During the summer of 2005 a local resident from Petersfield, a local trader who represented the Mosque, some people from the Hindu Temple at Bharat Bhavan, and a trader and a resident of Romsey formulated the idea of Mill Road Winter Fair. It was designed to celebrate the variety of cultures represented by the residents and traders of the Mill Road area and the unique atmosphere of the place. They all met and agreed to work together as an unincorporated association and plan the union of both sides of the bridge in over a mile of events. A constitution was drawn up, a bank account opened and a Committee was formed, with representation from both sides of the bridge.
The Committee successfully applied for a grant from the City Council. Work then began to try to persuade traders, residents and venues along Mill Road to participate.
In the first year a local IT company donated a website, mill-road.com and the programme for the Fair was published online. On the 30th November 2005 the Cambridge Weekly News printed an article that contained the full programme.
The first Fair stretched, even then, from Petersfield on East Road to Romsey Mill. It comprised 40 venues, 28 in Petersfield and 12 in Romsey.
The inaugural Fair attracted “acts” which have since become a tradition. These included the Arco Iris Samba Band; the Chinese Dragon provided by Kymmoy; Morris Dancers going from place to place, with increasingly erratic steps; a Mill Road walk by Allan Brigham; the World Famous Compliments Booth; the Mosque welcoming people to question and answer sessions and to share in Islamic prayers; the great Christmas decorations at Cutlacks; the famous samosas at Misfits. Christmas services and stories were held at the various churches of Mill Road; and the best hot dogs in the world were wolfed down at Andrew Northrop’s.
People collected as many old photographs as they could of Mill Road businesses. The photos were mounted and placed in the contemporary windows of the same premises so that people could compare the existing building with how it was in the past.
Behind the scenes, advice was sought from a group called ‘The Safety Advisory Group’, with representatives from the Police, the Fire Service, St John Ambulance and both City and County Councils, which has, since the first Fair, helped the Committee ensure that the event is as safe as possible. Many members of the Safety Advisory Group have provided guidance and have been and continue to be an immense help to the Committee of the Winter Fair.
Traders in that first year reported “three times their best ever footfall”. It was estimated that, over the course of the day, around 8,000 people came and went along Mill Road. Despite a bitter wind and horizontal sleet, the overwhelming feeling was of warmth and welcome.
Mrs Gee, the “grande dame” of Mill Road traders, opened the first Fair. She was brought to Petersfield in a trishaw, attended by Father Christmas and an elf. Abdul Kayam Arain introduced her and she declared the first Fair open. Both have remained stalwart supporters of the Fair and exemplify its best qualities. (As it happens, the trishaw transporting Father Christmas and the elf ran out of steam halfway over the bridge. Father Christmas hopped out and gave the trishaw a push to help it up and over.)
The second Fair took place on 2nd December 2006 and extended to 56 venues, including the first Food Fair in the Avenue of Limes leading to Mill Road Cemetery. This Fair was opened by Allan Brigham, a charismatic and greatly loved local resident. While Allan’s day job involves keeping the streets of Cambridge “fit for purpose”, he is a knowledgeable local historian, whose stature as a “blue badge” Cambridge Guide is such that he was awarded an honorary degree by Cambridge University in 2009. It was thrilling to see that as many as 15,000 people attended the second Winter Fair, a near doubling of numbers from the first year.
The third Fair, on 1st December 2007, grew again, and for the first time a printed programme was produced. An energetic designer volunteered to carry out the design and a 34-page booklet was produced with lively illustrations kindly provided by Mill Road artist, Sam Motherwell. Bush Property Sales became a generous sponsor, allowing the Fair to flourish as it might not otherwise have done.
Since 2007 the Fair has been formally opened by the Mayor, the first being Cllr Jenny Bailey. The Argyle Street Housing Co-operative had a bike-powered microphone and, later in the day, both the Mayor and the MP, David Howarth, were seen pedalling furiously.
