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Great Dunmow…Great shopping, great marriages

PUBLISHED: 11:56 05 September 2016 | UPDATED: 11:56 05 September 2016

EXG SEP 16 GT DUNMOW

EXG SEP 16 GT DUNMOW

Archant

With an impressive range of independent shops, spectacular architecture and a long-held tradition celebrating matrimonial bliss, Great Dunmow has much to make it great, discovers Petra Hornsby

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Great Dunmow is great for a reason. It’s unique too as every leap year, this charming market town (situated in the Uttlesford District) holds the Dunmow Flitch Trials – a long-held tradition where couples compete for a side of bacon – providing a great spectacle for all residents and visitors.

Declarations of love and faithfulness these days come in the form of poems, flowers, trinkets and even edible treats, all of which can be found in the delightful array of shops within Great Dunmow’s town centre. However, back in 1104, the then Lord of the Manor, Reginald Fitzwalter, and his wife started a custom that has continued through the centuries and which adds a completely different flavour to the idea of romantic devotion.

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Disguised as peasants, the couple asked The Prior to bless their marriage of a year and one day and so impressed was he by their dedication and commitment to one another that he rewarded them with a gift of a flitch of bacon.

On revealing his true identity, Fitzwalter gave his land to The Priory of Little Dunmow on the promise that other couples wishing to demonstrate their loyalty should be given the same reward if they could successfully prove their love.

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The trials appeared to achieve notoriety across the country, with Chaucer acknowledging the Dunmow Flitch Trials in The Wife of Bath’s Tale. However, perhaps their appeal reached a little too far beyond the town when, in 1823, the then steward of Little Dunmow, on considering an application for the flitch from a couple from Reading, declared that the trials had become, ‘an idle custom bringing people of indifferent character into the neighbourhood’.

Little Dunmow soon washed its hands of the tradition, handing the baton to Great Dunmow.

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Resurrected in good spirit in 1855, the modern format is a performance that is steeped in ceremony, theatre and good will and is something for the whole town to celebrate as it unites as a community.

A ‘judge’ presides over the ‘court’ with counsel representatives for both the hopeful couples and the flitch. The jury is made up of six bachelors and six maidens who decide which couples are indeed deserving of the bacon. Those who succeed are carried along the High Street and those who fail go home with the consolation prize of a gammon.

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The Flitch Trials certainly bring welcome attention to the town with residents justifiably proud of keeping this special piece of local history alive as a reminder of a connection to the past. It is an opportunity for those visiting to witness the trials, to see just what Great Dunmow has to offer – a place that, back in the Middle Ages, was a busy market town and would later became an important staging post for passing coaches. Indeed, the former coaching inn, The Saracen’s Head, is still present and is still very much in business in the High Street.

Nikki Anthony, owner of the boutique Wardrobe and part of the Town Team, describes Great Dunmow as a shopping destination. She says: ‘We are very proud of our town centre, which is solely independent with a fantastic range of shops and businesses including florists, sports outfitters, hairdressers, haberdashers, specialist cake makers, artists and bakers.

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We also have coffee shops, restaurants and a travel agency too. Like most town centres today, we have our share of charity shops and also facilities that we need such as banks, solicitors, building societies, estate agents and a Post Office.’

The Town Team, which was formed in 2014, has fought hard to keep national chain stores out of Great Dunmow. Nikki explains: ‘Our shops are already struggling to compete with online shopping and out of town shopping malls. The chains would undercut us on price, inevitably forcing people out of business and changing the character of Great Dunmow for future generations.

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‘We constantly have people moving to the town and surrounding villages from the south of the county and from London. They see the High Street as an attractive feature with some useful shops, but sadly, unless the community supports the town’s businesses, they could lose them.’

Nikki understands that empty shops in struggling towns could well be converted into houses in the future and, if that becomes a trend, then many smaller towns will change dramatically in character, losing something of their history, not to mention essential facilities for those who rely on local amenities.

In an effort to promote a town they are rightly passionate about, The Town Team, supported by Uttlesford District Council, is set to launch an initiative aimed at getting people to shop more frequently in Great Dunmow and reward them for their custom.

The Shop Local, Shop Dunmow loyalty scheme invites residents of the town and those living in neighbouring communities to register either online or through a form available from Zoe’s Coffee Shop. In return, they will receive a special ‘shoppers’ coin and a free jute shopping bag courtesy of sponsor Stansted Audi.

Nikki explains the purpose of the coin. ‘Shoppers who have a coin will be eligible for various promotions and discounts in participating shops throughout the year by presenting the coin at the time of purchase,’ says Nikki. ‘All the discount days and offers will be visible via the town’s Facebook page and those who have given us an email address on registration will be notified directly.’

Nikki and her fellow business owners firmly believe that shopping in a town like theirs offers a positive experience. ‘We all try to be as competitive on price as possible, but we also offer expertise and a personal approach to our customers, something we feel is missing from internet shopping or impersonal shopping centres,’ adds Nikki. ‘We get to know our customers and, as much as we like to be busy, shopping in Great Dunmow is a calmer, more enjoyable experience. We also provide employment and maintain our community.’

The Town Team, responding to demand, is also looking to bring a farmers’ market to the town in 2017, to be held in the town’s Market Place, and hopes that this too will encourage increased footfall in the High Street.

What is certain is you will have a great day with a visit to Great Dunmow.

Find out more

On September 3, there will be a stall in the High Street where shoppers can find out more about the Shop Local scheme and register there and then. To sign up for the scheme, visit www.visitgreatdunmow.co.uk

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