Alex James: All the fun of the fair – the travellers' way

Rural Notebook
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The Independent Online

Lines of cars in both directions and where the lines crossed, just outside fudgey, hoity-toity Stow-on-the-Wold was a blat of almost unimaginable ugliness, stuck on the hillside. Civilisation slapped on top of nature like a Post-It note: the travellers' horse fair, caravans and trailers horrible in the rain. It was at least as ugly as Glastonbury – a locust mess of stinks, mud, stick-men with too many teeth, blob women with none. Even as we arrived, before we'd parked the car, our hearts beat faster, a sense of danger, revellers shouting, impatience building with the traffic, the glamour of youth and glimmering thighs specked with mud.

What a scene inside that messy field! Another world altogether: a bonanza of lawlessness and frying. The things that catch the eye: dogs crammed in cages, tiny bulging ponies, spun sugar, plastic washing-up bowls with Dior and Chanel logos sprayed on. DVDs of bare-knuckle boxing bouts. And then, happening too fast, like an old film, I saw a man driving a trap and a man on horseback collide at high speed and it looked like it would come to blows. Most horrible of all, the man selling the fighting cocks, outsize, gnarly vulture-like things, all ready to rumble.

The blaring music, kind of cowboy stuff, had completely brought me to a standstill shortly after we'd entered the field. "Who's this playing now?" I said to the kid running the stall – all bootlegs laid out in front of him. "Dunno," he said, curling his lip and looking away. Quite comic the sourness of his attitude against the schmaltzy sweetness of the music he was selling, but who can blame him for that?

It's the travellers' day, but they are not at all popular with locals, who mistrust them all. The travellers camp along the farm's borders in their wagons. I've grown to rather like seeing them there at this time of year.

Come home to a real fire

Fireplaces built after about 1900 don't seem to work. Even in the houses of the cleverest people, the newer open fires smoke, fail to draw, let in drafts, madden their owners. It has taken five years but I have finally conquered the problems of the one I built in the lounge. Ah, the bliss of a fire burning tall. There is no greater feeling than a mug of steaming tea by a roaring fire. Winter really is underrated.

A rhapsody in orange

A last, a vast detonation of colour on the ground: leaves blazing, grass-deep and cool as the weather does a medley, changing instantly and without warning from yammering wind and crashing rain to the sun smashing everything orange in perfect stillness and silence. Perhaps the most romantic time of the year: lit like a movie, perfect for a kiss.