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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.