Sunday, October 19, 2014

Staverton Fayre

On Monday, August 25th (a bank holiday), the village of Staverton held their annual Fayre. Sometimes it's called the "Elizabethan Fayre" but I couldn't find any information on its history; although the village (or a village) has been there since the 14th century, there does not appear to be proof that a fair was held there, and of course that was long before bank holidays were invented. Or banks, for that matter, at least in England. I invited Cornelia and Alex to go along with me, but they declined, so I set off by myself in the rain that morning, first taking the bus from Ashburton to the railway station at Buckfastleigh, and then hopping on the South Devon Railway's steam train.

Built in the mid-19th century, the railway line was originally supposed to go all the way from Totnes to Ashburton, but they couldn't get the funding, so the line stopped at Buckfastleigh. They ran passenger and freight trains from 1872 to 1962, when the local branch of the National Railways decided it was not profitable. A few years later, a group of local businesspeople reopened a commercial rail service, but by 1989 they decided they weren't making money either. Other volunteer groups took over and registered the business as a charity, and since 1991 the South Devon Railway Trust has kept this bit of English trainspotting history going. It's a popular tourist attraction, and a really fun ride. The carriages are all Harry-Pottery, and every time the steam whistle blew, hooting shrilly over the rumbledy-clack of the wheels on the track, I couldn't help smiling. The line goes through woods and fields, giving glimpses of rural life: cows grazing in the pastures by the river, with sheep dotted on the hills above; pheasants gleaning the last bits of corn and wheat from the stubbled fields; a shaded hollow in the embankment holding a wooden chair next to a tea set on a stump.

It doesn't take long to get to the station at Staverton, and many of the passengers never even made it out of the station, as that was the venue for the Real Ale Festival and the Rails and Ales event, featuring local ciders and ales served from a pub that was built into the station a few years ago. They set up a tent next to the pub to hold the overflow, and I had to push my way through the crowd of large hearty men holding pints in order to get to the road leading to the fairgrounds. According to the fair's website, there was supposed to be a bus shuttling people between the station and the grounds, but it never appeared. Since the weather was crap, it's possible that they decided not enough people were going to show up to justify it. But it was only a half mile away or so, and it wasn't raining too hard.

I never did figure out what the "Elizabethan" part of the fair was supposed to be, though looking through information on fairs of years past it looks like when the weather is good, there are more events and dancing and things that might be more historically relevant. The Punch and Judy show, at least, dates back to the 17th century in Britain, and you'll find it at pretty much every fair. A newer addition is the dog agility event, and this year there were a fair number of people standing out in the rain with their damp dogs, watching the contestants and barking in encouragement. The dogs, I mean.

About half of the small tents were people selling home-baked goods or FIMO jewelry and other handmade items, or offering typical rummage sale wares like old toys and dolls and kitchen equipment. The large rummage sale tent seemed to be mostly full of tea towels, but there was also a long table full of books, and I found some paperbacks for my bus and train trips, including Stephen Fry's autobiography, "Moab is My Washpot." The first volume of his autobiography, that is, just up to his twenties. I will have to look for "The Fry Chronicles" and "More Fool Me" to get the rest of the story, now.

I have gotten completely addicted to the show Fry hosts, "QI" (today's fact of the day: at the enthronement feast of George Neville, Archbishop of York, in September 1465, the guests ate 204 bitterns) and have always enjoyed watching him act, especially in the Jeeves and Wooster series (I missed the earlier show he did with Hugh Laurie, "A Bit of Fry and Laurie"). Like Emma Thompson's character, I fell for him in the movie "Peter's Friends," but as he shares more than a passing resemblance to the title character of another movie he starred in, I wouldn't have had any more luck than Maggie with him.
One should always be a little improbable.
- Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

There weren't that many booths set up, and not that many people in them either. It had started raining fairly early, and by the time I got to the fairgrounds it was alternating between damp drizzle and gusty squalls. A few of the smaller tents weren't standing up to the wind very well; I watched a face painter decorating the cheeks of a small girl while the posts of her tent leaned over nearly to a 45-degree angle, and a few minutes later after the girl had run off to join her parents the face painter packed up her things and took the tent down.

I was watching this from the safety of the beer and cider tent, which had the advantage of facing away from the wind, with chairs and hay bales to sit on inside, and live music by the group Men Behaving Tradly. In the tea tent, filled with things I couldn't eat, The Old Gaffers were belting out sea shanties. Next to the beer tent, the Riverford BBQ team were carving slices off their roast pig, and if I had thought to bring a few slices of gluten-free bread I would have had a sandwich. The iced lemonade stand was not doing much business on that chilly day, but I saw a lot of people with boxes from the mobile oven-fired pizza van. I had a pint of local cider while I watched the locals stroll around, trying to dry off my socks. I'd worn sandals because I didn't feel like wearing my shoes that day, and my toes were rather damp.

Most people were wearing wellies, and one of the reasons I had gone to this fair in particular was because it promised to have a welly-tossing competition. Unfortunately that had been cancelled along with several of the other booths and games, due to the weather. But there was ferret racing! Terry Moule is a well-known figure in the Devon event circuit; he has been driving his racing ferrets to fairs and such for over 30 years. I talked to him for a bit between races, and he said that he started out raising ferrets as a hobby, but that the fair races became so popular so quickly that he now spends most of his time doing them, at least in the summer. He lives near Exmoor, the other national park in the north (Dartmoor is in the south) and says that he will drive anywhere within a 70-kilometer radius (if I remember correctly) to take his ferrets to the shows. He gets paid for the events, but he also sells tickets so that people can bet on the races, and the proceeds of the betting go to charities, or to the event sponsors.

When the race is ready to begin, he brings his ferrets out and talks about them a bit, and explains the race rules, such as they are. He puts each of the six ferrets in a cage at the start of the pipes that form the racecourse, and gets six children from the audience to serve as the gatekeepers. When the whistle blows, the children lift the gates, and each ferret runs into the pipe and down to the exit at the other end. The winning ferret is the one who exits the pipe entirely, tail and all, before the others. He stresses this point, because often a ferret will race down to the opening at the end, stick its head out, and then snake its body back into the pipe and disappear, presumably in search of rabbits, which is what they are traditionally trained to hunt. I was standing in front of the pink pipe with one of the white ferrets, and that's exactly what it did - it was the first to pop its head out, but the last to actually come all the way out of the pipe.

"I'm here! I'm gone again! Hey, where's everyone going? I'm still competing in this race, damn it!"

The weather was clearing up just a bit as I walked back to the train station, and I saw more families heading towards the fairgrounds, but even in the time I was there three or four of the tents had been taken down, so I am not sure how much entertainment was left. Terry Moule had told me that if the weather didn't stay clear, he wasn't going to stay to the end of the event, but Zoe, the clarinetist with the band in the beer tent, said that they were there for the duration. There were even more people at the beer tent at Staverton station when I got there, spilling out onto the platform and taking advantage of the brief patches of sun. I took my books and my damp toes back onto the steam train, and leaned out the window all the way back, inhaling the green woodland smells and the occasional whiff of coal smoke from the engine boilers.

"What a feeble thing intelligence is, with its short steps, its waverings, its pacings back and forth, its disastrous retreats! Intelligence is a mere instrument of circumstances. There are people who say that intelligence must have built the universe — why, intelligence never built a steam engine! Circumstances built a steam engine. Intelligence is little more than a short foot-rule by which we measure the infinite achievements of Circumstances."
     - F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Beautiful and the Damned" (1922)

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