Country Tales – Part 2
White elephants, monster marrows – the village fete has a formula that seldom varies. But it’s quintessential to the British summer.
Report by: Alan Bestic
Photos: Homer Sykes
Betty Reid, checking late donations for the white elephant stall says,
“Someone left 40 Mills & Boon romances on our doorstep”
They are joining best sellers and a Barbara Cartland special, The Secret of Youth, which promise readers, physical, mental and sexual vitality well into middle age. It is on offer for 10p.
By 10.15 crowds are gathering in the grounds of Bouthrop House, a lovely 17th century farmhouse. The main action will take place on the lawn, and some competitions in the ancient barn. The Judges are at work already, moving among flowers, vegetables and cakes. Theoretically they are anonymous, because they are locals and the organisers feel those who know them might not enter nest year. In fact their identity is probably the village’s worst kept secret.
At 12.15 Derek checks his watch and swings the gates open. The queue cascades onto the lawn, engulfing the white elephant, where it separates wheat from chaff and then buys both. Betty Reid and Jean Edwards work like bookies on Derby Day. The mountain of goods shrinks. The best sellers vanish and with them the Barbara Cartland’s ten penny promise of youth. Fivers fly, but Derek, is not too happy,
“I think we have some dealers here,” he says a trifle primly. “We don’t like that.”
But the frenzy is brief. Suddenly everything is quiet again – ambling, smiling, Eastleach Turville quiet. Parents, festooned with children, drift happily from stall to stall. Wobbly two-year-olds surround Jonathon Joe’s Wheelbarrow of Surprises, the bran tub produced and directed by Jean Steel, secretary of the village hall committee and founder of the Leach Valley Players. At the age of 73, she buzzes from pillar to theatrical post on a motor scooter.
At the plants and garden produce stall Susie Hyde-Smith and her husband, Charles, a big cheese in the city, today resplendent in sombrero, have a display Harrods would envy: orchids, roses, jasmine, strawberry plants, carrots, marrows, spinach, tomatoes, jams, honey, chutney.
All, indeed, is rural peace and charitable profit – until Martin Squire, overlord at Macaroni Downs farm and operator of fete’s dice game, loses a clutch of his best prizes ( a bottle of whisky, a bottle of wine and a can of beer) to Virginia, daughter of Sir Thomas Bazley, president of the village hall trust, lord of the manor and, incidentally, Martin’s landlord.
“Ruin!” moans the dice king.
But he is saved by Lady Bazley, who decently loses five pounds in as many minutes.
A trumpet blows to mark the moment of truth: the completion results. Derek Edwards wins the photographic competition, but his onions are nowhere.
“They were too good,” he says. “They probably thought I bought them in Swindon.”
Trish Haynes wins two flower arrangement rosettes and a cake in the raffle, but er boot in nowhere. Mary Jenkinson collects a rosette for her chocolate cake.
Graham Berry strolls the Monster Marrow Megaton – no surprise because everyone else chickened out, having heard whispers of the opposition. But the dahlias upset the book. Frances Tye beats her husband and Albert Wearing out of sight.
And that’s it. Derek Edwards stands on a stone wall and thanks everyone. This is his last show and fete as organiser. Next year the organiser’s baton will be in new hands ( when they can find a new “volunteer”). The crowds drift away, gossiping about their purchases. Stallholders reminisce about their remnants. All 40 Mills & Boons went out for £1, surely one of the great bargains in the history of romantic fiction.
The last to leave is Albert Wearing, he walks across the bridge to the little graveyard on the hill beside St Andrew’s church and puts his dahlias on the graves of his two sisters. He does that every year, a quiet, warm act of remembrance, his own personal tradition at the end of what has been a thoroughly traditional day.
Photography by kind permission of Homer Sykes