HARVEST FESTIVAL - WINCHELSEA STYLE
(Warning - this blog post is rather sanctimonious)
To me, harvest festival is one of the most beautiful events in the church calendar. This is not just because it occurs in autumn, when the earth is resplendent with shades of gold and russet and the air suffused with the scent of wood smoke, but because it evokes such powerful memories of my childhood growing up on a farm and of our little village church which was always crammed to the rafters with every sort of produce imaginable – from local farmers, from local fruit growers, from gardeners, from retired gentlemen with just a greenhouse and elderly widows with just a flowerpot. It was the time of year when the ladies of the parish went to town creating ingenious corn dolly swags and upside-down flower arrangements and everybody joined in the task of making the church look spectacular for the harvest festival service. Whether one believed that nature’s bounty was endowed by God or some other deity or simply by some unnameable force, one couldn’t help but be amazed by its sheer energy and profusion, by its colour and beauty and variety. The festival brought together the entire community in celebration of something very profound – an awareness that, however far technology has brought us from our Neolithic forbears who first tilled the soil, we are still creatures who need to eat, who rejoice in growing things and who should be grateful that, unlike so many of our fellow humans, we are not going hungry.
Now, in extreme old age, I have the good fortune to have pitched up in Winchelsea, East Sussex - England’s smallest and arguably most beautiful town. Yet this is a community very different from the one I grew up in. Its residents – to put it politely – live a very long way from the source of production or any notion of material need. When I mentioned to a neighbour who’s a big noise in the church that I always love Harvest Festival, she informed me that they were not going for huge displays of fruit and vegetables this year but for a more ‘streamlined’ approach. When I asked why, she explained that nobody knew what to do with ‘all that stuff’ afterwards. EXCUSE ME? You don’t know what to DO with a cornucopia of fresh, delicious, locally-grown produce? Talk about a First World problem! It is yet another homage to the God of Tidiness, the inertia of rule by petty, parochial committee, the triumph of convenience over conviction. It’s the same attitude that condemned an unhappy friend of ours who drank herself to death to have her ashes strewn at the farthest limits of consecrated ground, next to the compost heap, and which decreed that the epitaph on Spike Milligan’s grave – ‘I told you I was ill’ – should be written in Gaelic as it was thought unseemly that a joke which anyone can understand should be placed on a headstone. I don’t mean to target Winchelsea exclusively in this criticism – I’m sure it’s an attitude which prevails in country villages throughout the land.
A 'streamlined approach' - the harvest festival display in Winchelsea Church. The oranges, lemons and bananas are, of course, locally grown. Sussex is noted for its banana production.
My three and a half followers may remember that I wrote a blog post back in March about the allotment we had taken on. I can now report that, having battled with rabbits, slugs, mice, caterpillars and other assorted pests, we have managed to wrest a few vegetables from this barren parcel of land. It has been a rewarding, if sometimes frustrating, experience, but I have often found myself thinking, while working, of the millions of poor farmers and smallholders throughout the world who have to support themselves and their families from similar patches of land and for whom the discovery that all their seedlings have been decimated by pests is a disaster of life-threatening proportions, not just a minor annoyance.
So I would suggest, in conclusion, that our parochial worthies with their ‘streamlined’ approach should dwell on this thought and adopt a more generous, appreciative and open-hearted attitude to this thanksgiving festival – even if it means a little inconvenience.
Some of the produce from our allotment - maybe not shapely enough for Waitrose but delicious nonetheless
One of my monsters. I offered a similar one to the harvest festival but it was rejected on the grounds that it might distract the ladies of Winchelsea from their worship