Rolling though picture-perfect hills and fields of maize and barley towards Wembury House, Devon, for the annual Hanbury cricket match. At times it’s a scene from a Fifties film of a long-ago England, beautiful, tranquil and law-abiding, with glimpses of broad greens, riverside walks and winding country lanes. But then comes the announcement in an English I can hardly comprehend, however hard I try, apologising about a diversion because of hay on the tracks. ‘Hay on the tracks?’ I ask incredulously.
The bucolic view of beeches and oaks, as well as the armour of decorum, is suddenly replaced by the uniquely British subculture of ritual drunkenness and violence, as yobs and hurried couples carrying screaming, snotty children pile into the first-class carriage filling it to the brim. They, too, have been diverted. They lie down in the corridors, stand menacingly over one’s seat, curse out loud as the train lurches and leans at a donkey’s pace. Welcome to England 2009, and the Great Western railroad, whatever the misnomer.
Mind you, once in Plymouth, after close to six hours of suffering — the regular journey should be three hours 20 minutes — two large cars are waiting for us and we’re whisked to Wembury House where the festivities have already begun. Tim and Emma Hanbury have hosted the cricket fixture for years, but this time, instead of 20-odd free-loaders, there are more than a hundred of us. It is billed as a ‘Midsummer’s Night Dream’, the gardens, where the tent is already up, stretching to a large wall in the distance where hay bales have been put up as seats around a bonfire. The main event is the cricket match between the Hanbury team, and that of Ben Elliot, substituting for Zac Goldsmith.