Cowdray Park, Summer Brocante review - by Jane McIntyre
Having recently made the tough decision to close her shop on Southgate Street, Jane McIntyre talks to us about what she enjoys doing in her spare time.
On Friday last I popped off to the annual Country Brocante Fair at the gorgeous Cowdray Park near Midhurst. I’d heard a lot about it from customers over the years and had always fancied the trip, just never got around to it as Friday and Saturday were always busy days in the shop. Now in this lovely Free Zone - aka No Shop - I have much more time to foray into days out just for the sake of them. So the Mister and I slunk away on a boiling day, with the Air-con full on and wafted through the beautiful Hampshire countryside, making time to take in the different layers of architecture and scenery that make this county so quintessentially English.
Arriving at Cowdray Park in our rather battered - yet gloriously cool - grande dame of the road was an absolute joy. Passing the original ruins, laid waste by fire in the 18th Century, one drives a long and winding path through trees and fields, seeing the odd group of polo ponies here and there and finally resting on a grassy slope with a huge vista of Hampshire and the Cowdray estate in front.
First impressions of the Fair were that it is extremely well organised, their marketing build up over the preceding weeks is enticing and the visual impact is a knock your socks off kind of experience. Imagine every favourite front cover of Country Living set out before your eyes, able to touch and feel and wander. I squealed with delight when my eyes first alighted on a Cabbages and Roses stall slap bang in the centre of the quadrangle of stalls and tents and was even more excited to find the stall was actually manned by owner Christina Strutt herself, dressed in acres of white linen as usual and so lovely to chat to. Excitement built as I realised the stall was actually selling clothing samples and vintage items, so I pounced on a floor length linen coat with giant yellow and neutral stripes at less than a quarter of its original price. By that time the other half had caught up with me, told me I had to have it so who was I to argue!
The main reason I had absolutely decided to go this year was that a long time icon of mine, Rachel Ashwell, was there signing her new book “The Floral Affair”. The doyenne of Shabby Chic, in fact I believe she actually coined the phrase and gave it life, was as charming as I thought she would be but so very self effacing I was surprised. I’m not really a fan of Shabby Chic anymore - done properly, like she does, it is fabulous, but it has somehow got diluted into this wishy washy cheap look that everyone is doing and I think I mostly opened my shop to fight that feel of blended Greige. But Rachel’s style grew from trawling the flea markets, finding genuine old chippy pieces (slipping into a bit of American there!), washing them with a bit of her favourite pinks, blues and soft greens, never actually pastel, more faded or antiqued, sometimes adding a weeny bit of gold to the edges - and so her style was born. She manages to keep the patina intact and just adds to its depth, a very clever and sympathetic designer. She championed the Prairie look, to wooden floors washed white with clapperboard walls and plank doors she adds overstuffed sofas with baggy covers and loads of slightly mismatched cushions, an incongruous crystal chandelier, a mix of gilt edged junk shop art and buckets of flowers to finish it off. The bedrooms are overflowing with frills, but somehow the wooden floors and general mismatching knock back the overt femininity and invite you in, man woman or beast (just talking dogs, cats or children here!). Her beds are beautifully dishevelled, layered with soft colour and a lot of white linen, tiny dimity prints, splashes of antique lace and tons of squashy cushions. And her flower arrangements, which this new book is about, are simple in that they always look as if they have just been picked and thrown together, as if anyone could do them - which I can say most assuredly one can’t! She uses an abundance of floppy cabbage roses, hydrangeas and lavenders interspersed with English cottage garden flowers such as cornflower, sweet pea, scabious and nigella and arranges them in old pots, milk bottles, antique vases, buckets, more or less anything she finds to hand, all which lifts and compliments each space she puts together. Her look is a mix of comfortable, elegant, vintage, pretty yet grand all rolled into one, each one unique. Can you tell I like her!
Back to the fair, which went a little downhill after those experiences. Bearing a French name I had expected the Fair to have more genuine French antiques - there were a few but all so very predictable. One stand stood out as being very genuine, Brocante Decorative, but most had the standard bleached woods, mandatory shutters, stripy linen grain sacks and fabrics, rusty buckets, wire plants stands and battered benches that we have all grown to love over the years but personally I am now a little bit sick of. Perhaps a bit twee and contrived. Even a couple of really spectacular pieces, a huge Armoire circa 1780 and a Gustavian larder cupboard had been so badly “chalk paint distressed” that they had been ruined, for me anyway. There was a tent selling more what I would have classed as craft rather than brocante, cute hand made children's toys from fabric offcuts, candles and smellies, droopy and divine hats by the wonderful Gil Fox and cushions made from antique rugs, none very much a French experience. And not to forget the many stands selling linen clothes, mostly voluminous dresses and tops, some rather beautiful and floaty but most not very well made with a disastrous cut (think hippo in linen and you’ve got the look).
The food tent was of course a massive draw, not much choice but what was there was very good and the coffee had the necessary kick to keep us going - being a very cake based person I had to try the “Strawberry and Cream Sponge with Pistachio Topping”. Words can’t describe!!! Most unusual and very lovely and I will be trying to make it. And then, the GIN TIN, the fab little retro caravan, I could have wallowed there all day.
One of my lasting impressions of the day was style of dress of most of the visitors and stall holders alike, which can fairly be described as more uniform than fashion. Rachel looked gorgeous in her trademark antique lacy shirt, denims jeans, cowboy belt and boots and lots of Native American jewellery and Christina, as already mentioned, was regal in her layers of white linen over a stripy cotton top - but after all she made that look her own through her fashion label of many years standing. So I refer to the masses of other people wearing linen, massive linen tunics over either leggings (which shouldn’t really have been seen) or far too baggy trousers in an absolute rainbow of colours, big bows around heads, usually in a different colour, colossal and noisy jewellery and leather sandals - all rather fine on their own but unnecessary to be all together at the same time, it made the look rather cartoonish. The “less is more” rule could have been adopted here I think - some carried it off beautifully, maybe they were French, but on the whole it was a little farcical. For once in my life I felt alone in my black! Even my dear other half noticed it and that is truly miraculous, I doubt if he’d notice if I was wearing a curtain, but then again maybe that’s why he liked the stripy coat so much. Did he perhaps think I was Scarlett O’Hara? Oh no, best left, far too random……
To sum it up, I’d say if the weather’s good it’s definitely worth the trip out if you have time to spare and just want to idle with a loved one or friend and end up soaked in Gin. I’m not sure what they do if the weather is inclement, it could take on the Festival feel just on the walk from the car park to the tents and the outdoor stands would be awash. But there is a lovely laid back, friendly vibe, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves so I was glad I went, I’m just not sure I’ll go again.
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