I am kneeling on the damp tarmac of a provincial Welsh town's main shopping street, and I'm pretending to be a gooseberry bush. I am wrestling with my friend Nicola, who is dressed up in a furry bunny suit. I glance around at the assembled, bemused crowds, and think to myself... 'How the hell do I get into these situations?'
I think it's a fair question. When I woke up on that Summer morning in 2002, I was in my tent on a campsite at the foot of Glastonbury Tor. I was at the end of my little holiday, where I had spent four days in Powys, two days in Wiltshire and two days in Somerset. I packed up my tent, had a bite to eat at a veggie cafe in Glastonbury, then drove up the M5. The intention was to swing east on the M4 and head for Essex and home. However, it was not to work out that way. As I drew level with the Severn Bridge, I made one of those spur-of-the-moment decisions that lead to unexpected consequences - instead of heading east, I turned west for the Bridge and subsequently crossed the border into Cymru.
Now why did I do this? The answer lies in the first part of my little holiday, the four days I spent in Powys.
Llandrindod Wells is the County Town of Powys, a large but sparsely populated county which, at one time, was divided into the smaller units of Brecknockshire, Montgomeryshire and Radnorshire. The 1974 re-organisation of the counties saw all of them swallowed by Powys, a name which goes back at least as far as the Dark Ages. The names of the three lost counties are still used in addresses today, in much the same way as certain Londoners still use the address 'Middlesex'. Despite its municipal status, 'Llandod' is a town you can drive through in three minutes, home to about 3000 souls, and in a more populated country - like England - it might well be classed as a large village. My friend Nicola, fellow alumnus of the Open University and a person who boasts exactly the same letters after her name as I, lives there in an Edwardian townhouse. Although we frequently meet for lunch in the wonderful town of |Hereford in the Welsh Marches, I also visit Llandod once a year, to catch up with mutual friends and just to unwind. This is exactly what I did for the first half of my little holiday, only to find my usually laid-back friends engaged in a flurry of activity.
The reason for this activity was the Victorian Festival. The heyday of Llandrindod Wells was in the Victorian period, when spas were all the fashion, and Victorian folk with their strict class divisions and frankly ridiculous sideburns flocked to places like this, with its chalybeate springs, the water tasting of rust but apparently very good for the blood. In tribute to the days of the town's ascendency, the Victorian Festival is held every year, and you can will find the townsfolk strolling around in period costume, minding their p's and q's, acting like snotty Victorians. Nicola, her boyfriend John and her friend Sue are involved in the Festival this year, and Nicola's period costume is that of a human-sized bunny rabbit.
Beatrix Potter is to blame. This year, 2002, marks the one hundredth anniversary of the publication of her first book, The Tale Of Peter Rabbit. Someone forgot to tell the Llandodites that the morose monarch Victoria died in 1901, which actually makes Peter Rabbit an Edwardian work - but why quibble. The sideburns and attitudes failed to die out overnight so, with a bit of historical licence, Peter can be included in a Victorian Festival. And on this, the 100th anniversary of his creation, his Tale was going to be performed as a piece of street theatre in the town's busiest street.
As an annual visitor, I was an observer to the costume fittings and dress rehearsals, conducted with a solemnity that would be more fitting for a Performance In The Park of Hamlet, but since I was not going to be around on the Saturday that the performance was due to take place, my presence at all these preparations was strictly neutral. That particular Saturday was also the last day of my holiday, hence the sudden decision that added 100 miles and several hours to my journey home. I simply couldn't resist the idea of seeing my friends re-enact Potter in the centre of their town.
I decided not to inform them in advance of my unexpected return. Instead, I parked up in the town's supermarket car park and ambled over to the street where the performance was due to take place. I had lunch at a cafe with a first-floor balcony overlooking the crime scene, and sipped coffee as the crowds gathered. Soon enough, my friends arrived, fully dressed up; Nic as Peter Rabbit, Sue as his mother (and narrator) and John as Farmer McGregor. The plot they have to enact is very simple: Peter, ignoring his mother's warnings, tries to raid the farmer's vegetable patch and is caught in the act. In his hurry to escape, he loses his coat to the thorns of a gooseberry bush, and the farmer subsequently uses the coat to dress his scarecrow.
I leave the cafe and greet my friends. They are happy to see me, because 1) I am wonderful, and 2) they need someone to play the gooseberry bush. The bush in question is actually a cardboard panel, painted green, with two holes in it. Attached to these holes are two green stockings. I am swiftly press-ganged to portray the challenging role of Farmer McGregor's Gooseberry Bush.
I kneel on the road and stick my arms through the holes in the green panel, filling the stockings which are doubling as gooseberry tendrils. The performance gets underway. Peter, in his hurry to escape, gets entangled in the tendrils of the bush and loses his coat.
This is, to date, the only occasion where I've ripped a woman's clothes off in public and not been arrested. Despite this, I was robbed at the Oscars.
When the performance is over, we adjourn down the hill to Nic's house for refreshments. Nic and Sue are in high spirits, John is trying to look as dignified as he can while dressed as a yokel. The girls link arms and sing as they walk. They are still dressed as rabbits. A passing local comments, 'Now THERE'S a bunny I wouldn't mind getting me 'ands on!"
And, in the fleeting novelty of two attractive women dressed up in bunny costumes, the sterling performance of the Gooseberry Bush is forgotten, and my moment of theatrical spotlight joins the Victorians in the ranks of dusty history.