The best month to hold a village fair, surely, is June. Across the country thousands of local fetes are scheduled for a Saturday in June, hopeful that glorious weather will lead to a memorable celebration. Some Saturdays, some years, that works. The sun comes out, the community comes together and everything runs to plan. Other years, alas, the weather conspires against. Saturday 15th June 2013 was one of those.
They've held a fair in Highgate for hundreds of years. This was 1744.
“This is to give notice, that Highgate's Fair will be kept on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday next, in a pleasant walk in the middle of the town. On Wednesday a pig will be turned loose, and he who takes it by the tail and throws it over his head shall have it.”
These days the fair takes place in Pond Square, round the back of the High Street. This open space is surrounded by million pound houses, in a cosy Georgian cottage kind of style. At other times of year the residents consider gating their communal green to keep the yobs out. On the third Saturday in June they fling out a wide welcome to 100s of stalls and community groups and throw the party of the year. And it's a good 'un.
This being Highgate, the stalls at The Fair In The Square have a somewhat upmarket feel. Artists with £60 prints of watercolours, designer jewellers shivering in the cold, ladies selling multicoloured togs for toddlers, that sort of thing. But yesterday there was also a coconut shy and a vintage carousel, a Punch & Judy and a bloke shearing sheep. New for 2013 a land train chugged down the street to the church and back, seemingly driven by a thumbs-up clown, filled with small kids and dutiful parents. Even the hot dogs were inventively seasoned, and the griddled chicken came in a ciabatta roll with organic salad. They do village fetes well in Highgate Village, but they can't control the rain.
The weather was temperamental, frequently damp, as the afternoon progressed. Sensible locals turned up with brollies and waterproof jackets, whereas those who'd been here since the setting-up phase in the morning looked less well prepared. All the stalls had striped awnings offering protection to those doing the selling, whereas prospective purchasers weren't always so fortunate. But they trooped round all the same, chatting politely as the showers fell, and smiling broadly during rare spells of sunlight.
And then it proper poured. It probably did that too wherever you were too, somewhere around four o'clock, as a violent line of showers crossed the capital. The pavement bounced with raindrops, relentlessly, as umpteen umbrellas fired upwards. There was nowhere to run. The plane trees in the square offered vague shelter, but nothing substantial enough to make a difference. On the main stage the Leominster Morris Men carried on dancing as the watching crowd dwindled rapidly to a few hardy souls.
One bonus, the queues at the Highgate Pantry cake stall died away and I managed to get to the front line. Unfortunately I had to wait for the lady next to me to be served, and she seemed to be buying an entire patisserie. Worse she still had her umbrella up, despite being under the shelter of the canopy, in that paranoid way some women have when their hairdo might possibly get damp. She wielded her weapon with total disregard, sometimes towards my face, at other times dangling raindrops above the entire range of cakes laid out across the stall. I survived her lengthy onslaught and ended up with a squidgy apple tart, quite delicious but at possibly mortgage-level prices.
And by then the rain had sort of died down, and the crowds sort of ebbed back. The Highgate Choral Society took their place on the main stage, and the Sheep Show kicked off down by St Michael's Church. But there didn't seem to be a lot of trading going on at the various stalls, and the village fete atmosphere hadn't quite survived. It could have been a glorious afternoon out, but 2013 conspired against.
* Legend has it that Pond Square is haunted by the ghost of a chicken. That'd be the world's first frozen chicken, which was the unwitting cause of death for Jacobean philosopher Francis Bacon. He was riding down Highgate Hill in a carriage discussing food preservation, as you do, and leapt out to prove a point by buying a chicken and stuffing it with snow. Unfortunately he caught hypothermia and died a few days later, hence the appearance of the phantom fowl over the ensuing centuries. Yeah right.
** Highgate's lovely, isn't it. And particularly Waterlow Park. I'd never visited before, but this hillside green space is delightful. It was created from the grounds of five large houses, one of which survives as a historic cafe. There's enormous variety within its 26 acres, including three ponds, a nature reserve and a proper kitchen garden. Highgate Cemetery runs alongside, but this is much more open, and with views from the top of the Gherkin, Shard and St Paul's. It's the contours and mature trees that make Waterlow Park special, clearly landscaped by Victorian landowners not council planners. But perhaps best visited when the sun's out.
*** Did you not spot that The Fair In The Square was on? These one-off suburban events are damned hard to spot in a capital whose majorlistings focus relentlessly on Zone 1, ticketed events and food. Time Out didn't mention the Fair in their magazine, and buried its listing so deep in their database that a search didn't bring it up. There are other placesto look, thankfully, but I do despair at London's inability to curate a proper long-term list of "special stuff, across the capital, taking place for one day/weekend only". Today's the Marylebone Summer Fayre and Streatham Common Kite Day, by the way, if you're interested.