East Ilsey is in a sheltered dip, just off the A34. The A34 was once an important coaching route which originally ran through the village. It had claims on being the sheep farming capital of England. East Ilsey was granted a charter to stage a sheep fair in the village in 1620.
This became the second largest sheep market after Smithfield, London. Today the Sheep Fair is an annual event for the local community featuring a craft tent, dog show, beer tent and BBQ, competitions, and races including wife carrying!
Some years, eighty thousand sheep could be auctioned in a single day at the fair; and there were some thirteen inns in the village to quench the shepherds’ thirst (two survive). Drovers would often be found in this part of the world- drovers being men who drove the sheep to sheep fairs, taking them long distances. The men would generally walk the sheep to the fair. Once the sheep were sold they would often celebrate in the local pubs and having lots of money on them meant they were open to theft. This led to the invention of cheques as a way of them carrying the money safely back along the often lonely and windswept roads they used.
Markets were held weekly, but fairs were larger events held two or three times a year, remaining open until the last animal was sold. They had attractions such as stalls or entertainment for the large crowds. The introduction of road transport killed the fair in 1934, but the tradition of the entertainment is still upheld in the yearly East Ilsley Sheep Fair.
This year would have been their 400th celebration, but sadly circumstances have not allowed the big celebration to go ahead.