From London to Surrey to Ardingly, Philip Moss braves the last one-dayers of the season and even finds a few things to smile about
I cannot believe it is autumn again. As I lie back on my army-issue sleeping bag, listening to the rain dislodging still more rusty metal from the LDV, I take stock. Not literally, obviously. That sort of thing takes place in March after winter starvation and cabin fever.
What a year it has been. Spring, with its bountiful showers, saw the LDV suffer from structural rising damp for the first time. Summer saw atypically hot weather drive any thought of leather goods from the mind of the average punter, shooter or not. With my customer base mesmerised by ice cream vans and cider vendors, selling anything made of leather to the Great British public was a tall order.
Then there were the year’s commercial ventures. I took a stall at the Nails Market in the historic heart of Bristol to find that people in suits could ignore leather goods just as easily as people in camouflage. If anything, I found that street market trading isn’t as productive as game and country fairs.
So God knows why I decided to try Covent Garden. Everything about the Apple Market in Covent Garden was perfect – apart from the level of sales. The pitch was great. The footfall fabulous. The organisation helpful and positive. The pitch fee, at around £50 a day, was fair. The other traders were kind, helpful and entertaining in equal measure. The problem is that footfall is not the same as spend. Thousands of office workers and tourists passed through the old market building, but they were all doing something else and not in buying mode. The only exception to this rule? Scandinavians – thank God for them! Most of my sales were to Norwegians, Swedes and Danes and American Midwesterners, who seem closely related. I do not inquire why. I am just grateful.
Central London is not known for being a hotspot of cheap living, but my only other abiding memory of Covent Garden is just how much less everything cost than in the rarefied atmosphere of a country event. A five-pound note (for traders with memory problems, that’s the little blue-green one) buys you a full English fry-up with toast and tea or coffee in comfortable, air-conditioned premises, the commercial rates for which must be horrendous. At recent shows I have attended, a five-pound note (for traders with memory problems, that’s the little blue-green one) bought you two and a half cups of pretty awful tea. Combine one cup of this with a stale bap with two meagre rashers of bacon inside it, and you are looking at close to seven pounds.
Come on, show organisers – think of the humanity! You can do better than this. Get rid of concessions and do the local economy some good by getting local food sellers in.
So, off to Hatton Country World for the Countryside Alliance Warwickshire Countryside Day Out. Snappy name, and a snappy show – it and, I am told by other traders, its sibling in Hampshire the preceding week were really enjoyable. Not a huge amount of trade, but each year the footfall gets better. The shows are a great reminder of the country sports and activities we can look forward to in the coming winter months. The pitch fee is reasonable and more than justifies the effort required for one-day shows. I was pleased to see a parade of hounds (otter, blood, beagle and fox), having lost most of the year to kennel cough (the hounds, not me). The Sealyham terrier pack was also a riot.
The following week and it’s off to Surrey, the most underestimated rural county in the country (according to the man on the tannoy), for the Surrey Ploughing Match. Last year was a washout. This year the show was back on track, if a bit smaller. Good demos in the ring included some excellent lurcher racing. The weather was blowy but dry.
I managed to lose most of the morning thanks to an overly enthusiastic approach to the previous evening’s dinner. The Withies pub is within walking distance of the show and has an excellent choice of game and claret (in halves). Dining here has become something of a show tradition. But the five stiff gins on my arrival and the post-prandial bottle of port were innovations never to be repeated. The walk back to the showground in the dark took hours and involved (not necessarily in this order) unsteadiness, a collision with an iron gate, the conviction that I had lost my keys somewhere along the pitch-black footpath, a sudden realisation, supported by voices off, that I could not sing in tune, the discovery that a large dog had recently used the path as its latrine, night-terror that I was being stalked by Nick Clegg, getting lost, shouting for help at buildings which I thought were houses but were, on closer inspection, electricity substations cunningly disguised as houses, and the almost inevitably uncontrolled sobbing when alcoholic depression set in. Despite this, the show went well and the pleasant crowd of polite grown-ups and kids bought enthusiastically.
And so to Ardingly and the Autumn Game Fair. Known and feared by traders for its appalling weather, this show is best approached in a heavily sedated state. Previous years have seen this event turn into Gatwick Game Fair, at which tents are prone to taking off every 90 seconds in high winds and cyclone-style downpours. Set-up day did not augur well with a brisk wind and a few showers. Many traders set up their stands and then hunkered down in their vans with food and drink, waiting for the onslaught.
But onslaught came there none. The weather on the eve of the show was so pleasant, I even risked a walk to The Gardener’s Arms at the show ground’s gate – where, with cider at £5 a pint, few gardeners were in evidence. Both days started painfully slowly, but as the fine weather settled, the crowd increased.
It’s good to see shows that have been rained off in earlier years making a strong comeback. The stand numbers, from observation, seemed to be down a little, but they will recover. Organisation was excellent, facilities good, staff helpful and informal – there was none of the officiousness seen at other events on this site. I am pleased to keep this on my list for 2014.