2007 was also the year in which the tree at Ditchburn Gardens famously blew over. The organisers arrived at about 6.00 on the morning of the Fair to find the tree on its side and a wild wind blowing. Several hours of effort by every red-blooded male in the neighbourhood resulted in a rather lopsided tree tethered to hedges and benches and everything immovable that could be found. But a strong gust about half an hour before the Mayor was due to arrive put paid to it and the whole thing tipped over. Shortly after that the PA system blew a fuse as the Mayor made her speech. She was completely unabashed and went cheerfully on. At the time this seemed like a catastrophe but it will take more than that to put the kybosh on the Winter Fair!
By now the reputation of the Fair had grown and traders and local charities and institutions had become more enthusiastic about participating. There was a sudden jump in numbers of participants, which meant that 92 different venues joined in. Local businesses helped with the running costs of the Fair by advertising in the programme, which meant that the organisers had funds to print the programme and to pay for the marquees and equipment required for safety reasons – radios, high-visibility jackets and such like. The City Council continued its annual grants to the Fair, providing core funding which meant that, whatever happened, the Fair would be able to continue.
It wasn’t just the number of participating venues that made the difference; it was the quality of what was going on. In the early years there was a slight sense of ‘10% off’ in the local shops, but now people planned competitions, quizzes, games, performances, everything from Chinese classical music to campaigning groups, from live music to sushi rolling.
In 2008, fulfilling the tradition of ‘First Saturday of December’, the Fair was on Saturday 6th December. The brochure had grown to 50 pages and contained information about 95 venues with ever growing inspiration. For the first time, it also carried articles about the history of the neighbourhood.
There was a fashion show by members of Lifecraft at the Salvation Army Community Centre, who created new designs by adjusting clothes brought from the charity shops of Mill Road. The clothes were great and were auctioned off at the end of the show. Mill Road Art had its first exhibition. Lacking a single exhibition hall, pictures were exhibited in shops and restaurants along the whole street. This allowed people to participate who otherwise found it difficult. How does somewhere like a dry cleaners or hairdressers participate in an event such as this? The art exhibition helped.
The well-established historical Mill Road walk was now augmented by a Tree Walk, in which it was pointed out that all the indigenous trees of Britain but two can be found in the Mill Road corridor. The Friends of Mill Road Cemetery organised historical and wildlife walks around the cemetery. Romsey Mill became a centre for children’s entertainments for the day and the Labour Club, for the first time, provided music. The Mill Road Plastic Bag Free campaign was launched, but was a bit of a damp squib as most people in the neighbourhood already used cloth bags. An exhibition of the Roots of Rock was held at Hope Street Yard. Things were hotting up.
The Food Fair and market stalls flourished, entertainments got better, crowds increased in size and the Committee got more and more anxious about the safety of enormous numbers of people on narrow pavements. Repeated requests for permission to close the road had met with a definite ‘No’ for some years, but 2008 provided good evidence that something was needed, in particular to address the problems of people ‘thronging’ on the bridge trying to see the Arco Iris Samba Band playing at the Argyle Street Housing Co-operative.
In 2009 the County Council agreed that the Fair did need a road closure. For the Winter Fair on 5th December 2009, Mill Road was closed from Tenison Road to Sedgwick Street. There were now 98 venues. The HATS! Competition had its debut, as did the Fifth Plinth. Based on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, this enabled people to get on the Plinth and shout about a cause. One person took the opportunity to dress as Godzilla and stomp on a whole city.
2009 was the first year when buskers played the length of the street. Members of Cambridge Community Circus, as usual, were out in force on stilts and unicycles and juggling between the thousands of people on the street. One person said that it felt like stepping into a river. She put one foot in, just to test that it was safe, and then jumped in to join the crowds.
Mill Road Festive Lights got off the ground, with both financial and moral support from the Committee of Mill Road Winter Fair. The organisers of the lights raised money for an astonishing 30 snowflakes to decorate the street.
The University of Cambridge recognised the value of the Fair with a donation to mark its 800th anniversary. Mill Road Art had an exhibition on the day and then moved into Anglia Ruskin University for two weeks.
The brochure in 2009 had grown to 66 pages in length. This reflected the increasing support of local traders, helping to finance the Fair by advertising – by Mill Road, for Mill Road. There were also more articles about the vicinity and pictures from the past.