Spectator: Lucy Baring on village fêtes

You’ve got to start at the bottom and work your way up and, after 13 years of trying, I’d finally made it. I was on bric-à-brac at the village fête and one of my loftiest ambitions had been realised. In our earliest years here, I mentioned to Zam that I’d quite like to run the bottle stall. He looked at me with incredulity, explaining: ‘You’re at least five years away from that.’ I think I was attracted to the idea as, in my childhood, my mother had always run it and I loved every minute, mainly because I used to sit under the stall swigging the cherryade stock, mistakenly assuming that nobody noticed.

At our first fête meeting, it soon became apparent that, although some territories are jealously guarded, the bookstall was definitely up for grabs. It was also, clearly, the sick man of the fête and I didn’t put up my hand, opting instead to propose tentatively that we produce a bouncy castle, a suggestion that was greeted with enthusiasm.

The fête was, at that time, held in the gardens of a house that’s reached by the narrowest of lanes and I waited anxiously for delivery of the bouncy castle as 2.30pm approached. My heart sank at the sight of an enormous van, which couldn’t round the corner-the first whiff of disaster was in the air. Somehow, we all managed to hoist the castle over the wall and erect it in the garden.

I’d also had the bright idea of filling a small pop-up tent with piles of the hideous soft toys that have inevitably been accumulated by my four children. I blindfolded toddlers and thrust them into the ‘10p tent’, where they could grab anything they liked and keep it. It wasn’t long before parents were banning me from allowing their children another go as three year olds hugged slightly grubby satin unicorns to their chests.

This unpopular attraction meant that Zam was left to man the castle alone and he was having a traumatic time. Despite his pleas not to leave their children, parents popped their shoeless off-spring onto the castle and then disappeared to have tea, leaving him with a gaggle of toddlers plus the ones who were too big. Broken bones always seemed one bounce away. At the end of the day, we’d made £3.80 from the ‘10p tent’ and not much more from the castle.

Recommended videos for you

I think it was out of kindness, possibly pity, that we were encouraged to run it again the following year. I used the same firm and took up position on the lane. I waited and waited. I rang the castle firm and there was a long silence before Bob stuttered that he was filling up with petrol. He didn’t answer the phone again and the castle never arrived.

The fête had a year off, and when we gathered again, the political landscape had shifted with a new venue, new vacancies and new faces, including a great friend who had moved here some years after us and who said, without preamble, that she would like to run bric-à-brac. The sheer audacity of this move-which was met with unanimous approval -took my breath away but, somehow I managed to be picked to run it with her. We spent wine-fuelled evenings sorting through boxes, the pricing becoming more punchy by the glass.

Despite the warnings from old hands, nothing prepared us for the onslaught of eBayers in the opening minutes. Whenever there was a lull, I marvelled at one neighbour whose salesmanship is legendary. Skillfully ducking bullying tactics, he sold everything by attaching an amusing anecdote, so that each buyer went off wondering whether the red-plastic salad servers really had been used by Wellington’s first cousin’s manservant.

Meanwhile, Zam wasn’t having a nice time. At the end of the day, he declared that bouncy castles should be illegal and he would never man one again. I unwisely missed the next planning meeting and now find that I’ve been moved from bric-à-brac to duck racing. Every cloud, however: Zam has been promoted to the bottle stall.

* Follow Country Life property on Twitter

* Subscribe to Country Life and save; Get the Ipad edition