Another country fete

My previous post (see Lady Ottoline and Garsington) mentioned visiting the village fête at Garsington in Oxfordshire. The article you’re reading now isn’t a fully fledged post, but just another chance for the culturally deprived, who’ve never been to an English country fête (i.e., most American readers), to get an idea of what they’re missing. As with most fêtes and fairs, the Garsington event is held to raise money for charity—in this case, for the upkeep of the local church, where there’s a memorial to Lady Ottoline herself.

Irish dancing at the fete. (Why do all little girls who do Irish dancing do their hair like Little Orphan Annie?)

Garsingtonians went all out, offering much more than the May fair my village puts on here in Surrey. Then again, our fair is on the village cricket pitch, not a centuries-old manor house with a pond big enough for boating.

Boats on the pond

They offered the usual games of chance and of skill, if throwing a Wellington boot, or picking clothes pins (UK: clothes pegs) off a clothesline with one hand, can be called skills. I paid for several chances to reach into a big red velvet bag of keys, pick one, and try it in the keyhole of a glass-fronted case, but didn’t manage to unlock the thing and get the bottle of whisky inside. The church can probably buy a new hymn book with the money I spent trying.

Contenders for the longest runner bean title

At the home-grown produce stall, the judge told me he’d be looking for the longest runner bean (points off for crookedness) and the longest carrot. Must’ve been a bad year for carrots, to go by what he had on display. The judge picked up one of the stubby, warty specimens to show me: “Look! If you hold it this way, it looks like a armadillo!”

Entries for the prize in the carrot competition. The armadillo-carrot is on the right.

Root vegetables in animal shapes are all to the good, but what I really wanted to talk to him about was vegetable marrows. This time last year in a post about marrows, I said I didn’t know how you’d judge the quality of what is, after all, a behemoth of a zucchini (UK: courgette); turns out it’s sheer weight. Two mammoth entries at the Garsington event so outclassed the competition that the judge had to divide the marrows into weight classes.

Gargantuan vegetable marrows with a cell phone/mobile for size

I still don’t see the point of growing zucchinis the size of logs for the fire; they can’t be any good to eat, though you could perhaps use one as a rounders bat, rounders being an English game much like softball. I’ve heard many an English person pooh-pooh baseball, even major league baseball, as nothing but rounders, a game for children, and I’ve often thought I’d like to put one of them at home plate with a pitch coming in at almost 100 miles per hour and see how childish the game is then.

A rat-basher at the Bash the Rat game

A rounders bat is shorter and lighter than a baseball bat, and held in only one hand. You can see one in the photos of the Bash a Rat game—the rat being a sand-filled sock with yarn eyes and ears, let go at the top of a slanted pipe so players can try to hit it with the bat when it comes out at the bottom.

Coconuts ready for you to shy a ball at them

When I wrote about country fêtes before, I couldn’t add a photo of the coconut shy, because I hadn’t thought to take one—which wouldn’t be remarkable except that it showed me how acclimated I’ve become. Coconut shy no longer seems a strange phrase; the coconut shy itself doesn’t seem remarkable any more. At Garsington, though, something was different because people kept winning. The idea is to throw balls at coconuts held up in the air on stakes; if you knock a coconut off its perch you get to keep it. I’d never seen anybody win at this before, but at Garsington, three people in a row walked off with coconuts.

Irish band provides live music, much better than the taped stuff the dancers used.

The man running the stall said he sets up the game to be easy “on purpose, for the kiddies”. He told me that for-profit carnivals set up coconuts nestled into cups of sand and leaning against specially strengthened backing to prevent them from being knocked loose.

Irish dancers parade to the upper lawn

Just then a five-year-old came up and feebly tossed some balls. One managed, entirely by happenstance, to tap one of the posts and the coconut obligingly tumbled down. The man said he gets through two gunnysacks in a day, each with 30 coconuts. Future historians looking at parish accounting records may wonder why Christian worship in the 20th and 21st centuries required 60 coconuts every autumn.

Lady Ottoline Morrell's memorial plaque in St Mary's Church, Garsington

We—I was there with other members of the Virginia Woolf Society—rounded off a full afternoon’s rowing, shying, bashing, and (inevitably) tea, by walking over to the church to see Ottoline’s memorial. The sculptor flattered her; even though she’s shown in profile, her nose doesn’t seem particularly “baronial”. But she’s in drab gray stone, so just as in black-and-white photos of her heyday, we not only have to imagine the 3-D person behind the 2-D image, but to imagine the colors of a most colorful lady. After her days as the hostess at Garsington Manor, she must find sitting in a back corner of the village church awfully dull.



