The Archers is real. I walked into the midst of it in Milverton a few weeks ago. A and I went with our friend L to visit her home in a village in Somerset. L’s mother is a popular children’s author and, even coming from Oxford, A and I acknowledged the utter unreality of life in a manor hour in Somerset during a week of fete-ing and festivities.
The Old House, as the Milvertonians call it, was once the house of the bishops of Taunton and Deane, including Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury from – to – during the reigns of Henry VIII and his son Edward, and executed under Mary. The house has recently come into some excitement as, during a remodelling, a rare mural of Henry – somewhat caricatured and perhaps hastily covered up when the political climate rapidly changed - was discovered behind the plastering in the hall. For the 10 Parishes festival and in tribute to the presence of Henry, L’s mother wrote a play dramatizing the King’s Great Matter, starring the village Amateur Dramatic Society and exhibiting it in the Hall, under Henry’s wary, challenging and somewhat syphilis-y eyes.
To walk into the hall, to look up to see Henry throned and imperious, one feels under the influence. All who walk into the hall, staring at the ruddy tints and curlicues and half uncovered evangelists, admit it.
The house was gorgeously anachronistic bric-a-brac of Tudor and modern, aesthetic and utilitarian. We arrived while the marquee was being set-up on the ‘tennis-court’ and were introduced to the locals, who had pitched in enthusiastically. A and I were Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, introduced in medias res to the vividness of village life. And having dream-sequence hours where the sounds of a harp floated through the air as we sit beside the fire in the library eating smores and strawberries and cream, watching the Brit cult classic Withnail & I.
On Saturday we greeted the sun, attended an African dance workshop, walked through a bean field and through an apple orchard, visited local artists, and met a Lady who sold antiques and said ‘chukken’ to describe the domestic fowl.
It culminated in a fantasy ball in the local assembly hall to the surprisingly groovy sounds of Louis & the Iguanas. I have this to say about Milvertonians: they can rock. Every person attending from ten to sixty years of age was dancing with all their might to funk, jazz, and R n’ B, without any self-consciousness or reticence. The actor from the King’s Great Matter, still in his padded Henry costume, meandered over to us around ‘Superstitious’ and waggled his feathered hat and pointed his buckled and festooned shoes. This same actor could not put off his costume, or his newly discovered Henryisms.
On Sunday the nearby village of Wivilescombe (or ‘Wivey’, to locals) was hosting a parade.
Without question, and with great desire for tea cosies, cream tea, luxurious antiques, bacon baps, local ciders, and little children dressed up like Vikings, St. George (and his dragon), and Darth Vader, we went.
And this is a tribute to Somerset village life: I recognized many people at the fair from Milverton, from Louis & the Iguanas, from African dance class, from putting up the marquee (I'm looking at you crazy curly-haired lady all in orange, dancing hard to ska on Saturday and at the head of the English dragon posse in turquoise on Sunday.) These are people who do things, who find village life and the community it offers significant. So they show up. Of course, many Milvertonians are newcomers. They have intentionally chosen to live here, and as such, are committed to making the most of it.
On Sunday evening we watched the play from the back of a very crowded hall full of people with double-barrelled names and arch accents and Midsomer Murders faces. One woman who couldn’t get a seat (tickets had been sold out for three weeks) walked to see the mural of Henry and said ‘One feels something when one looks at him, doesn’t one?’
And after the play, when the cast and guests were mingling and enjoying the thrill of victory, we huddled in the kitchen with tea and red wine and heard an impromptu concert from the magnificent local duo of violin and double bass from teenage brothers who had scored ‘The King’s Great Matter’ with the wonderful ‘God & My Conscience’. Ben and Alfie Weedon will go places.
And so suddenly, with a gust of wind, we were back in Taunton and onto a train. Back to reality - for today.
Spain to come.