For centuries some kind of celebration has happened here in honour of the patron saint, turning into the formal fair by about 1624. St Giles' church itself stands on the point where the road splits into Banbury Road and Woodstock Road, a 12th century parish church watching over central Oxford.
The history charts England's social and religious developments. Parish 'wakes' were annual events that managed organised fun for parishioners, giving them a chance to let their hair down and enjoy themselves, without causing trouble. Over time these were often clamped down on by groups such as the Puritans, but in some areas the festival traditions remained.
St Giles' Fair kept going. Beginning as a general parish fair, it grew into a toy fair in the 18th century, a children's fair in the 19th century, and now a full-on funfair.
Today's children's toys - try and win a cuddly soft toy
Historically alcohol has played a part in these celebrations. Anyone with a beershop used to be allowed to bring barrels of beer to the fair, and householders on St Giles' could sell beer and spirits if they marked out their front doors with a tree bough. We may not have the beer tents today, but there are certainly whole rows of food stalls, with the grills and other unhealthy delights so often associated with these events!
A number of famous people have engaged with the fair over its long history. Queen Elizabeth I stayed in St John's College, on St Giles', in 1567, and watched the fair from the safety of its halls. The poet John Betjeman wrote about the fair in the 1930s:
It is about the biggest fair in England. The whole of St Giles' and even Magdalen Street by Elliston and Cavell's right up to and beyond the War Memorial, at the meeting of the Woodstock and Banbury roads, is thick with freak shows, roundabouts, cake-walks, the whip, and the witching waves.
Nowadays it's definitely a modern funfair, with all the rides, games and candyfloss you might expect to find. During the day families potter around and the young children's rides see their best trade. As evening falls the adults come out, from young people making the most of a weekday night out, to the uncanny sight of Oxford professors whizzing around on the rollercoasters.
Oxford city council (then the Oxford city corporation) took over running the fair in 1930. Described by council as one of the greatest and most prestigious fairs in the country, it's certainly a big event, bringing normal life to a standstill round the area for two days and injecting a holiday atmosphere. Parking is suspended, roads are closed, bike racks are removed (so woe betide the cyclist who's left their bicycle there all week). If you want to attend, getting the train, or the bus to Gloucester Green, is probably the best way to get into town.
A great way to revive the holiday spirit at the start of the new school year!