Mid July in rural England is peak fête season. In every village around us, faded bunting is being untangled and strung across the green, the good ladies of the WI are baking cakes and sausage rolls and making strawberry jam, locals are being pressed into donating something - a bottle of cheap rosé, talcum powder, paper hankies decorated with cats (all real ‘prizes’ won by us) for the tombola and the vicar is dusting down his summer straw hat, ready to open the ceremony and calmly praying for sunshine.
If this all sounds like a ridiculously nostalgic scene from the past it is also an accurate picture of the present in the British countryside, much to our bemusement.
Each weekend from the middle of June to the August Bank Holiday at least one village in our area of West Suffolk is hosting an afternoon of stewed tea, brass bands and Morris Men, Treasure Island games, coconut shies and dog displays for its residents.
My husband rather rudely calls them ‘eight-minute fêtes’, referring to the amount of time it takes us to glance over the stalls of bric-a-brac, plants and tatty paperbacks and decide that there’s nothing really to stay for.
The best fêtes have something slightly eccentric to throw into the mix. Last summer we got inveigled into entering an egg-tossing competition which involved chucking a raw egg between ourselves as we moved further and further apart across the green, one of the prettiest in England, with each throw. The contest was won by a small girl who had clearly been practising for the event as if her life depended on it.
It was hard not to be charmed by the displays of vegetables and fruit produced by the local horticultural society at the same fête. Who doesn’t want to wait to discover the winner of section 8: “10 tomatoes, one variety, small fruited”? Or section 38: “1 vase Garden Flowers, Mixed and Well Displayed, No Shrubs”? And we both entered the “guess how many balloons are in the Mini” competition.
It seems there are three kinds of English summer fête. The standard village fête, the church fête (similar but with no bar) and the garden fête which is held in a wealthy resident’s grounds, complete with dead-headed roses, immaculate borders and jugs of Pimms on the manicured lawn.
When we went to one of the latter recently I couldn’t help thinking of how my former Spanish neighbours would have reacted to such a quietly respectable occasion. I can only imagine their incredulity at two cake stalls, a Hook-a-Duck contest hastily laid out in a paddling pool and the dulcet tones of the Long Melford Silver Band being described as the annual village celebration.
In our small Spanish village the summer ‘feria’ went on for five riotous days and nights. I remember sitting in the baking square, strung with paper lanterns in the colours of Andalucía and watching old couples showing off their dancing skills to the strains of a vaguely famous flamenco singer.
Meanwhile the local boys clattered up the hill on their horses to the pool where perennial favourites Orquesta Trébol (nick-name, Orquesta Terrible) were waiting to play their dreadful synthesiser rock in a lurid cloud of flashing lights and visual effects right through the night.
How I miss that.