“ Annual festival that occurs in the New Forest, south of Salisbury. „
It was my Mum's idea to go to the Downton Cuckoo Fair. "You'll love it" she said and then I promptly forgot that we'd agreed to go and my husband made other plans. I called her a few days before our visit and said we were thinking of going to one of the National Trust properties near her. "But you can't" she said, "we're going to the Cuckoo Fair. We ALWAYS go to the Cuckoo Fair".
I'd never been before so the 'we' she referred to was her and my step-father. Despite the impression being given that the Downton Cuckoo Fair had been going since the year dot, it turned out that the fair actually only started 32 years ago so I didn't feel quite so ashamed for never having been. When I was a stroppy adolescent I would have considered something like this totally lame and been even more reluctant to go than I was as a slightly less stroppy grown-up (though I use the label loosely).
The Fair takes place every year on the Saturday of the first May Bank Holiday weekend - in this case it was the 30th of April, the day after the royal wedding.
I can't recall why I hadn't fancied going but I do know that I wasn't in the mood. My sister warned me - "You'll hate it" she said, "It'll be packed with people and I know you hate crowds". She had a good point. Jean-Paul Sartre may have said "Hell is other people" (in French of course) but for me Hell is definitely to be found in a crowd.
"We'll take the bus" said Mum, brandishing her OAP free bus ticket. I looked longingly towards my big comfortable car and wondered why I was about to squeeze onto the bus for 20 or 30 minutes of being too close to the armpits of others. I'm addicted to the freedom of my car and the ability it gives me to escape when I've had enough. My husband shrugged and told me to just go with it and so I did. I and my bad attitude squeezed onto the bus, harrumphed that nobody would offer my mother their seat when she's still not so stable after her hip replacement, and prepared to be a grumpy old bag all day.
And then we arrived. The sun was shining. A brass band were lining up to start the parade. The Salisbury Giant was on standby and chaps on stilts were getting ready to go. Dancers in weird costumes were preparing to frolic down the road. A whole slew of things from my childhood that I'd completely forgotten about came right back to me and in spite of myself I was grinning from ear to ear. The Cuckoo Fair princess was beaming with excitement and the pub was filled with late morning revellers. My grey cloud of grumpiness started to lift as I realised that maybe it wasn't going to be a complete disaster.
My parents led the way to the first set of stalls. Local people had come out of their homes, put up tables and were selling their unwanted items or things that they'd made especially for the fair. I found a woman selling knitted cup cakes that her daughter and granddaughter had made. Now how often do you chance across something that solves a problem that's been weighing on your mind? Not often. And how often is the solution to that problem to be found in a box full of knitted cup cakes? Even less often. I was undoubtedly the only passer-by who actually NEEDED 35 knitted cup cakes. I was about to leave for a celebratory dinner in Portugal to mark my team at work winning an award for launching a range of cup cakes last year. Small world!
I paid the lady the princely sum of £50 for my goodies and agreed to come back for them later. My parents worked out that there was no way we'd all be able to stay together in the crowd and proposed that we all meet up at the Co-op in 2 hours time. Suddenly the shopping bug had got me, the sunshine had gone to my head and I wanted to spend spend spend. Or if not spend, then at least do some pretty intense browsing. Why oh why had I not brought more money? In just 5 minutes from my arrival I'd spent half the money I had in my pockets. A feeling of mild despair descended. What would I do if the single item I most wanted in the world should appear before me and I hadn't enough cash? Hubby cheered me up by buying me a beautiful bracelet made of polished squares of fluorite which had been made by a tiny disabled woman in a fancy electric wheelchair. I was on the up again - what was I worried about when all these fabulous people were around?
Most of the stalls are laid out in a long line on the grass verge of the main road that runs through the village. Along this are sections in the open air and large marquees where people are selling stuff that's more weather sensitive. Branching off from the main drag are side routes to the school where there were more stalls, to a car park full of food vendors and in some stretches of the road, residents were selling from their front or back gardens. We shuffled forward amongst the stalls selling all sorts of odd stuff out doors before going under canvas to the first of the craft tents. I'd not go out of my way to go looking for people doing creative stuff with strange crafts but if it's there in front of me I'm happy to look.
Knowing I'd spent most of my money stopped me getting too carried away. Knowing that I'd have to carry anything and go home on the bus was an effective control mechanism too. At the far end of the village we came across the Co-Op store where we'd arranged to meet my parents. There were a couple of stages here with dancers and band performances. Several groups of Morris Dancers - including a women's Morris which is a rare sight - performed here as did a ladies clog dancing troop. When the dancing stopped a band started to play and it was fun to see that they'd all been singing for many years but sounded about 20 years younger than they were. Along the route we passed a brass band and a May Pole where local children were dancing. The line for the cash machine at the Co-Op was about half an hour long. Everyone else had come out without enough money and I wasn't the only one. I wasn't going to spend a valuable part of a sunny Saturday waiting for cash - I just stopped shopping.
We met up at 1 pm and went to look for food. My parents had already decided we were going to the Baptist Church hall for lunch - I think they must have checked out all the options. After eating we shuffled back through the crowds, collected a couple of paintings my husband had bought along the way, went back for my cup cakes and headed to the bus stop. The bus home was thankfully a lot emptier than the one we'd taken to the Fair. We were tired and a teensy bit sunburnt, our pockets were empty but we'd all had a good time. I'm still not quite sure how it took me over 30 years to find out what I'd been missing. Entry is completely free and it's a great day out for all the family - so long as none of them REALLY hate crowds.