On ‘home’ again: among the geese and sheep in the cattle market

I’m about to leave again. I’ve been in Devon for a month, on a hare-paced pit-stop. Sitting in my driver’s seat in the dark and opening my laptop feels reassuringly like being on the road. I’m parked up in a mechanic’s yard – also reassuringly like being on the road, but with the warm knowledge that my good friend, who has just helped my three-month-long boiler frustration conclude, will fix my fridge tomorrow and send me off.

During my month in Devon, which feels happily like a visit, I’ve caught up with some of my favourite people, sadly missed others, and done a couple of impromptu photoshoots. This one was going to have a ‘Devon harvest’ theme…

…but went a bit Gaucho, again…

I’ve done *some* of the bureaucracy I should have, and traded at my first market event with the woves.

I was invited to sell my wares at the cattle market at Goose Fair. Goose Fair completely takes over Tavistock for the second Wednesday in October, closing many of the roads and all the schools. Once a purely livestock sale, it now consists of a funfair and hundreds of stalls of plastic tat with pro salesmen whose theatrical pitches are almost worth watching in their own right. There are churros stands, burger vans and candy floss, but the goldfish of old are scarce or absent – are they still even legal? How many did you flush down the loo in your childhood?

Anyway, I’m not expecting to sell many expensive British-made weavings, but I’m drawn to trading here because it is ordinary: not the top end artisan glamour of the Contemporary Craft Fair; not the arty sophistication of cultured Chagford; but full of local, rural and Plymothian folk. I’m not among the plastic stalls, but among the poultry at the cattle market. The geese shout their heads off all day, poor loves.

Geese White geese

The organiser hopes apologetically that I don’t mind being beside a penful of sheep. I grin, and tell her that that is why I agreed to come, because that is where I feel comfortable. Admittedly none of us had allowed for cow shit on the floor and railings behind our stalls, but someone produces some wet wipes (aaargh!) and it’s fine.

There are spinners and dyers and felters and Dartmoor Whiteface people and Dartmoor Greyface people and Jacob’s people, and we are a little showcase of British wool. Not surprisingly I am often invited to be part of events that promote hill farming in general, and sheep rearing in particular. I love wool, and loathe synthetic fleece. Farmers too often leave fleeces to rot, and if they sell them, are unlikely to cover the £2 per animal annual shearing cost. I am all in favour of Britain as producers and manufacturers, more than importers. I’ve always lived in farming country and feel concern for both animal welfare and struggling hill farmers’ welfare. Farmer neighbours have done me many a kindness over the years. And yet, when I watched the film of Huxley’s The Island, where human clones are farmed for their organs, I suddenly saw farming as a dark concept – though I still kept animals myself and my smallholding dreams are probably only dormant, not dead.

My mum, who brought me up vegetarian and who has now gone vegan while I’ve gone the other way, is a fierce voice of Monbiot ilk, and I too sympathise with rewilders and those who would see our moors empty, or at least emptier, of grazing animals so that they might reforest rather desertify. I also sympathise with certain ex-vegetarian friends who point out that the hill ponies offer the leanest, most natural, organic meat from animals with a very-nearly-wild life. At about midday I am filmed trying some pony meat. I talk to the camera about the many reasons why my first taste of horse is a challenge, and fear that I am betraying not only my equine friends but my veggie friend who runs a rehoming and training charity to promote the use of hill ponies for riding, driving and pack rather than for handbags or zoomeat in a dead market where farmers get just a few pounds per pony, on a good year, and shoot the ‘surplus’ that doesn’t sell. Thankfully many people are trying to make a positive difference for all in this sad situation. Meantime we all do our best, and rub along.

I have a lot of stock, and enjoy unwrapping it all to lay it out proudly on tables around my loom, which I’ve brought to demonstrate. Beside my stall stands my sentry willow sculpture mannequin that a kind ex helped me make years ago for displaying the upcycled dresses I used to design. Before I’ve finished setting up I’ve had to dig into my box of incomplete woves for a lovely, tiny, humble Quaker woman I know who buys a small piece of blanketry as a back-warmer to lie on. Later in the morning another humble character borrows cash from his friends to buy my Emerald Isle scarf for himself. Both sales surprise me, and I am pleased. There is a constant stream of people who look closely at my woves and take cards and give compliments. At least three lovely women take pictures of the stall and ask to publish them on their blogs, or in one case, a local rag, and I am delighted. I meet Seth Lakeman’s violin teacher, who promises to give me a weaving contact in County Sligo. I see old friends, neighbours and acquaintances. We are well looked after. It is a good day, and I am glad that it can work in such an unpretentious setting.

Afterwards I have a date with a ten year old on the dodgems, which are bumper cars as far as we’re concerned. We eat candy floss, chips and sweets. ‘Scream for speed!’ Young memories of 2CV soft tops and Landrover backs open to the stars on fast journeys home to ‘Tunnel of Love’ mean I always love the noise and lights and shadows of the fair.

And now I am ready for my winter destination: Brittany, tomorrow.


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