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Queen of the May

The Queen of the May

While the election news fascinated the country, ordinary life in England still went on, of course. I even managed to pull myself away from the news long enough to go to the annual May Fair, which raises money for the village church, St Mark’s Wyke (Church of England).

Summer in England is full of little local fairs, more often called fêtes. Same thing. In my village, the church has a fair in May and the village as a whole has a fête in August. Organizers of the celebration for the 10th anniversary of the local farmers’ market hedged their bets, billing their event as a Fair/Fête.

Maypole dancers get into position

St Mark’s May Fair is very much a small-town affair, even less sophisticated than the fundraising carnivals the PTA ran for my grade school in Kentucky, but here they have a very different, and a distinctively English, flavor.

Each year a Queen of the May leads her attendant maidens in dancing around the maypole, dancing in patterns with names like Single Plait, Starlight, and Torsion Twist (sounds painful). While I’m sure the dancers work hard to learn the patterns, some of which derive from traditional lace-making, there are only so many ways to weave colored ribbons around a pole, and all of them end the same way, because you have to do the identical dance in reverse if you want to untangle the ribbons. The same recorded folk-style music accompanies every dance, every year, and is interrupted at the end of each round with an abrupt and final “ta-da!” chord.

A little rain pattered out of a clear blue sky, but the dancers didn’t seem to mind. I ducked under the cover of a temporary gazebo set up to protect a cake stall; I paid my keep for sheltering there by catching the leg of the gazebo when the wind pulled its stakes up out of the ground and the whole thing threatened to take off.

The Bagatelle board, with just a bit of the Shoobok table (alas, you can't see its sign, which read "How Many Shoos Can You Bok?")

If you’re not saving fly-away gazebos and you aren’t actually the parent of a maypole dancer, you may have—as I did—a limited attention span for this kind of thing, but you have lots of options. The poster for the fair advertised “Stalls and Shys”. (The editor in me tut-tuts; it should have been Shies.) Stalls sold used books, homemade cakes, hand-knitted dolls, plants, ice cream, jumble (US: rummage), Freetrade products, and those grilled meat-ish objects that the locals call hamburgers and hot dogs, but which to my American-grown taste buds don’t compare to the real thing. I had no luck at the raffle (last year I won a bottle of wine), or at the tombola, which is a rotating bin full of paper tags; if you pull out a numbered tag it might match a numbered prize.

The Shove Ha'Penny board

“Shys” are stalls offering chances to throw things. The classic is the coconut shy, where you’ll find six or eight metal poles in the ground, each ending in a curve of metal like the rim of a shallow cup, each holding a coconut; if you can knock a coconut off a stand with a ball you get to keep it—the coconut, that is. (Apologies—I’ve been here long enough that this no longer seems unusual, so I didn’t think to get a photo, and it does look fairly—as it were—peculiar.)

At the “Have a Smashing Time” stall, you can’t win anything, but you can break all the donated crockery you want. The see-how-far-you-can-throw-a-Wellington-boot stall (it’s surprisingly difficult) wasn’t there this year, but my favorite was back—the Canaan Wedding Feast, where you try to knock over wine bottles, and get to keep any wine you’ve knocked over. The catch? Some of the bottle are unopened, but some are empties refilled with water. (For those who don’t get the name: according to the New Testament, Christ’s first miracle was changing the water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana, and it is the church’s fair, after all.)

The Bouncy Castle

Most of it was low budget and home-made and fun. Since my husband designs games, we had to stop to investigate Bagatelle, Shove Ha’penny, and Shoobok, all of them traditional old-fashioned games in which you have to get the ball into the hole, or line up the coin between two lines, or knock a skittle-like thing into a target box. These aren’t skills I can claim to have cultivated but at 10 pence a go I was happy to keep trying.

Not all of the fun was strictly homemade; there was a candy floss machine (US: cotton candy, though the British version seems to be sold in plastic bags rather than on a paper cone), one merry-go-round ride for the smallest children, and a big bouncy castle. Tootling around Britain you occasionally come across the rather puzzling (to outsiders) sign: “Bouncy Castle Hire”. When I was a kid in the US, this would have been called the “Moon Walk”—an inflated trampoline-ish thing for jumping on—but here they usually look like storybook castles. The one hired for the St Mark’s May Fair went one better and had an enormous slide, though climbing the inflatable plastic steps to get to the top of the slide wasn’t easy—not that I tried it myself.

The vicar of St Mark's, off duty (but still in clerical collar)

So there you are: a typical small village fair or fête, with dogs meeting other dogs to play and wag themselves silly, kids ditto except when they stopped to ask their parents for money for ice cream, neighbors greeting each other, and everyone parting with their money to charity. Though it wasn’t perhaps entirely typical, I suppose. I don’t know who had charge of the music, but when the maypole dancers finished, the soundtrack changed from tinny folk-dance stuff to Superfly and Shaft. Some traditions may not change, but others clearly do.

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