Did you know that the last Saturday in April is Barley Saturday in Cardigan? This is important, it might be the Million Pound Question, so it could be worth remembering. Barley Saturday is one of those traditions that distinguishes towns from each other in todays homogenised society. And it’s a tradition that is based on a pragmatic and functional need before todays age of mass communication and ease of travel. It’s only recently that finding or applying for a job didn’t mean you had to physically search for employment and meet people just to be considered for the role. In the 1800’s and earlier the only way to seek employment as a farm worker, servant or labourer meant you had to attend job fairs. The whole community would descend upon the towns holding such fairs in the hope of finding employment either for the next 12 months or for the next growing season. For the majority of the population life used to be tough and unpredictable with few employment laws to protect the workers.
Barley Saturday in Cardigan started out as such a job fair. But why Barley Saturday? Barley is one of the last sown cereal crops, and so once it has been sown there is less to do on the farm and provides an opportunity for those seeking to move onto new employers or those seeking new farm staff to replace those who had left or been sacked it made sense to hire new staff for the next six months.
However, Barley Saturday also had another practical function, though one more decorative but no less competitive than the hire fair. The day provided a platform for farmers to show off their stallions at stud. Horses were the mainstay of farm work and transport before the internal combustion engine. They were needed to ull the plough, transport goods in wagons around the farm and countryside, as well as a means for personal transportation for those who could afford a horse. So this part was one of prime importance, providing a means for improving the breeding stock by showing off their stallions to others.
It fair traditionally was held at Pensarnau Pool, and the horses were paraded around it. But in the 1877 the pool was filled in and the whole affair moved to nearby streets in the town. Barley Saturday continued until the Second World War when it was disbanded. But in 1961 the town decided to reserve the the tradition, though there was no need to the hiring fair, it provided a focus for the area and pride in raising the traditional Welsh Cobb. Today it has taken on a festival air. The horses are judged in the school fields to the top of town in the morning. At the same time framers from near and wide gather with old tractors for a parade through town. All of the tractors have been lovingly restored, though I suspect more than a few are still being used as the work horse on a daily basis in some of the smaller farms.
After the judging has finished the annual supreme champion leads the other horses to be presented with their awards at the town’s Guildhall. The Main Street was lined by thousands of people, and it was great to see, all watching as the horses are paraded one by one though the town. Then on a second circuit they are run down the street. And I mean run! Some of the handlers were holding on for grime death and trying to keep up. Then rather more sedately it’s the turn of the classics tractors in all their guises to trundle down the street. All in all it was a great day out. Though Aunty and I can’t understand why this isn’t one of the Welsh 100. It should be.