was transferred to Great Dunmow and still takes place every leap year, attracting plenty of attention.
People come from across the county and beyond to attempt to prove their marital strength and
‘There’s a lively high street where thriving businesses maintain the heart of the town’
take the bacon home. The court is presided over by a judge and counsel representing the hopeful claimants and the opposing counsel who speak for the suppliers of the bacon. Alongside them sits a jury of six maidens and six bachelors, plus an usher who attempts to keep order during the impassioned pleas!
Successful couples are carried shoulder-high in the Flitch Chair to the Market Place where they take an oath, and those who have been unable to convince the judge and jury of their devotion walk behind with a consolation prize of a gammon. This spectacle is certainly carried out in good humour and has something of a touch of theatre about it, which is enjoyed by locals and visitors alike.
Another feature of Great Dunmow, which also attracts people from further afield and is equally rich in humour, is the Comedy Club – the creation of circuit comic Paddy Lennox who founded the club in 2014. While living in Bishop’s Stortford, Paddy was unable to set up a comedy club in the town at the time as there was already a comedy venue in operation. He looked around for other options within
a 12-mile radius and arrived in Great Dunmow.
Paddy explains about the attraction and success of the club. ‘The venue is perfect,’ he says. ‘Effectively it is a drama studio, but it has great sound and lighting. It has a maximum capacity of 120 and this means the atmosphere is very intimate, and this really works. We sell out for every gig with people queuing to get in. Many people come to every show and what makes the atmosphere so special for me, the audience and everyone involved is the fact that we staff the events purely with volunteers – people who, after work, choose to come and man the bar or run the box office because they love the atmosphere.’
Paddy says that one man, an A&E consultant, drives all the way from Ipswich to help serve drinks.
‘My wife makes a beef or vegetable chilli and this always proves to be popular with the audience and adds another dimension to the evening. We use recyclable bowls and wooden spoons, of course! The beer supplied comes from a Colchester brewery too, which keeps it local. This arrangement came about after a man in the audience heckled me about beer and turned out to be part-owner in a brewery – and from Colchester!’
The comedy nights are themselves something of a pack of football stickers; you’ll always get Paddy in there as compere and then, who knows? Ed Byrne and Hal Cruttenden, both friends of Paddy’s, have made appearances at the club, although Paddy never advertises a ‘bigger’ TV name.
Paddy adds: ‘There are always three acts and two intervals and although there might be someone who is more of a household name, there is plenty of new material and comic talent, which is a pleasure to be able to introduce and is always well received.’
Paddy works at the Comedy Store in London and gets to meet a lot of rising talent and is often approached by comics asking him if they can perform at Great Dunmow.
Paddy says: ‘We sit in this corner of Europe, as a rocky little outcrop that doesn’t take itself too seriously. We have a tradition of being able to laugh at ourselves. We also do something called Postcode Comedy and our audiences love the comic observations about local places. For us in Dunmow, Felstead and Stebbing are on the receiving end of quite a lot of ribbing and there are several references to the Rodings, which our audience loves!’
Comedy aside, fun and merriment are in plentiful supply this month as Great Dunmow does what it does so well, largely thanks to the organisers on the Town Team – Christmas!
On Saturday, December 1, the annual Christmas Lights switch on will take place on the high street and the fun begins at 3pm. Children can, once again, visit Santa in his grotto (tickets to be purchased in advance) and reveal their Christmas wishes. Tickets can be booked via the website www.visitgreatdunmow.co.uk/ events
Santa himself will switch the lights on at 5pm. Other attractions will include a bouncy castle, tea cup rides, face painting and live entertainment from local musical acts. There will also be plenty of enticing refreshment stands serving seasonal food and drink, including a Prosecco stall for those wanting a bit of festive fizz. As always, the town will be all set for those wanting to do some essential Christmas shopping so, in addition to the craft stalls, the shops along the high street will be well worth a visit for gift ideas. Cafes will be offering a welcome place for a sit down, a nice warm drink and an energy boost in the form of a slice of delicious cake – what’s not to like?
This community day is free as the Town Team believe everyone should have the chance to attend, whatever their budget, although there will be donation buckets dotted around on the day to help towards the funding for next year’s event.
Great Dunmow is a great example of a community honouring not just its history but creating a vibrancy that serves its residents today. This time of year is a perfect opportunity for celebration and to applaud their successes.
ABOVE:Simon Broadkin, AKA Lee Nelson, appearing at the Great Dunmow comedy Club
BELOW RIGHT: Santa on a visit to Great Dunmow