King’s Lynn Mart opens on Valentine’s Day

Guests from across Norfolk and Cambridgeshire arrive for traditional Showmen's event.

There can't be many occasions when a bishop complete with his Mitre, a member of Parliament, mayors of many boroughs and military cadets can all be seen at the wheel of dodgem cars while the thumping beat of a dance track drowns out the cheers.

It is a unique event which can only happen in King's Lynn when the town's annual Mart is officially opened on St Valentine's day with all the pomp and circumstance of a bygone era.

Mace-bearers headed the civic procession through the town centre to the Tuesday Market Place which is transformed for a fortnight each year with the arrival of the first fair on the showmen's calendar.

Yesterday's official opening included a blessing from the Bishop of Lynn, Rt Rev Jonathan Meyrick and the reading of the ancient charter, first granted by Henry VIII in 1537 affording 'ancient and accustomed liberties' associated with the fair from noon on Febraury 14.

The whole spectacle was completely new to the commanding officer at RAF Marham who only took over his role in December.

'We have been made to feel very welcome since we came here and the whole family was invited to the Mart, which was very nice,' said Group Captain David Cooper.

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'It is certainly a unique event,' he added.

Although a first-time visitor to the Mart, he and his wife Lorna have fond memories of the county as he proposed to her in Shouldham during a posting in 1991 and they married in 1993.

'We never really came back to the county after 1994 but have been made to feel very welcome since we returned and are enjoying living here,' said Gp Capt Cooper.

West Norfolk Mayor Colin Sampson told the gathered crowd that the Mart usually arrived with sleet on a biting wind. It has become local folklore that the fair always brings a blast of winter to the town - although this year it came early and the last remnants of snow had gone from the market place.

Chief steward Don Gray said there was 'nothing to touch the opening. There isn't another event which comes anywhere near to what we have here.'

Mayors from across Norfolk and Cambridgeshire were joined by a range of civic dignitaries and guests for the opening event which was followed by the traditional ride on the dodgems for the official party.

Mr Sampson said the 800 years of tradition behind the town's fair should not be forgotten - including the Savage family, of Lynn, who were famous makers of fairground rides in the 19th century.

The first recorded charter for the town itself was in 1204 during the reign of King John and the Henry VIII charter is specific to the fair on the Tuesday Market Place.

Lynn once had two marts which were important trading fairs and would attract visitors from as far afield as Italy and Germany. Over the years the trading fairs became less important and the Mart's nature changed from a trading fair to a funfair.

Frederick Savage pioneered the application of steam power to fairground barrel organs and went on to develop a unique industry manufacturing power-driven roundabouts, swings and joy-wheels.

In the 1870s he founded St Nicholas' ironworks on the old Anglia Canners site facing what is now John Kennedy Road and he used the Mart to showcase his latest rides.

In 1897 Randall Williams became the first showman to display moving pictures to the fair-going public at the Valentine's Day fair. By the following year four cinematograph booths were on display.

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