Posted in Events, Personal life, Writing

The Show Must Go On (Eventually)

cover of show schedule
The promise of the Village Show to come: the annual schedule

Anyone who has read my first Sophie Sayers novel, Best Murder in Show, will be familiar with the very English phenomenon of the annual Village Show.

At this action-packed event, locals display their home-grown fruit and vegetables, baking, handicrafts and sometimes livestock too. Often such shows include funfair rides, market stalls and organised entertainments in an outdoor arena.

A tea tent and a beer tent are always popular, and other catering options are likely to include a hog roast, a deer roast, a fish and chip van and ice-creams.

Hawkesbury’s Village Show

In the Cotswold village of Hawkesbury Upton, where I’ve lived for nearly 30 years, the Hawkesbury Horticultural Show, which takes place on the last Saturday of August, is generally acknowledged by villagers to be the social highlight of the year for all ages. The community is proud of the show’s credentials as the second-longest running of its kind in the country. Not even the First and Second World War managed to close it down.

Postponed until Next Year

So it was with great sadness last month that the Show Committee announced that the 2020 Village Show would have to be postponed until August 2021.

Postponed, please note, not cancelled, due to circumstances beyond our control – which means that our place in the record books will still stand.

The Village Show and Me

Over the years, I’ve been involved with the Village Show in many ways. Like most people in the village, we have submitted entries into the marquee for judging, winning prizes for all sorts of things. I’ve done particularly well in the knitting and crochet, but also once took the top prize for the oddest shaped vegetable!

inside pages of the show schedule
There are hundreds of categories you can enter in the Show, as these sample pages from the schedule demonstrate

 

photo of rosettes
Rosettes, proudly worn by show day winners, are kept for posterity and displayed at home year round

I’ve run stalls – for many years, a secondhand bookstall in aid of the village school’s PTA or youth club – and taken part in the carnival procession on floats and in groups on foot.

I’ve been the Queen of Hearts for an Alice in Wonderland team, with my husband as the White Rabbit and my daughter as Alice. I was the Chinese Ambassador in our family’s Pandamonium trailer, celebrating the arrival of Chinese pandas at Edinburgh Zoo. (My husband was the Scottish zookeeper in his kilt, my daughter, step-grandaughter and friends were pandas.) I’ve even been a St Trinian’s schoolgirl for one of the youth club floats. (I helped run the village youth club years ago.)

Photo of panda-themed float called Pandamonium
Our Chinese-themed entry for the carnival a few years ago (although every Show Day it’s pandemonium in our house)

A highlight for our family was when my daughter and her best friend were on the Carnival Queen‘s float, my daughter one of the attendants to her best friend, the queen. It was a historic day because for the first time the other attendant was a boy. It was the first year the random draw of the pupils in the top class of the village school included boys as well as girls. We’ve since had our first Carnival King.

The Man Who Knew His Onions

I also served on the Show Committee for 13 years. I didn’t realise it was that long until I resigned and was thanked for my long service. During that time, I was editor of its printed schedule, still produced today in the format that I designed. Show Committee meetings, which go on all year round, were always entertaining.

My favourite moment was a visit from the onion judge (all judges come from beyond the village, in the interests of fairness), who proudly showed us his onion rings – no, not the edible kind, but a shiny set of brass hoops used to gauge the precise dimension of each entry in his class. His father had used them before him, and possibly his grandfather too.

For the last few years, I’ve run a pop-up lit fest with a few guest authors promoting the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival, which takes place in April. The visiting authors have even volunteered as carnival judges.

photo of lit fest marquee
A A Abbott, one of the authors at the pop-up lit fest, kindly provided this photo featuring Lucienne and Gerard Boyce, now regular carnival judges

Bittersweet Connections

There are also poignant memories. My first husband, John Green, adored the show and carried off prizes for his home-made wine. He once took first prize for a bottle of potato wine that had earned second prize the year before. When he died in 2000, I donated the John Green Cup in his memory for best home-made wine. Seeing it awarded each year is a bittersweet moment.

