Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Bee-keeping, the WI, baking and micro-breweries are all seeing an upsurge, could the village fete be next?

Could the village fete be the next in-thing?

Could the village fete be the next in-thing? - Credit: Archant

Deep in the leathery heart of old England something is stirring. It’s small as yet, but it’s discernible.

Take the Women’s Institute, for instance. Two years ago it enjoyed a 50,000 membership surge and has since continued to flourish.

Retired urbanites are keeping bees and chickens. Cake-baking and bread-making are on the upswing. Micro-breweries and craft beers are doing great business. Two weeks ago, Jane Peyton, the Beer Sommelier of the Year, declared that beer was better to drink with food than wine.

At present it feels like we’ve set the time machine controls for a destination somewhere between Heartbeat and The Good Life. The soundtrack has yet to be confirmed but whatever it is, many people seem to be listening to it on vinyl once again. Who could have predicted it? It is as if another, older nation, has suddenly burrowed up from the earth, to leave great anachronistic molehills in the middle of the future’s astroturf. What next? The return of the village fête? Don’t laugh. Only two weeks ago, I hinted in this very journal that since Glastonbury and Latitude had become rather expensive ways of sitting outdoors and listening to music, the village fete might be a model worth revisiting.

I mean a proper village fete, not an ersatz local version of Glastonbury. It’s now quite usual for smaller towns to imitate the bigger festivals by holding their own outdoor music weekend. Such events commonly feature groups of middle-aged guitar owners endeavouring to play gruffly authentic blues or similar Americana, all with varying degrees of competence.

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Most popular of all are music ‘tribute’ acts. Ingeniously named, as they sometimes aren’t, for me these are the musical equivalent of the moulded plastic Beatle wigs once sold in Woolworths for seven and sixpence. Filling the gaps between such acts will be young angst-ridden songwriters, mostly, singing ghastly threnodies detailing some recently scuppered love affair.

In an attempt to confer some sort of credibility on proceedings, such events may be given the suffix, ‘stock’, as in Woodstock. It’ll be interesting therefore, if the Essex village of Stock itself ever holds a music weekend.

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A short few years ago, one of the oldest of them all, the annual Wivenhoe May Fair or ‘Wivstock’ was forced, reluctantly to discontinue. For 17 years, during much of the 80s and 90s I’d acted variously as act, booker, stage-manager or compere. Burned out, I left just as health & safety, official meddling, alternative capitalism, and outside trouble came marching in.

Over its three decades the May Fair grew massively. From a few shambolic acts who’d once set up on the grass under a leaky old marquee, the Wivenhoe May Fair became an event which required a committee, weekly meetings, insurance, a security force, a larger outlay and most importantly of all, joined-up toilets. The old pavilion and public loos no longer being adequate, we hired portable loos.

Local oiks, in those final years, went to extraordinary lengths to sabotage these toilets before the event. They tried to push them over or damage them in some way. One year they even set fire to four of them. ‘Portaloo Sunset’ I called it at the time. Organisers were forced to mount an all-night watch on them.

Towards the end of its existence, little old Wivstock, once marshalled by a few female CND members, now had security fences, walkie-talkie radios, stewards – the whole package. The idiots, incidentally, who, typically, favoured super-lagers and white sports attire, now viewed Wivstock as a hunting-ground where they could pick off and injure hapless goths in the nearby woods. In an age which was Facebook literate, the Wivenhoe May Fair fell prey to its own popularity. Nobody wanted to volunteer any more.

What we needed, said a wise old former compere quite near to you, was something very much smaller: an event without tattooed men stomping around on flatbed trailers pretending to be rock gods. We needed only one small music tent, a tiny PA system and far fewer acts. There should be no proper bar, only a choice of two weak beers, both of them served warm. We needed, much as it pained me to admit it, a few folkies, plenty of children’s entertainment, bric-a-brac stalls and a big tea urn.

There should be no social networking, only a few last minute hand-drawn posters. What we were looking at, I suggested, a maniacal gleam in my eye, was nothing less than a reinvented village fete; a family event with no yob-appeal. Looks were exchanged. Was I being ironic? There was uneasy laughter.

Then, in the summer of 2013, artsy-tartsy Wivenhoe, twinned with Narnia, actually held a fete. It was a success. Last week, they held another one. There was (quieter) music. There were stalls. This fete also had a dog show, organised by Councillor Penny Kraft – Penny Kruft as she’s since been dubbed. Penny, a former Wivenhoe mayor, was a WI member during the 1980s when she was still in her glamorous early thirties. The WI was viewed as scandalously unhip back then. Now everyone wants to join – me included.

Was Councilor Kraft a visionary or not? You decide. All I know is that when a family trip to ‘Glastitude’ costs £1,000 upwards, why not hold a village fete instead? There’s tea, a lot less mud and at the end of the day you get to sleep in your own bed. Way forward, I reckon.

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