The day after I found myself in possession of a large truckload of high quality wooden garden furniture to sell, I was to travel the forty miles or so from Barnstaple to Launceston to set up my very first display at the annual Vintage Steam Rally.
It was to be the first of many journeys that would take me across a pretty fair chunk of North Devon and Cornwall.
For my inaugural attempt at transporting, unloading, and constructing my furniture display, I decided I should recruit a not-so-glamorous assistant.
So, with the promise of a day out in the country, with a couple of pints and lunch thrown in, my good friend Dennis (who we’d met soon after moving to Devon, and who has sadly since died) accompanied me on the journey.
After picking Den up bright and early, we arrived at the showground at about nine o’clock and were directed to our pre-booked pitch, located in the glorious sunshine at the side of the main events arena, a prime spot for passing trade.
I had decided early on that the best way to show off the display was to set it up with the plain white van in the background, to which I could affix the various signs that were supplied to advertised my wares.
Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find photos of any of the displays I set up over the whole time I worked for the company, so you’ll have to use your imagination.
My display stock consisted of; three large tables of varying sizes, complete with parasols and solid but comfortable armchairs and cushions, two long benches, two love seats, an arbor with a seat, a swinging seat with a canopy, and four high backed throne-style chairs.
We had quite a decent sized pitch, so we spread out the three main sets of tables and chairs, all complete with their shading parasols, and interspersed them with the other items as naturally as possible.
Having distributed some price lists and brochures across the tables, I sent Dennis off in search of breakfast, watched the traction engines arriving in the arena, and waited for the punters to roll in.
A traction engine, at a rally yesterday.
That first day was a rapid learning curve.
The sunshine brought the locals and tourists alike out in their droves, and I had plenty of opportunities to hone my sales technique, taking a respectable number of orders for several complete sets of furniture.
This was only the first of a two day event though, so at the close of the show we had to pack up the whole load (Dennis now somewhat worse for the local ale) and head home.
Day Two was a slightly different kettle of fish.
We arrived to torrential rain and mud, the weather having done an about-turn overnight.
Still, we gamely set up the display, only to almost immediately lose two of the parasols as they took off like helicopters in the near gale force wind that had arisen since we’d got there.
This was also the first time that I encountered the camaraderie that exists in the world of market traders.
No matter how many different events I set up at over the next nine months or so, whether they were markets, vintage rallies, country fairs, or agricultural shows, all the people who make their living selling their products and services from a mobile stall have the same inclusive attitude towards fellow traders, always pulling together in times of crisis, and I’m still in touch with some of them to this day.
As I blundered about in the rising storm looking for my errant parasols, I bumped into a neighbouring stallholder who was returning one of them to me from where it had ended up, under his car.
I thanked him and managed to locate the second escapee on the return journey to the van, where I found Dennis trying to hold down the largest table which I had (I thought, cleverly) attached the parasol to, with a screw through the the bar underneath.
As a result, the large canvas umbrella was attempting to lift a six foot long table with a terrified fifty year old man splayed across the top of it, up into the air.
I rushed back to the van and grabbed my drill. Then, warning Den to hang onto the parasol (a warning which, for some reason, was met with a string of words I shan’t reproduce here) I undid the retaining screw and the table crashed back to earth.
We quickly retired to the cab for a breather and a coffee, just in time to witness the announcers tent in the show arena being lifted completely free of it’s moorings, frame, canvas and all, and describing a graceful somersault backwards over the rope enclosure, to land almost intact in the public concourse, where it rather gracelessly collapsed in a heap in front of some soaked and bewildered tourists.
After that the day seemed to go a bit downhill, so deciding that safe was better that sorry we packed up the van, rang my boss to say we were deserting a sinking show, wrote day two off as an unavoidable loss, and made for home.
Not all my engagements were quite so exciting, but I did get a ringside seat for some pretty impressive events and entertainment.
The one photo I did find from that period was of this motorcycle stunt rider.
He was a member of a local display team that had made it big in America and had come back to do a free show in the small village where he grew up.
A great show they put on too.
The rest of my foray into market trading wasn’t entirely without incident.
Barring what I came to realise was par for the course – extreme and/or unpredictable weather – l also made a few problems for myself.
About once every six weeks, I was permitted to sell off my display stock for cash, as it became a little tatty after being repeatedly humped on and off the van, so I was allowed to get as much as I could for it and keep anything over cost price.
Those days were always good money makers, so I would often go out of my way to grab every last sale.
I was always told that these sell-offs were strictly a takeaway deal, and I should not on any account offer to get involved in any deliveries.
But of course if I could make an extra few quid…
There was a bloke who used to come to my pitch at Tintagel every week but never bought anything, but on the day I was selling my stock he finally decided that he wanted one of the twin love seats.
Then he hit me with the catch.
He had no car, and no other way of getting his purchase home.
Would I be so good as to pop it round the corner to his cottage?
It’s not far, and there’s an extra fiver in it for me.
Well, what do you think?
I told him that he’d have to wait until I closed for the day and got the delivery address.
A couple of hours later I find myself attempting to negotiate a hairpin turn into the narrow mouth his drive, which ran along the top of a steep ravine with a fast flowing river at the bottom.
As I just made the turn onto the driveway, I felt a worrying slipping sensation coming from the rear of the van and the front wheels started to rise up off the ground.
The left rear wheel had lost grip on the soft gravel surface and slid over the edge.
I looked in the rear view mirror just in time to see a few stones come loose from under the van’s tyres and bounce down the steep sided slope, splashing into the river below.
In rising panic I gunned the engine, hoping the one remaining wheel still touching terra firma would be capable of exerting sufficient traction to pull me away from the brink.
At what seemed like the last possible moment, the van seesawed one final time on the edge, then the racing tyres bit into the gravel and the van shot down the drive, coming to a skidding halt outside one of three cottages around the tiny turning circle at the end.
The customer came out of his front door smiling benignly, as if I hadn’t just re-enacted the closing scene from The Italian Job at the bottom of his drive, and wondered casually why I’d taken so long getting there.
I unloaded his chairs, managed to mutter some not-very-pleasantries through gritted teeth, snatched the cash from his hand, jumped into the van in preparation for a dramatically wheel-spinning exit…..
…and realised there was a telegraph pole, held up with a taut steel cable, right in the place into which I needed to reverse in order to make my escape.
So I had to settle for a twenty-point turn, swearing profusely all the while and pledging never, never to deliver another thing. Ever.
Until the next sell off, obviously.
The time I spent working the markets and shows of Devon and Cornwall was, and remains, my most enjoyable job.
Not the best paid.
Not the most upwardly mobile.
Certainly not the most luxurious.
But the one with the most genuinely communal feeling to it.
The one that most made you feel as if you were a member of a friendly tribe of like minded people, as opposed to it just being a means to an end.
I have dozens of stories from my time spent as a White Van Man, but maybe I’ll tell you another time.
So just remember the next time you’re at the market, those stalls don’t get there by magic you know.
If you have a market or country fair in your area, help support a way of life that needs to be maintained and spare a thought for the hardy folks who rise in the early hours to keep the tradition alive.
Sadly the company went into administration the following year and I was made redundant, but it was a great experience that I wouldn’t have missed for the world.