Harwell Feast may have been pagan in origin; it was the custom of the early Christian Church to take over pagan feasts and use them as Christian festivals. Pope Gregory the Great, who sent St Augustine to bring the gospel to the English, gave instructions that heathen temples should not be destroyed, but purified, and used for the people to assemble, as had been their custom, to enjoy the old-time festivities. Whitsun, following on soon after the rigours of winter and the Lenten fast, was an appropriate time for rejoicing.
A horse-fair is traditionally supposed to have been held in Harwell in medieval times, and this may have become part of the festivity; the stone outside Winterbrook House, known as the bargain stone, is said to have been used at these horse-fairs for paying the money; some people believe that it may have been an earlier altar-stone. Sports, including wrestling, were part of these celebrations.
The Church used these occasions of thanksgiving as a means of adding to their funds for the relief of the poor. With the rise of the friendly societies and various voluntary organisations for the relief of the poor, Whit Monday became an important day each year, and has been so at Harwell for centuries. In the 1880s the Ancient Order of Foresters participated year after year in the Harwell Feast, and became the focal point of attraction. A huge banner was carried at the head of the procession, and members of the Order, with bright sashes and rosettes, paraded the village, following the custom of former days. No one now living can recall the spectacle, which carries us back to the third and fourth Georges, the tale being passed down by word of mouth; but Mrs Butler, who lived for many years at Wellshead Cottage, told S. Allen Warner in 1951 that when she was a girl of about twelve, one of the special sights of the famous Harwell Whit Monday Feast was the horse-back procession of Foresters, preceded by a magnificent banner. Each mounted member of the Order wore regalia, some with bows and arrows, others with woodmen’s axes, and all with large green hats adorned with feathers.
In later years the parade was on foot only, there having been occasions when children, greatly daring and not keeping to the sides of the road, had been injured by the passing horses.
In former times Harwell Feasts were not feasts in name only. Hot sit-down dinners were the order of the day. The famous Club dinners, (again the Foresters were the prime movers) were held at the Crown, and frequently overflowed into the yard. The afternoons were spent in sport and games and village pastimes. At one time Isaac Pryor’s travelling fair came from East Hendred, with Dolloware’s roundabouts, a coconut shy, hoopla, home-made flapjacks and “ha’penny squirters” for lads to frighten the girls. Sometimes, as in 1945, when the season is early, there were cherries at the Feast.
The record of Harwell Feast is not continuous. Some time before the 1914-18 war, the custom fell into disuse. It was revived after that war by the Harwell branch of the British Legion. In the early nineteen twenties it became known as “The Sports”, with athletic contests attracting large crowds. Later, teas for the children in the Technical Institute took the place of the dinners for adults.