Filed under Culture, Travel

7 responses to “Another country fete

  1. Wonderful post! Thanks for the detail and the pictures. I feel like I attended the fair in person!

  2. Candida

    Ah, you’ve given readers the cream of English fetes! It would be flattering to think we were all within a mile of this. We’re not. But you should come and see Flora Day in Helston some time: no pretty fair, but the dances and the Hal an Tow play through the streets are still great.

    You know the baseball thing is just to wind up Americans –because they are the only people who play the game (maybe there are some obscure exceptions) but call the competition the “World Series” as if it were equivalent to the World Cup. And it IS almost rounders (which was once called baseball too, if you go back to Jane Austen). Just that one difference of overarm bowling – which is, as you say, small but huge at the same time. But really, we only do it to annoy because we know it teases…

    • I’d love to come see the Hal and Tow! I know the song (Jolly Rumble-O), but didn’t know what Hal and Tow meant. So it’s a game, then?

      No, I can’t agree that baseball is just rounders with overhand pitching. The shape of the field is different, the bat is different — sure, the two have a common ancestor, but the games have, er, diverged.

      And as for the World Series, I have no idea why it was so named, but perhaps the British ought to give us a break, as it was named over 100 years ago and therefore isn’t the fault of the people being ‘teased’.

      It *was* a beautiful fair in a rare setting and we had great weather for it, which was lucky. The only sour note was the recorded music for the Irish dancers. I snapped that one photo and fled, because the volume was *painful*. I assume the people waiting it out with gritted teeth were parents of dancers.

      Also, Garsingtonians are great readers, it seems, because the book stall was such a scrum I couldn’t get close enough to see what they had! At least I didn’t go home with a sack of books, but broke.

    • ADDENDUM: I don’t mean to beat a dead horse, but since I happen to live with a game designer who used to work for EASports, I asked him. He says rounders is like baseball except that the bat is different, the ball is different, the batting style is different, the scoring is different, the size and shape of the field is different, some of the minor rules are different (for example, in rounders, you have to keep hold of the bat when you run; if you drop it you’re out), and one uses underhand bowling while the other uses overhand pitching!

      Having somebody around whose profession is games is rarely of any practical value, it must be said, but occasionally he comes in handy.

      Actually, I don’t even like baseball! Terribly boring. Those who love it tend to get into the statistics and probabilities, and the psychology of how, say, this pitcher and that batter will come together when in their last 5 meetings they’ve done [whatever]. Boring.

      I’d love to learn to appreciate cricket, but haven’t even made a dent in that. I bought a book (by John Arlott, whom I gather was a famous commentator) but he assumes you know the basics already. Next summer, for sure, I’m going to go watch the village team play.

      • Ernest Adams

        Rounders is to baseball as finger painting is to Rembrandt.

        Baseball is played professionally in the United States, Canada, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and across Latin America. Many of the best professionals in the US are from Central America and play there when the American season is over. The Asian countries that play it started over 100 years ago; it wasn’t simply since the influx of American soldiers after WWII.

        The World Series has that name for historical reasons, in an early anticipation that more countries would eventually participate. It may be silly (although Canadian teams are eligible), but it’s equally silly that England, Scotland and Wales are permitted to field “national” teams in the FIFA World Cup. Each to their own historical oddities.

        Baseball has strategy. Cricket, as far as I can tell, only has tactics. Garsington would be a lovely place to play either!

      • Oops. Did I mention Ernest is somewhat interested in baseball?

  3. British beth

    Back to your marrows for a moment.
    I used to pass my summer holidays in the English countryside with my grandmother and my aunt. They grew ‘vegetable marrows’ and stuffed them and baked them. They were tasteless…which is why you had to stuff them with tasty well-herbed and seasoned something-else (meat, eggplant etc).
    Once home in London, my Mediterranean-loving mother would buy and cook zucchini/courgettes. Please note: the British have no word for small delicious marrows. The French have Courge (marrow) and courgettes (Baby marrows) Italians clearly have zucchini (baby marrows) but what is the ‘adult’ fruit called?
    P.S. If you want to be sure to catch your marrows when tiny and delicious, only grown the yellow variety. They can more easily be spotted hiding behind the leaves.

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