I also arranged for a memorial trophy to be presented in memory of my friend Lyn Atherton, an early green campaigner who co-launched Hawkesbury’s recycling schemes. At the request of her widower, Clive, I sought out a secondhand trophy to be recycled into the Lyn Atheron Cup for a Useful Object Made from Recycled Materials. I found just the thing on my summer holiday in a curiosity shop in a tiny Scottish seaside town. When I told Clive where we’d got it from, he was astounded – that seaside town happened to be the site of their first ever holiday together. He had fond memories of barbecuing sausages on the beach there with Lyn, washing off the sand in the sea.

My second husband, Gordon, is the proud winner of the Lyn Atherton Cup, and my aunt and my father have also won this cup.

photo of wooden bench with trophy
The garden seat nade frin old pallets which won my husband the Lyn Atherton Cup last year

Eerily Quiet August

Every August, as the start of the Show week, seeing the bunting go up, crisscrossing the High Street, and hearing the rumbling of the funfair rides arriving in the village gets everyone excited as we put the finishing touches to our carnival floats and show entries. This year, the last week of August will seem strangely quiet, as it will in all the showgrounds around the country as Covid-19 makes such crowded events too high risk.

cover of Best Murder in Show
First in my Sophie Sayers series, set in high summer, was inspired by Hawkesbury’s annual show

In the meantime, if you’d like a flavour of a traditional English village show like ours, there’s always Best Murder in Show, which from now until after what would have been Show Day will be reduced to just 99p for the ebook, and there’ll be £1 off the paperback. It’s also now available as an audiobook at various prices on various platforms – currently a bargain at just £2.99 on Amazon’s Audible.

Buy the ebook online herebuy the paperback online here or order it from your local bookshop quoting ISBN 978-1911223139, and buy the audiobook from Audible here or from your favourite audiobook online store.

Posted in Personal life

Off the Garden Wall

nest of three glass dishesIn my column for the July issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, I addressed an ancient form of rural trading: the use of your front cottage garden wall as an impromptu shop counter. It’s a common sight in the English countryside to see home-grown produce sold this way, especially in times of summer surplus,with payment made via an honesty box. Where I live in the Cotswolds, and I’m sure in other rural regions all around the UK, lockdown has triggered a new twist on garden-wall trading – the free distribution of unwanted household goods.


Social media posts saying “It’s on my front wall” have become commonplace during lockdown.

As we declutter our houses, the front wall has been the closest we can get to a charity shop drop-off. This method has the added bonus of feedback. I was gratified to hear from a local boy’s mother how thrilled he was at the progress of the mint plant he’d adopted from me.

The prospect of free gifts in someone else’s front garden lured me out for my first village stroll after twelve weeks of shielding. I returned home with abundant bounty:

the perfect pot in which to store my kitchen knives

a small vase just right for the pinks I’m currently cutting every day

small pottery vase of pinks

a set of pressed glass dishes the colour of rosé wine that makes me smile every time I see them

trio of pink pressed glass bowls

and a planter just like the one I used to admire as a small child at infants’ school. (The less useful a memory, the better my recall.)

china planter with succulents

But the pleasure lies deeper than in the initial frisson of acquisition. What makes such trophies special is knowing the circumstances in which they have been given.

Antique dealers set great store by “provenance” – the record of an item’s ownership to show it’s genuine and honestly come by. The provenance of “off the wall” items is precious in a different way. Such things are being gifted, often to strangers, in a spirit of generosity fuelled by the extraordinary circumstances in which we find ourselves.

To me these items will always be souvenirs not of Covid-19 but of the kindness of neighbours and of their propensity to offer solace in a time of crisis.

I hope such exchanges continue long after lockdown is over. I for one intend to keep putting surplus items on my front garden wall, weather permitting. With the triffid-like growth of the mint in my garden, I should have plenty to go around.


