Hat Fair 2015 by Christina Cummings

Hat Fair 2015 by Christina Cummings

The first weekend in July is sacrosanct. Locals notice subtle signs long before the festival begins. ‘Astro-turf and deck chairs have appeared in front of our salon!’ said Winchester resident and hairdresser Nicola Goodall. ‘It must mean Hat Fair madness coming soon!’

Those who travelled in by train were greeted with an exclusive performance by Flintlock Theatre as they stepped onto the platform. The tragicomic tale of a doomed romance gave an unexpected glimpse of things to come.

This year, instead of one-programme-fits-all, there were five audience guides created for First Timers, Culture Vultures, Mad Hatters and Thrill Seekers. Families with tots were also catered for with an activity tent to explore. I decided to select a few acts from each category and anything else would be a bonus as I wandered round. This historic city had once again become transformed, sprinkled with magic and surrealism with nods to Dickens, Dali and Dr. Seuss.

Winding their way through the streets, school children joined the opening parade, proudly waving handmade willow birds that came to roost on the railings of the Cathedral’s Inner Close. Then things took flight; Morning Clubbing at The Brookes, a poetry pitch and pianos down on Parchment Street, woodland crafts with Spinney Hollow, yarn bombing, crazy golf and Hat Fair Fringe provided an eclectic accompaniment to the Hatting Acts. French Canadian, Mr. Banana (aka Pierrick St. Pierre) juggled battered bowler hats, tossing them into the hands of those who’d gathered round. Enlisting the assistance of nine-year-old Reuben, his aim was to juggle whilst balancing, in his hilarious slack-rope act. Donning a red Superman Cape, Reuben stole the show as a charming rapport ensued. Part of the Hatter’s skill lies in the ability to select an audience member with whom the crowd will get behind; someone game for a laugh, slightly hapless, and if cocky, taken down a size – good naturedly of course. ‘Wait a minute!’ Mr. Banana boomed as Reuben returned to his delighted parents. ‘Remember the day you became a superhero, okay?’ Reuben nodded.

At twelve noon a Hat Fair ‘first’ took place: Swingtime Flashmob, where various groups assembled to perform a dance routine taught in advance at workshops and on-line. The sudden pause then the flurry of feet illustrated the juxtaposition of mayhem and moments of peace. Catching people off guard is Hat Fair’s twist – bursts of colour and laughter interspersed with silence and serenity, vignettes peppered with humour and drama and circus tricks.

Tucked In, were storytellers of a very quirky kind. Betty the cow and her golden cowpat made an unlikely plot, yet, with guitar, flute and song the audience were taken to an enchanted land where “mountaintops disappeared and trees shook hands with the moon.”

And talking of trees – earlier, I’d walked along North Walls to River Park, where Graeme Miller’s, ‘Track’ had been installed. Lying back on the trolley with a Japanese-style pillow placed under my head, I’m slowly pushed along by a gondolier on a wooden dolly-track that creaked like a forest in a fairytale. I felt relaxed, as though this was the speed we were always meant to travel, tickled by the very tips of branches, soft as rain, as we trundled beneath glimpses of a cloudless sky and the dappled silhouettes of trees.

Back on the Broadway, I discovered where all the clouds had gone. Inspired by the Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte, The Cloudmen, complete with black umbrellas and a bright green apple each, were covered from hat to boot in cumulus clouds and blue skies. They were just one of the many walkabout performances that graced the streets, posing for selfies with the crowds.

Co.LABase, a collective of nine artistes, put on an intimate display of mime and farce. As plumes of smoke billowed from the windows of their ‘restaurant’ on Colebrook Street, they sought new premises. ‘No probléme!’ the Maitre D’ assured. ‘Theez way a-pleeze!’ And the audience tentatively followed the chef and the table and chairs in Pied Piperesque fashion, united in their quest. The Guildhall made a stunning backdrop as daylight faded and lamps began to glow. A lady with a parasol and a gentleman with curly-handlebar moustache sat in one of the windows on the second floor, and from the very top ledge, abseiling her way down the front façade, the waitress swung out high above the crowd to pour them a glass of champagne. Winchester resident, Stella Swain, was seated near the front. ‘I’m soaked!’ she cried, taking it all in her stride. ‘But still, I really love all this!’ A sentiment echoed again and again, as people generously donated their notes and change.

Part of Hat Fair’s delight is being able to turn convention on its head, sitting cross-legged on the pavements and on the tarmacked roads, taking in the sights and sounds, then browsing along the rows of market stalls. Nestled amongst the many homespun wares, sea-glass beads glistened and wooden hearts hung heavy on their strings. Tapas and hot dogs, pulled pork and olives in lemon zest with coriander seeds, Spanish churro, pastries and gluten-free ice creams made for tasty picnic foods. And quenching thirsts in the summer heat, cafés and bars were filled to the brim.

Hidden behind the bus station an olde-worlde fairground was revealed as the sun went down. Curious festival-goers trickled in through the gates, lined with fire pits that leapt with flames, and found themselves transported to the past. The air was filled with the aroma of wood smoke and the metallic dinging of the Hammer Bell. Tin-can alley, coconut shies and hooplas came to life. And roaming amongst the crowd, strange characters mingled as though they’d stepped from the pages of Victorian novels. Mr GroggleBottom in his top hat and tails, sidled up to one Hat Fair-goer and reaching into a leather holdall with his fingerless gloves, pulled out a tiny glass phial sealed with a cork. ‘This special elixir,’ he said, stroking his long auburn beard, ‘will let you see the fair as a bird would see it, Sir.’ And handing it over, he vanished into the crowd as mysteriously as he’d appeared.

Lights strung across the main stage shimmered and a life-sized carousel began to stir as Gypsy Balkan music played. Gorgeously choreographed, a tale of courtship, jealousy and regret ensued. Seven members of the Southpaw Dance Company swayed, flipped and rolled within the ever-turning space. An organic interaction showed no bounds as this beautifully paced performance mesmerised.

To round off the day, saxophonist Andy Williamson, who along with the band The Magic Number, played to folk who were ‘jiving in the gloom’ until midnight struck as the last strains faded away. But Hat Fair continued to cast its spell on the slopes of Oram’s Arbour on Sunday, the final day of fun – until next year, of course. How quickly annual events come round, a reminder perhaps, of the fleeting nature of things. Yet, traditions such as these and the surprises they bring, enrich our lives and somehow make better, collective moments shared.