Tag Archives: village life

The Case of the Cayton Plant-Poisoner

The British are, by and large, a tidy people, so much so that you almost wonder whether they didn’t conquer a quarter of the world and add it to their empire just because they found other countries rather untidy, and felt it their duty to set things to rights. 

Wonersh signpost points to the Church Hall and the Memorial Hall, and displays Best Kept Village awards.

Towns and villages even engage in competitive tidiness.  The charity group Campaign to Protect Rural Britain (CPRE) runs annual competitions to name the Best Kept Village in each county.  You don’t have to be  a picture-postcard village full of thatched cottages to win, you just have to be the tidiest.  A related phenomenon, the Britain in Bloom competition run by the Royal Horticultural Society, gives awards for community-wide efforts at what they call the “cleaning up and greening up” of cities, towns, and villages of all sizes, thus mixing the drive for tidiness with the British passion (or even obsession) with gardening.  Organizers claim the winners of these awards will see all manner of benefits, from “increased social cohesion” to increased income from tourism. 

A few of the Wonersh CPRE shields

Britain in Bloom is getting a lot of press this year, because one of the serious contenders—Cayton, a past Yorkshire in Bloom winner, and runner up in 2006 and again in 2008 for the national award—is probably out of the running for 2010 due to horticultural vandalism:  someone dosed their flower beds with herbicides, some so exotic that the authorities have yet to figure out what was used.  The first withered shrubs were noticed about a week ago by a senior citizen who said he was “doing a spot of tending” when he noticed the white powder around the plants. (I add, for the sake of UK readers who will wonder why that’s worth quoting, that US readers are likely to find his wording quaint.)

This isn’t the first time competition gardens have been sabotaged, though this seems to be the first attack with chemical weapons.  In recent years, vandals have broken an irrigation system in Saltburn-by-the-Sea (Teesside), stolen plants in Spennymoor (Co. Durham), and decapitated hosts of daffodils one by one in Harthill-with-Woodall (Yorkshire)—one report says “their heads were snipped off, you could say quite professionally, with secateurs” (US: pruning shears) in an attack that must have taken several hours.  Cheltenham (Gloucestershire) has installed CCTV cameras to deter would-be flower-rustlers. 

It’s easy to make light of the situation, but some villages put huge sums of money into these competitions; it may not be rival villages poisoning the gardens of Cayton, but renegade Caytonians who object to spending £6000-£7000 ($9000-$10,500) on show gardens in a village of only 2000 people.  If they meant to discourage waste of funds, the vandals shot themselves in their collective foot, because their neighbors are shoveling out tons of contaminated dirt and bringing in new compost to fill the space, at considerable expense. 

Ewhurst's wrought-iron signpost

Winning villages don’t win actual prizes, as far as I’ve been able to tell, other than the right to put up signs proclaiming them to be Britain in Bloom winners.  A Best Kept Village winner may display a CPRE shield, a plaque awarded in a ceremony complete with an unveiling.  The tidiest villages accrue several shields on village signposts, bringing to mind totem poles, or the standards of Roman legions hung with tokens of their honors. 

On a recent sunny Sunday afternoon I went, with an intrepid friend who’s good at reading maps, to seek out some of these displays.  They weren’t exactly hard to find, but the quest wasn’t trivial, either.  Rural villages can sprawl a bit, and just because we found the church or the pub or the village hall didn’t mean we’d found the place chosen to show off awards, so we had to stop to ask the locals several times.  But the photos here of the Surrey villages Wonersh and Ewhurst give you an idea of what we found. 

In the meantime, as Britons go on their way, tidying and tilling, forensics experts are trying to identify the chemicals used in Cayton and the North Yorkshire Police are reported to be “hot on the poisoner’s trail”, and while it must be terribly shocking and discouraging for the gardeners of Cayton, it seems to me an interesting and a peculiarly English situation.

Some of Ewhurst's CPRE shields

This is after all the land that gave us Inspector Morse and Hercule Poirot and the endless line-up of their fellow detectives.  The attraction of the Miss Marple stories is certainly the dark forces lurking unseen in the kind of village that must surely display a few CPRE shields.  I’ve always thought there must be some fundamental link in the British mind between the fictional crimes they dream up, write about, and read, and the masterminds who dig up (appropriately for gardeners) the truth, some balance between the disruption and violence of the evil done and the satisfaction of closing the case at the end to leave everything, well, tidy.

If you can do all that and mix in a few flower beds, you’ve got a quintessentially English story.

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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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