A beery fug over hangs the welly throwing competition, which is being run by a group of Young Farmers at one end of the garden. Queuing to have a go, I chat to a Young Farmer about the large wooden catapult (the size of a couple of washing machines) which, he explains, he has made with his mate to win a bet. We lean against the catapult eyeing cars parked in the next field and discussing which one we might try and hit with a bag of flour. Catapulting bags of flour up into a blue sky, and watching them arc gently towards a parked car is a happily idle thought for a Saturday afternoon. What if the car was moving, I ask? Might we target a soft-top?
Here’s another question: does Marden host the best fête in Wiltshire? This one was posed by one of my sons as we had cycled along the Millennium Path between Wilsford and Marden. We had eaten al fresco hot dogs and cornettos for lunch and morale was high. The boys had money to spend, and knew they were making good progress towards an event at which sweets could be purchased freely and with patchy parental supervision. The girl did not have money but being three she did not expect it and anyway she was (rightly) confident she could count on her father to buy her something. And my wife and I were fondly remembering that when we had last made this journey – to watch the Marden Dog Gymkhana, we had seen Hollywood A-lister Tommy Lee Jones (Fugitive, No Country For Old Men) leaning on a post-and-rail fence watching the Dog Agility Show. He had worn a bemused smile on his creased face. Who, we speculated, might we spot today?
We lean our bicycles against a hedge. At the garden gate a friendly man wearing a straw hat and photo chromic glasses charges us an admission fee, a reminder that this fête is not just about fun: a village has bills to pay and good causes, like every village Marden draws us to its fête so that it might – in the gentlest and most charming of ways – take our money. We pay and we are allowed in. We know the score.
The best fête in Wiltshire? Marden has all the key ingredients, starting with a square manor house, perfectly handsome in rose-coloured brick and looking out across parkland studded with great trees and providing elbow room for a display of ancient and exotic cars – Aston Martins, Morgans, Rileys, Austins, Land Rovers – their metalwork ticking away in the afternoon heat. A white flag pole sporting a Union flag.
A grand lawn is a crucial ingredient, and this one spreads like green water between specimen trees and oval islands of roses. And marquees of white canvas open to the crowds and peopled by the smiling men and women of Marden selling Victoria Sponge cake and cups of tea and pints of Pimm’s. A brass band and a coconut shy and a single wicket competition. A Cedar of Lebanon to throw shade. Sunshine. And a generous host, who was my A-Lister spot of the afternoon. Nick Taylor and his wife Gay have allowed Marden’s fête to take place in their garden for 10 years and, he told me, absolutely delighted and a little horrified at the scale of their luck, never once had bad weather. Nick and Gay’s generosity pervades the fête. Kind and popular hosts are perhaps the most essential ingredient of all.
Nick and I are interrupted by a tall man striding past us; he is repeating himself into a loud hailer. “Mad Pete is about to begin his magic show under the yew tree. Mad Pete is about…” The children, now lunatic with sugar, run after him yelling loudly. I return to the welly throwing, where I have recorded the longest throw. I am still just ahead, and lean against the catapult watching a broad-shouldered friend heft the welly too high and behind him, into the rafters of a horse chestnut. I try not to look pleased. The catapult manufacturer promises to call me if I have won – there is a bottle of wine at stake. I give him my mobile number and patting the catapult, head off to find Mad Pete.