Village Trading in Wendlebury Barrow

I haven’t yet used this idea in my village mystery series. In the fictitious village of Wendlebury Barrow, all shopping scenes take place either in Carol Barker’s village shop, where she stocks goods in alphabetical order to make them easier to find, and Hector’s House, the bookshop and tearoom where Sophie Sayers works. But I’m adding it to my ideas book for future use.

There must be a good mystery plot hinging on the mysterious appearance and disappearance of various goods on Sophie’s front wall!

Best Murder in Show against backdrop of Cotswold cottages

If you’ve not yet encountered Sophie Sayers, you might like to know that the sixth book, Murder Your Darlings, was launched at the end of February, and I’m currently planning the plot for the seventh, Murder Lost and Found.

Posted in Events, Personal life

All Change!

photo of window with teddies on the windowsill and blossom tree outside
My thoughts on lockdown – and the view from my bedroom window this morning

My column for the April 2020 issue of our community magazine, Hawkesbury Parish News, was written about a week after lockdown started and so included  my initial impressions of the positive changes it might bring to our lives.

As ever, I tried to keep my column lighthearted and upbeat. Now in the fourth week of lockdown, all that I wrote still rings true for me – although I’m not sending anything out in the post, as our precautionary self-isolation due to various health vulnerabilities in our household are precluding the short walk up to the post box at the centre of the village.

Our heroic village post office remains open, however, thanks to Dick, our selfless postmaster, as is the Hawkesbury Stores, our community village shop, aided by dozens of volunteers.

The other difference is that I gave my stash of fancy soaps and hand lotions to an appeal for toiletries for nurses in our local hospital – but the jewel-like blue of my cheap-and-cheerful Pears soap lifts my spirits every time I use it. 

Whatever is changing for you during lockdown, I send you my very best wishes.


The current restrictions, courtesy of Covid-19, are radically changing our lives. Much of these changes may linger post-virus, but, ever the optimist, I can see some good may come of it.

We will have learned to cherish luxury soap. Fancy bars that once ranked as unwanted Christmas gifts are coming into their own as we wash our hands many times a day. So much nicer than the usual squirt of washing-up liquid before I cook tea.

What’s not to love about the translucent glow of Pears’ soap?

We will have nothing but praise for delivery men, from old faithfuls like the milkman and the postman to the anonymous man in a white van. Forget the odd package or pinta left at the wrong house in the past. All will be forgiven. We’ll be happy to see a delivery man at all.

Our houses will be immaculate. With so much time at home, we’re sorting dusty shoeboxes of old photos and alphabetising our CD collections. We’re rearranging our books by author, by size, by topic or by colour – or all four, in turn. When charity shops reopen post-virus, they’ll be swamped with our discarded clutter.

interior shot of tidy walk-in larder
My larder has never been so tidy.

We’ll all have turned into vegetable gardeners. Our natural instinct to Dig for Victory is kicking in. This summer, we’ll no longer complain about a surplus of marrows. We won’t want to waste a speck of food after seeing so many empty supermarket shelves. The Hawkesbury Show 2020 will receive a record number of entries. We might even start our craft entries early, rather than finishing in a frenzy the night before Show Day.

Photo of crab apple tree in full blossom
The promise of apples to come – well, crab apples, anyway, from the most spectacular blossom tree in my back garden. (Plum and apple trees are behind it.)

The old-fashioned habit of sending letters and postcards will enjoy a lasting revival, despite the cost of postage. While the internet helps us connect with our loved ones, it’s much more special to receive a tangible show of affection from afar – well worth the price of a stamp. Bonus point: while we’re writing traditional letters and cards, we’re not frightening ourselves with misinformation online.

Photo of antique post office sign
Funnily enough, my house was once the village post office. (I found this sign in my back garden when I moved in and have since given it pride of place on my kitchen wall.)

