Swap till you drop

Thomas Woodham-Smith enjoys a great trade tradition


This article was taken from the September issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

The best day of the dealing year comes in early September. It isn’t a day when people make a lot of money, but it is a day of trade. It takes place at the cricket ground outside Stow-on-the-Wold and it is called the Swap Shop.

The day actually begins earlier in your own storage as you peruse and evaluate those items that you have ceased to love. Every purchase begins with enthusiasm and optimism but as the years pass and the storage and restoration bills mount so in equal proportion the adoration fades — sometimes to the point of odium. You make a list of the worst offenders and then book your hotel room. On the eve of the big day you load your van or car to the gunnels and head off for the legendary pre-swap dinner and drinks.

Old friends gather and some who you only see at the Swap Shop, many pints are consumed as stories are traded and the beer is fussed over and analysed for quality and flaws.

From there a short but erratic walk to an Indian restaurant more renowned for their ever-patient staff than the cuisine. More beer, a little shouting, some off-key but heartfelt singing and some food later, we roll off to our cots.

The next day, early but not very bright, we convene in the car park of the cricket ground. Goods are unpacked and the prowl begins. Everyone walks up and down several times. After a while someone says I like x and you say what have you got, and you go over and look at their pile of rejects.

If you are lucky there is something there of charm and interest and if it looks viable you swap. The rule is that you never discuss or mention money.

Very often, either you don’t have something they want or vice versa and you need to engage in what’s called a “long swap”. This is when maybe six or seven dealers swap in turn for things they do not directly want but that they know someone else does.

It all has to happen at once and can take a good hour to tee up but a good long swap is a thing of great beauty. In the end everyone gets what they want.

There are several masters of the long swap but Tony Fell from Norfolk is most people’s idea of The Compleat Swapper. Others have skill, such as Max Rollitt or Edward Hurst, but Tony is hard to beat.

The Clarke run the day and are the world experts in campaign furniture

There are some people who want to sell their things for money but they are in a minority, and they are patiently tolerated. Most people will end up swapping all or nearly all of their erstwhile loves and come home with vehicles crammed with fresh meat. Some pieces make a regular appearance but in a different van every year. The thrill of getting rid of something and acquiring a new object of affection is hard to beat. The whole event takes only a few hours: by 12.30 everyone is swapped out.

But the fun continues as lunch is provided by the Clarke family. Second-generation dealers, they run the day and are the world experts in campaign furniture. Lunch is robust, straightforward and delicious, seconds are available and there are always large slabs of local cheese to hack a chunk off. Wine is available for those in the mood and Diet Coke for the rest.

The final act for me is the legendary cricket match, while for the real hard core there is a further pub and supper event. The match is a very special treat. Avid cricketers beware. The players rarely wear white and the shoes are a long way from regulation or even safety. It is another moment for Tony Fell, who corrals everyone into teams and makes sure there are enough bats and pads to go round.

Tony’s rule is that everyone has to bowl at least two overs. Now there are some players who come with their own kit and clearly know what they are doing, but most, including yours truly, are quite atrocious. My overs are traditionally the most humiliating minutes of my year. The worst was in front of my son Inigo when I bowled a catastrophic series of wides, one of which went for four runs.

Everyone had a good laugh and I did my best to hide my tears. Inigo is a very useful sidekick at this event as he can drink beer, which I cannot, in unfeasible quantities. He can also hit a cricket ball and on this occasion made some valuable runs and took a catch.

The only comfort is that nearly everyone else is hopeless too. The winners celebrate uproariously even if their victory is by some astonishing concatenation of good luck.

It is a grand day and one that feels as if it is from another age. Long may it continue.

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