A fox, a rabbit, and a bear cub walk past me as one happy family. Indeed, animal masks are part of the unofficial dress code at the Winter Droving fair. Without one, you might have to take a detour to get from one place to another, and of course, you lack the festive spirit.
The Winter Droving festival has taken place in Penrith since 2012, but the roots of the market go far back to medieval times. According to Kirkby Stephen’s Local History archives, animals and goods were moved from one area to another along specific routes in Northern England in order to trade them at fairs and markets. Sheep, cattle, geese, turkeys, pigs, and donkeys were driven to and from the fairs.
These annual fairs were often linked with the rural calendar, and they introduced an exciting opportunity for the locals to buy, sell, and enjoy the buzz. Before winter, the animals were driven back to their home pastures to graze. Assumingly, the Winter Droving would have been the last fair before the animals went back to the fells for the winter. Today this tradition is celebrated without herding a giant flock of sheep and cattle into the town– the presence of animals is more symbolic, almost spiritual.
Chilly October day is filled with sunshine and chattering. Live performances from musical shows to fire eating and comedy duos take place in six stages around the festival area. Unfortunately, a colourful and busy funfair, which is a part of the festival, is also very loud. Its irritating music mixes with the sounds of the two nearest stages. Dreadful. Better to stay clear from that area and head to the food court.
Stalls and tents are full of food from Jamaican street food to German treats. Mulled wine introduces the smell of the festive season. I am not the only one hoping to get a mugful to warm myself up, so when it’s my turn to order, the cauldron is empty. Ten minutes until the next batch is hot and ready. Tea it is then.
As the sun sets, the coldness creeps in. Wool hats, mittens, and scarves are needed when waiting for the procession to start. People line up along the road and wait patiently. Soon enough, a giant glowing ram’s head appears around the corner. It leads the way of the procession, a travelling stream of sounds, movement and the smell of fire. Scouts, mountain rescue, drumline. People wearing medieval dresses, goblin masks, and furs. Local groups parade through the town carrying torches and herding large animal-lanterns. All the lanterns are simplistic, white, and beautifully illuminated. The heard of lanterns has grown each year as new animals have joined in. This year a stag, sheep, wolf, horse, donkey, bull, boar, and gees are driven to town.
Kirkby Stephen’s Local History archives point out that in records of Kendal the profession of a drover is brilliantly described as “the art and mystery of a Drover”. Never mind the different meanings and interpretations of the words, this festival is all about art and mystery.