With regard to correspondence, the soulless modern sign-offs “Kind regards” and “Best wishes”, or “Best” or even “BW” in abbreviation, will disappear. The evidence in my inbox this week suggests that in future emails and letters will end “Take care and stay well” – a sentiment sent from the sender’s heart.

And that is how I’d like to end this month’s column. Confined to my house as a vulnerable person for health reasons, I’m frustrated not to be out helping fellow villagers, as so many kind parishioners are doing now. I pledge to make up for it once I’m allowed out. You have been warned!

So for now, take care and stay well. This too will pass.

 

 


Special Offers on Escapist Reads to Lift Your Spirits

cover of Best Murder in Show
A fun story set in high summer in a classic English village
cover of Secrets at St Bride's
Mystery and mayhem in an eccentric English boarding school for girls

If you fancy a bit of escapist reading from life under lockdown, you might like to take advantage of two special offers currently running on the ebook editions of the first books in my two series of novels throughout the month of April.

 

The first in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, Best Murder in Show, is currently free to download on all ebook platforms worldwide.
Click here to nab your free copy.

My first St Bride’s School story, Secrets at St Bride’s, is currently reduced to 99p in most stores, including Amazon UK, Kobo, Apple Books and Barnes and Noble. (With apologies to Amazon readers outside of the UK – this promotion is being run by Amazon and is only on my home turf!)
Click here to buy your bargain copy.

Posted in Events, Personal life, Writing

The Comfort of Consistency

Photo of show schedule with first prize rosette
The schedule for the 2019 show is now available from Hawkesbury Stores and Hawkesbury Post Office to help you plan your entries

In my column for the July issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, I’m looking forward to this year’s Hawkesbury Horticultural Show on Saturday 31st August – a pleasingly longstanding village tradition and the social highlight of the village year for all ages

In an ever-changing world which seems to be lurching from one crisis to the next, it’s comforting to have some events in life that are dependably consistent – such as the imminent Hawkesbury Horticultural Show (Saturday 31st August).

Although each year the hardworking Show Committee announces a handful of carefully considered changes to the schedule – a new category here, changed criteria there – part of the joy is that on Show Day, the essential formula remains the same.

cover of Best Murder in Show with Amazon bestseller flag
The Hawkesbury Horticultural Show, on whose committee I served for thirteen years, was the inspiration for my first novel – although of course the novel is a complete work of fiction. We do not have any murders at Hawkesbury Show!

But I wasn’t aware of just how true to tradition our Show is until my father recently brought to my attention an extract from a book published privately around 1950, Life in a Hampshire Village by Kathleen E Innes. Her description of St Mary Bourne’s village show at the turn of the 20th century could almost be of the present day Hawkesbury equivalent, without the influence of modern technology and the rise of equal rights for women!

… the village Flower Show was the great summer event. A marquee was hired to protect exhibits from sun, wind and weather and beside it in the field there arrived the day before the show, a fair, with all the traditional equipment of roundabouts, swings, coconut shies and wonderful sideshows… Pennies saved up for months soon vanished in rides on the shiny-painted horses of the roundabout, which went round and round to the droning music, working up to what to the riders seemed a terrifying speed… Amid shrieks and laughter, boat-shaped swngs were worked up to a height far above the horizontal, till it seemed as if the occupants must fall out, but they never did…

Judging took place in the morning, and the judges, who came from outside, did not see the names of competitions till the decisions were taken. Then the cards with names were turned face upwards, ready for the rush of excited entrants as soon as the tent was open in the afternoon. Gardeners had separate classes to prevent them, through any unfair advantage, carrying away all the prizes, but many a non-gardener’s exhibit would have gained the award even in the gardener’s class.

