I wake and sit on the swing in the garden. Apples drop from branches behind me, and there is a curious braying in the distance, like children or cows. Then, gradually, the sound of hooves, and a bugle. The hunt glides past. Over the hedge we see bowler hats. We hear a man shouting “Wendy! Wendy! Come HERE, Wendy!” Is Wendy his wife or his hound, we wonder? Ultimately we decide that Wendy is probably the name of both his wife and his hound.
We set off for the Autumn Fair with two guitars and me in the back seat. The day is still deciding how Autumnal it wants to be—is it enjoying the crispness of the wind, or does it feel already nostalgic for summer’s gentle breath?—so I wear a jumper and a sunhat. We park in a field and take the Nature Walk down to the festival site. Nature is thin on the ground (trees, trampled grass) but the views are spectacular, and it’s like descending into an enchanted valley. I expect fairies with little sparkly wings to greet us at the gate. Devon, we sing. I’m in De-von…
Instead of fairies we’re greeted by a cider tent and a queue about six miles long. We join the queue, which doesn’t appear to be going anywhere, and, more interestingly, doesn’t appear to have any purpose (my instinct, as always, is to see if I can ignore the queue, but I’m flanked today by two well-bred English men, so I have no choice). From our vantage point halfway up a hill, we can see that the line of humans simply peters out somewhere near the stage.
“What are we queuing for?” someone deigns to ask.
“I don’t know,” someone else says cheerily. And that’s the end of the conversation. Nobody moves. We stand for some time, feet planted in the field, eyes squinting in the sunshine (definitely still summer, the day has decided). It isn’t entirely unpleasant—just a little odd.
Presently we decide we’ve queued pointlessly for long enough, so we stroll down into the festival site. And it’s like, as Ben has subsequently written, “the best Village Féte ever” (I’m using my imagination here—I’ve never been to a Village Féte, but it would be hard to imagine a better one than the River Cottage Autumn Fair). At the centre of everything is a red-and-white striped tea tent, with cream teas and complimentary cordial. People are already sucking on their cups of cider, and infants are doing that amazing things infants do which is constantly moving. One particularly excited little girl simply runs around in circles like a puppy chasing her own tail.
(The queue, it turns out, is a premature book-signing line; a handwritten notice at the end of it promises that Hugh Fearnley-Whitingstall himself will soon make an appearance.)
My attention is arrested by the “Border Collie and Duck Display” near the tea tent; we stand and watch for awhile as a lithe young border collie attempts to guide a gaggle of very upright black ducks into a wooden cage.
We join another queue for lunch (this is the great English pastime!). This one actually does have a purpose, but it moves just as slowly as if it didn’t. “No, you can’t just push to the front darling…” one mother is overheard telling her infant. “…we’re British.”
After Itchy and Scratchy, a two-man band, finish their set, Ben plays “Hugh Fearnley-Whitingstall” to Hugh Fearnley-Whitingstall himself, who spends at least an hour meticulously signing cookbooks and never looks weary of it. Ben is a particularly big hit with the children, who form a group at the base of the stage and run around in more circles. One girl, aged four, or maybe five, stands and simply gyrates her hips like some sort of zombie-R&B music video backup dancer. “It gets increasingly sexual, doesn’t it?” her mother says to me, half nervous, half drunk with giggles.
We make the mistake of indulging in ‘Em’s Homemade Cider’, and half a pint down, we’re living in a hazy world. Ben sings “We are the village green preservation society. God save Donald duck, vaudeville and variety”. God save Indian summers and strong cider, too; and the salted snack salamis from the food tent, and the couple, beaming with sunburn and cider, who dance to every song. Ben plays “Hugh Fearnley-Whitingstall” again, and the crowd, loosened a little by Em’s cider, is persuaded to shout Hugh’s name during the chorus.
After the gates shut we linger for awhile on the grass, finishing our pints and trying to get the football scores from a wind-up radio. Xander helps James the Butcher shift heavy boxes of meat, and we unpack the Sunday delivery of local Stinger Ale for the tea tent. It is green and peaceful here, with the sun hovering over the fields and the smell of manure, fresh cut grass, beer, untainted air.
Later, we stroll down the hill into Musbury for dinner. We eat dry fish and chips in the pub and read the local paper, which is full of headlines like “Nymphos’ float built in just a week!” and “Nutters clean up!” On the walk back, the sky is black and the wind rustles the hedges and invisible bats swoop over our heads.