Country garden fair

The following is part of an article with appeared in The Ringing World Christmas edition 2004.

The gardens at Chevening House are opened three times a year. Charities, especially local ones, are welcome to put forward bids to host one of these openings and take any profits. Sounds easy, but the requirements include organising third party insurance for at least £5 million, hiring loos, manning car park and gate(s), organising a First Aid post, advertising . . . and managing not to make a loss even if it rains all afternoon.. The Brasted band held a meeting and decided to take the plunge. Egged on by a local Chevening ringer who'd run one there already and promised to share her experience, we decided to aim to run a Country Garden Fair. In October we heard from the Secretary of the Trustees of the Chevening Estate that we had been successful in our bid — we felt jubilant, but knew we'd let ourselves in for something — just how do you use a huge lawn, a lake, a maze, a croquet lawn, a flower garden and acres more besides?

We knew there were some fixed costs that would have to be paid whatever happened. So, to cover these, we were advised to find outside stallholders who would pay to come with a nonreturnable fee in advance. We were very fortunate that a Sevenoaks ringer, who is also a talented and enthusiastic musician, volunteered to bring a much appreciated woodwind ensemble to play on the tea lawn, which was well away from the mini-ring, so we didn't have to go for a silver/brass band. Meanwhile we had used the mailing list from the previous Fair and began to receive £15 booking fees. They weren't coming in fast enough though and so we all contacted everyone we knew, and didn't know, who might like to bring a stall. Some were even gleaned by chatting up suitable stallholders at the Country Living Spring Fair in Islington.

Our major attraction was to be the Bell Meadow Belfry. This was to be delivered to us but we needed to store it safely for a few days (we were able to use a stable at Chevening House — a secure place if ever there was one) and then deliver it on to the Sussex ringers at the county show ground at Ardingly (our ringing farmer just happened to have a covered trailer big enough). We were going to let the public of all ages have a go (for a fee) and so capable and willing ringers had to be cajoled into booking the day to come and help, which of course they willingly did. This was not really intended as a money spinner — more as publicity for ringing.

We wanted other attractions which were there just to draw the crowds. A friend with contacts managed to secure a display by the Dog Section from HMP Belmarsh. They needed a lot of space to chase "prisoners" etc, while not endangering the public. Someone offered to do fly casting demos for us — what else could we do with a large shallow lake with fish, ducks and swans?

Then we planned our own stalls. Someone went out begging raffle prizes — her greatest success here was a mountain bike, but she also with great persistence managed to get a hire company to loan us a bouncy castle for free. Someone else started organising a cake stall and getting Brasted parishioners to contribute — our band was already doing a monthly cake stall at the village market, so there was no chance we could bake much for this event. We ordered ice creams and planned to sell our own notecards and our organist's CDs. Some people offered to run stalls for us. One Chevening ringer would run a bric a brac stall and Gift Aid us her profits while another offered to lend us his trusty slide, which ran child-carrying trolleys down a track. An Otford ringer would bring his ongoing secondhand bookstall. Even non-ringers volunteered — a facepainting friend of a friend would bring her family and, for PR purposes, an older lady disguised as a zebra. The maze (50p a visit) would be manned all afternoon by a non-ringing family from Brasted. Everyone just seemed to be keen to join in.

Face painting 1 Face painting 2
Face painting underway Face painting with Zebra Lady

Protection from the elements had to be thought of too. But we didn't want to have things ruined by a bit of drizzle either. We'd told paying stallholders that they needed to bring their own shelter, but protecting the mini-ring was something different though — we needed at least a four metre cube but the bells were at the top and needed to be seen. Marquees were out — they just didn't seem to come the right shape, never mind the price. Then, by chance, as some of us pondered the problem, a local builder visited about something else — someone happened to mention the dilemma and he took up the challenge. On Friday three vans turned up at Chevening and half a dozen builders set about erecting us a scaffolding structure to hold a tarpaulin roof over the necessary space on the croquet lawn.

Advertising was absolutely vital too. We realised that one of our problems was trying to attract a large number of people for a one-off event. We tried to make it sound interesting, changing the copy as more attractions were confirmed. We advertised everywhere we could — parish magazines, any local publications who'd take a free ad and some who wouldn't, local radio (though we never had time to check whether they featured it), local shops (even spent a day driving around south London begging shops to put up notices), village notice boards for miles around, libraries in a 15 mile radius . . . Just in time we found out that Otford runs a major annual village fete for charity attracting around 4000 people — and it was to be the weekend before ours. We invested £35 in an ad in their programme. We put piles of A5 fliers anywhere we could — shop counters, backs of churches . . . We even sent them to stallholders to distribute in their home areas.

Ten days before the event we started putting "lawn boards" on strategically placed local grass verges — all quite illegal of course. One of the bravest things we did was to spend £316 in the week before on a 3x4 inch colour display ad in the local paper — we decided that we dared because it looked as though the weather was going to be OK and so it would pay off, but it was risky. The night before we put direction boards on nearby road junctions — mostly hammered into the ground, but one actually hanging from an official sign board at a major junction — even more illegal probably.

Sunday dawned bright and we gained access to the gardens as the Chevening ringers were ringing some excellent call changes for a service — things looked good. Experts arrived to erect the Bell Meadow Belfry under the purpose-built scaffolding. Stalls began to grow in their allotted places, delivered by cars driving in the right directions along their allocated routes and avoiding the lawn edges. Ringers from local towers arrived bearing boxes (for teaching little people on the mini-ring). The 33 outside stallholders began to arrive and set up shop; the marshals did a brilliant job and again no one drove over lawns or came to blows over their pitches, which were in fact indisputably marked out by a double avenue of trees. And still the sun shone . . .

As the opening time drew near, we heard it was going to be necessary to open up early — the queue of cars had got too far down the road and was blocking the village street! From then on cars came in steadily until at one point it was feared the car park would fill up completely; the enormous lawn filled up with people, about 1800 of them altogether. All seemed to be enjoying themselves. We sold out of ice cream; the local ladies sold out of cake for the teas; everyone seemed to do more business than expected.

Bell Meadow Dogs Maze
Much activity at Bell Meadow Police dog demonstration The maze

One of the nicest images to remember was of the lad who'd won the mountain bike in the raffle riding round and round the lawn — which had cleared a bit by then. He'd bought his own ticket quite near the end, written only his name, "Richard", on it and gone off for a cup of tea. Fortunately someone remembered and he was found.

Perhaps the greatest regret was that the mini-ring was so busy all afternoon that they never found time to do the planned real ringing, both for fun and as a demonstration. However we know of three really small children of ringers, who went away determined to learn when they were bigger and one child and one adult who are already learning.

When it was all over, everyone cleared up and went almost as efficiently as they arrived. On the way home we played fair by removing all lawn boards and signs — so they were all gone within hours of the event closing. A few days later there was no evidence that the event had ever happened.

It took two days to count the money and work out what to do with it all. There were many bills etc to pay. Then it seemed to take most of the next fortnight to thank everyone, one way or another, for all the help we had been given in so many ways. It certainly could not have happened without them all.

Although they were sent out in June, the final cheque was only cleared in November, thus confirming the final profit for the event as £5,252.01.

Queue for ice cream Dosh
The ice cream queue just before the stuff ran out The pile of dosh at about 2am after counting (it was £5689.52)

Click here to return to the rehang page.