There was always a class for cakes, and a dish of boiled potatoes “to give the women a chance”, but on more than one occasion the prize for the best cake was borne away by a boy who had made up his mind to be a chef…

The scene inside the tent was gay and colourful. Vases of mixed flowers, the best table decorations, bowls of roses, sprays of sweet peas, were placed to meet the eye on entering. Classes of vegetables were in their allotted places on long tables round the edge – marvellous marrows, spotless and shapely potatoes, peas and beans with pods full from top to toe; cabbages solid as cannon balls, cauliflowers round and comely, carrots long and straight. All these were set out as an inspiration and a challenge. Their owners hovered with pride near at hand to hear the freely-expressed envy and admiration.

When the exhibits were removed and the tent left empty, the fair went gaily on till the summer nightfall, the monotonous music of the roundabouts inviting all and sundry to stay and make an evening of it, for it would be gone on the morrow. It was late before even the tired and happy children went to bed.

That nostalgic description has whetted my appetite for the 2019 Hawkesbury Show – now I’m off to find the schedule and start preparing my entries. See you at the Show next month, whether or not my name graces any prize certificates!

Photo of interior of village show schedule showing details of vegetable class entry requirements
We don’t do things by halves in Hawkesbury Upton

Everyone’s welcome at the Hawkesbury Horticultural Show – come and join us on Saturday 31st August for a day to remember! I’ll be in the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival tent, near the playpark and the Pimms stall fun by the Friends of St Mary’s (another committee that I’m on!) More details on the show’s website at www.hawkesburyshow.org

Photo of reader talking to author in show tent
Meet the authors in the Hawkesbury Upton Lit Fest tent at the show (Photo of my mum talking to historical novelist David Penny by another Festival author, Mari Howaqrd)

Join My Mailing List & Receive a Free Ebook

To be among the first to know about my new booksspecial offerscoming events and free downloads, just type your email address into the box above and click the grey button. You’ll also receive a free download of a short novella, The Pride of Peacocks, a lighthearted quick read in the Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series, available exclusively to my subscribers. I promise I won’t share your email address with anyone else and you may unsubscribe at any time. Thank you!

Posted in Personal life, Writing

The Red Van and the White

Photo of antique post office sign
Ironically, my house was at one point the village post office. I found this sign in my back garden when I moved in and have since given it pride of place on my kitchen wall.

My column from the March 2019 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News considers the courier vs the postman

Having lived in the village for nearly 30 years, I tend to forget how bewildering city-dwellers find it that so many houses round here don’t have door numbers. Urban courier drivers’ hearts must sink when Hawkesbury Upton crops up on their route for the day.

Knowing a house’s postcode isn’t as helpful as one might think, as each code covers an average of 15 properties. When you’re a delivery driver working against the clock, 15 is a lot of houses to check to find the right one. No wonder our parcels so often end up being left at the wrong place.

Word seems to have got out amongst couriers that I work from home, because lately I’ve had a spate of puzzled delivery drivers knocking on my door during the day to ask for directions to a house of one name or another. Although even I may not know every house name, if they tell me the person’s name I can usually point them in the right direction.

But sometimes even that’s not enough to satisfy them. One poor courier was almost in tears of disappointment and disbelief when I refused to accept the gas boiler he’d been trying to deliver to a number of houses, none of them correct.

This is why these days when ordering something on line, I choose standard Post Office delivery, because I know we can trust our village posties to get it right. Although they might have trouble fitting a gas boiler through my letterbox.

Postscript After reading this post in his copy of the Hawkesbury Parish News, heroic villager Terry Truebody emailed me to say he has created a Hawkesbury Upton A-Z, which he’s recently updated to include the newest houses in the village. Very generously, he’s willing to share it with anyone who might find it helpful. so I’m including a link to a download of it here. Thank you, Terry – couriers and villagers will all be very grateful to you.

Cover of All Part of the Charm

 

Like to read more of my columns from the Hawkesbury Parish News?

Here’s a collection from 2010-2015, available in paperback and as an ebook.

The second volume will be out at the end of 2020.