Town & Country (UK)
THE SONG OF SUMMER
Wild dancing, river swimming and the revelry of regattas… the Season’s glories are best enjoyed outdoors, with a weather eye on the (hopefully) golden skies
In praise of festivals, frivolity and traditional British fun in the great outdoors
The Season represents the triumph of British optimism over the experience of our national weather. When there may only be a handful of fine days in a summer, we have to relish every moment spent outside. Even if it’s a little chilly, we love any excuse to put on our finery, pop a bottle of fizz and make merry. Because, let’s be honest, there’s nothing we like better than standing about in a field. For the duration, almost everything that’s worth doing in Britain takes place out of doors, from the Hay literary festival, through lawn tennis at Queen’s and Wimbledon, to Glyndebourne and Glorious Goodwood. In the case of Glastonbury (lying fallow this summer, but back for 2019), Wilderness and the rest, what’s popular is dancing to very loud music in a field. Sometimes a very muddy field. Rain may stop play, but when the heavens open we gather cheerfully in drenched pavilions or soggy tents and wait it out. (Has anyone else noticed how the inside of even the grandest marquee always gives off a faint smell of sausages?) Mud, mud, glorious mud is as much a part of the British summer as buckets and spades and Mr Whippy ices. Not for nothing do many of our national dishes taste of earth: think of river trout, Cornish new potatoes, grouse.
From the cool green lanes of May, frothing with cow parsley, to August’s redhot dahlia displays, the Season offers wonderful opportunities to explore the countryside. Giffords Circus, which pops up all over the Cotswolds, is a magical experience. With dogs on horseback and exotic jugglers, it reimagines the innocence and daredevilry of a Victorian not-very-big-top: if you’ve never been to Giffords, this is the summer to roll up, roll up.
A day at the races on a warm summer’s day is also hard to beat if you want to see some of the most beautiful, glossy young thoroughbreds – and that’s just the spectators. The flat season (or the hat season, for those who prefer to watch people) begins in early May at Newmarket; followed by the
NOTHING IS MORE EXHILARATING THAN STEPPING FROM THE BANK AND STRIKING OUT INTO THE SUNLIT STREAM
Derby, Royal Ascot, then Goodwood, nestling in the South Downs, and finally the marathon St Leger at Doncaster.
Yet you don’t have to leave the capital to experience the Season. The world’s most famous flower show, tennis and cricket all happen within the M25. A day at Lord’s is like being at the jolliest village fête, but in the middle of London. Nowhere in the world feels so safe, so cosy (although the haberdashery department of Peter Jones comes close).
For non-sporting bookworms, the Season also offers plenty of cultural opportunities. Book festivals have bloomed all throughout the land, from the world-famous Hay to the more intimate Ways With Words, held in the beautiful Devon setting of Dartington; or the Charleston Festival in Sussex, at the farmhouse made famous by Bloomsberries Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell. Port Eliot in Cornwall and Curious Arts in Hampshire feature as wide a variety of writers and musicians.
Wild swimming is also very much in fashion. The Serpentine and the Ladies’ Pond on Hampstead Heath attract bathers year-round, but immersion is even better in the countryside. River swimming is one of the great joys of the English summer. Once you’re at eye level, glorious sights come into view: dragon- and damselflies darning the air, families of ducklings hugging the bank and the occasional glimpse of a tiny, iridescent blue kingfisher. On our farm, we’re lucky to have woods and river meadows that border Shakespeare’s Avon, a hundred feet wide. Nothing is more exhilarating than stepping from the grassy bank, parting a carpet of water lilies to make your way, and striking out into the sunlit stream.
Water-lovers who prefer not to get their feet wet are well served by the Season, with Henley only one among a flotilla of regattas throughout the land. My own favourite is the Port of Dartmouth Royal Regatta, at the end of August. It’s much less formal than Henley, with a children’s pavement-artist competition (coloured chalks supplied), a pretty little funfair and the best fireworks outside China. Every year the Red Arrows make an appearance, swooping into the harbour like very noisy swifts, drawing pictures in the sky with their trails of rainbow smoke. When they sketch a vast heart, high in the blue air above the town, the whole populace sighs.
Enjoy yourself – and don’t forget to take your umbrella, just in case. ‘After the Party’ by Cressida Connolly (£14.99, Viking) is published on 7 June.