Christenings, castles and car boot sales; just three of the things I've got planned when I go over to England next month. All are British institutions, although the tradition of christening one's offspring seems to be on the decline.
"Naming ceremonies," I gather, are all the rage nowadays. Which is hardly surprising given that the 2011 U.K. Census reported that 5.3 million fewer British-born people described themselves as Christians, a drop of 15 percent in just a decade. For those non-regular church-going parishioners who choose to conduct the Naming Ceremony in a church, some savvy parishes are even offering to throw in a Baptism as well, at no extra charge. Other churches also suggest you sign up for their "wedding-christening combo" package, all in an attempt to welcome new members and lure the lapsed back into the fold. Hold the fries.
Castles, on the other hand, seem to be doing a nice trade for themselves in the bridal business. What couple could resist the idea of holding their nuptials in, for instance, Dalhousie Castle near Edinburgh? Built over 800 years ago, Dalhousie has played host to numerous kings and queens, for whom the rooms are named: Mary Queen of Scots, Louis XIV, Queen Victoria. You can even spend your wedding night in a room named after Robert the Bruce; just try not to take his inducement to "try, try and try again" personally.
The popularity of castles has been further enhanced by the success of the costume drama Downton Abbey. Although Downton Abbey is fictional, the castle in which it is filmed is not. Business at Highclere Castle is now booming, but four years ago it was in such a state of disrepair that its owner, Lord Carnarvon, was faced with an almost £12 million maintenance bill. Then along came his "fairy godmother" in the form of good friend Julian Fellowes, who revealed to the Carnarvons at a dinner one night his vision for a period drama set at Highclere.
The Carnarvons at Highclere Castle.
Pre-Downton Abbey, in the summer of 2008, Highclere took in 100 coach party bookings. A year later, post-Downton, that figure had increased to 6,000 and this year all group booking dates are sold out. Tourists now flock to the castle at the rate of up to 1,200 a day during the summer. There has also been an increase in wedding ceremonies conducted at Highclere, each bringing in an average of £30,000 (about $50,000).
Ecclesiastics all over the country are anxiously awaiting the day that Lord Fellowes conceives of a church-based serial drama series: As The Parish Turns has a nice ring, don't you think?
Talking of nice rings...jewelry is a popular item often seen at car boot sales, if not on the makeshift display tables, then on the wrists and around the necks of the sellers. If you're tempted to purchase, just don't ask from whence it came. Many a stolen good has been disposed of through a car boot sale. It's not jewelry that tops the list of stolen car boot wares, though, but garden tools, pinched from a local's garden shed.
A car boot sale ground.
The most common venue for car boot sales are grassy fields, school grounds, and local parking lots, whose typically unmanned entrances make it almost impossible to distinguish the early-rising boot sale bargain hunter from the car boot trader. Sunday mornings are when you'll usually find the majority of car boot sales, thereby providing statisticians with another reason why church attendance is down.
Sellers arrive at their pitch, for which they've paid a nominal fee with their goods packed into the boot, or "trunk," of their car. Their wares are then unloaded and set up onto card tables, or laid out on blankets, tarpaulins, or even the bare land. Before long the customers arrive, many of them familiar faces who return week after week for their ritualistic search for "treasures" at rock-bottom prices. China tea services, old books, oil paintings, vases - who knows where the next rare find might lurk? Items don't have to be antique to be valuable. Later this month, Christie's will be auctioning off the first-ever watch specially adapted for James Bond and worn by Sean Connery in the 1965 film Thunderball. It's estimated to sell for between $60,000 and $90,000. Not bad for a less-than-$40 car boot find.
Most of the people who go "car booting," though, would balk at having to pay as much as $40 for a second-hand find. Part of the fun is in the haggling. Why spend a pound when you can spend a penny, so to speak. Or at least fifty pence.
One friendly car boot seller.
The majority of boot sale shoppers are seeking items for practical purposes, such as clothes, or dishware, but sentimentality also comes into play. Commemorative mugs, souvenir thimbles and egg cups from Skegness, old books, piano music, engraved Stratford-upon-Avon shot glasses, toby jugs and wall plates, jigsaw puzzles, board games, and old cassettes and VHS tapes bring the memories flooding back and are hard to resist. Toys as well. Many a grandmother has stocked her garden shed with tricycles, doll carriages and kid-size sporting equipment for a mere fraction of their original price. It's this sentimentality factor that I find particularly alluring. The Old School Girl Annuals from the year of my birth, the silver plated teapot-for-one exactly like my grandmother's, the 1970s chain link belt I wore as a teen.
Car boot loot.
The 1970s certainly was a sweet time. Not only did I come of age, but it also was when the car boot sale was introduced into Britain by Father Harry Clark, a Catholic priest from Stockport. While holidaying in Canada, Father Clark happened upon a "trunk fair," and when he returned to England decided to hold his own version as a fundraiser for his church. He invited parishioners to load up the boots of their cars with their unwanted possessions and drive to the grounds of the church. It was a resounding success and spawned a multi-million-pound industry. In 2012 it was calculated that Britons spent about £2 million on car boot sales.
If you too find yourself popping over the pond this summer, be sure to add a car boot to your list of must-see attractions. Take plenty of fifty pences and have a good rummage through the offerings. Don't mind if the locals around you seem a bit scruffy. After all, they have been wearing each other's clothes for the last forty years.