Ritual Britain: Time stands still for field sold off by candlelight: Farmers in a Somerset village met this week to bid for the annual rights to a meadow. Marianne Macdonald reports

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The Independent Online
IN THE FILM Groundhog Day, the main character wakes up every morning to discover that he is living the same day over and over again. There is a similar quality about the annual Stowell court candle auction in Somerset, the same auction, with much the same characters, has recurred for centuries.

It took place this week, as it always does on the first Tuesday after the first Saturday after 6 April, and if the 25 farmers sitting in a low-beamed room at the Poppe Inn, in Tatworth, near Chard, had put on smocks they would have been the images of their ancestors who sat in the same places and ate the same meal of bread, watercress and blue cheese.

The purpose of the court is to sell off the annual rights to a six- acre meadow on the edge of Tatworth. The meadow, Stowell Mead, is jointly owned by villagers because it was left as waste when enclosure began in the time of William the Conqueror.

However, the business of renting it out is far from straightforward, partly because of all sorts of rules governing the procedure and partly because it has proved impossible to ignore modern-day verities like conservation officers.

Bidding takes place during the period that it takes an inch-long tallow candle to burn. The winner is the last bid in before the partially-hidden candle goes out. To ensure no one cheats there is a 25p fine levied on anyone who stands up during this tense procedure: As Samuel Pepys observed in 1660, 'it is pleasant to see how backward men are at first to bid; yet, when the candle is going out, how they bawl'.

The show is run by Colonel Michael Davies, 59. In his blazer and pink shirt he alone might have lacked a ghostly double centuries ago. But he makes up for modernity with military precision.

At 7pm precisely the doors to the back room are closed (they used to be barred before the pub was renovated) and the sweepstake goes round. Then he goes through the minutes - noting a visit from English Nature and that there is a grant available to improve the hedgerows. This account is listened to solemnly by those who have 'rights' to Stowell Mead. Just as no-one knows how long the court has been in existence, because its records were burnt in 1832, so no one understands the distribution of the rights, merely that there are around 60 altogether which belong to certain houses and fields. What some of them do know is that they do not like change.

Six years ago the court decided it would allow the meadow, which boasts orchids and other rare plants, to be made a Site of Special Scientific Interest in return for a pounds 100 annual grant from English Nature. For their part the court pledged not to allow any chemical fertilisers or foreign plants to enter the field and to use it for grazing only between May and October. As a result they have built up pounds 800 in the kitty, but the farmers are not happy.

Ray Culverwell was one. 'We've always been allowed to keep stock in over a period of 12 months and it's real common land. Now the court is being told what to do,' he complained.

This year bidding was not fast, but it was steady. In the end the candle burned for 20 minutes and 24 seconds as the price went up from pounds 50 to pounds 131, in favour of Ray Churchill, 59, a local farmer.

What would he use the field for? 'I ain't got a clue,' he said, as the ceremonial game of skittles was played after the ceremonial meal (which uses up most of the money from the rent).

Was it good value? 'Tedn't bad,' he said: and it is not, considering that the commercial value of six acres of good grazing land is in the region of pounds 432.

(Photograph omitted)