Tarby Davenport’s vision lives on as Suffolk craft fair Weird and Wonderful Wood set to return to Haughley Park in May
One of Suffolk’s best loved craft fairs returns this May with a dazzling array of demonstrations, performances and workshops that guarantee two days of family fun.
It will be chisels and chainsaws at the ready as Weird and Wonderful Wood makes a comeback after a Covid-enforced two year break.
And for the woman whose imagination planted the seed of the event more than 25 years ago this year sees another celebration.
Tarby Davenport’s lifelong dedication to staging affordable events for families, and helping street performers, earned her an MBE for services to the arts and community in the 2022 New Year Honours.
She is waiting for the letter from the Palace to find out when she will make the trip to London to be presented with the honour.
“It was an incredible shock when I got it,” said Tarby, adding that she has a new hat ready and waiting for the occasion.
From the start the quirky name of Weird and Wonderful Wood was not the only thing that made it stand out.
Although dedicated to celebrating the use of man’s oldest natural resource in all its forms, from basket weaving to furniture making, carving to tree-climbing, there is also much more on offer.
Music, performances by a host of different entertainers, local food and drink – plus some of the surprises Tarby has always liked to keep up her sleeve – are among the attractions this year.
Tarby’s memory of coming to Suffolk as a single mother struggling to make ends meet was part of the inspiration behind the fair – as it was for many of the events she staged in a career lasting more than 40 years.
“A lot of what Mum started was through being a single parent when she arrived in Suffolk. There was very little for families to do that was affordable,” said her daughter, Sarah Barker.
Tarby’s career as an events organiser ranged from village hall shows to providing performers internationally.
Venues include the Glastonbury Festival, the Millennium Dome, and the Manchester Commonwealth Games, as well as Dubai and France.
She grew up in Essex and went to a boarding school in Clacton ‘for the daughters of the clergy’, because her father had strong connections with the Church.
Although she originally trained to be a teacher she soon switched careers.
“My father, who was one of the managers of the Bank of England, used to put on events in London. I think that must be where I got it from,” she said. “He loved all kinds of music, and played very good piano.”
Tarby moved to Suffolk with her four children, Sarah, Ben, Joel and Liam, in 1970.
“We came here because we couldn’t afford to stay in London, but it was still within easy travelling distance if I needed to go there for work,” she said.
She fell in love with a tumbledown cottage in Wetherden, which she renovated and where she still lives today. “It was in a really bad state when I bought it, and because of that I could afford it.”
But for a young family on a tight budget days out and entertainment could prove costly, and that led her to make putting on affordable entertainment one of her mainstays.
Alongside her national and international work, she staged numerous events in Suffolk.
She put on Tim Hart and Maddy Prior – founder members of the folk rock group Steeleye Span – at Bury Corn Exchange, resulting in queues all through the town centre.
“It was astonishing how many people wanted to attend,” she recalled.
The show was compered by DJ and broadcaster John Peel, who lived near Stowmarket, and who she frequently worked with in the 1970s.
One of her most popular local events was a long-running Hallowe’en spectacular at Thornham Magna.
“People came from miles around, and remember it as being quite a magical event. Again it was affordable, with lots of things for people to do. Thousands of families attended.”
Tarby was also involved with Albion Fairs, a group that staged events in East Anglia including the Rougham Tree Fair.
Through that, she played a part in the the early days of the Glastonbury Festival after Albion was asked to help.
Her association was quite short-lived though. “She felt it was becoming too big. Glastonbury rapidly became something that young families couldn’t afford to go to,” said Sarah.
Tarby also represented street performers, supplying acts for major events in the UK and abroad.
“Mum became an agent for performers like jugglers, stilt walkers, and magicians, booking people in all over the place.
“Part of the reason she got the MBE was performers writing and saying that she had given them the kick-off for their careers.”
She worked for a year putting on performances at the Millennium Dome, which led to more commissions for the company that owned it, organising performers for shopping centres.
“I did the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, providing performers there, and at a number of huge events,” said Tarby, who was also involved in children’s festivals all over the country.
Crafts was another of her keen interests and it came together with her talent for organising events with the creation of Weird and Wonderful Wood.
The fair was first staged in the mid-1990s. From a very small beginning it has branched out into an event attended by well over 8,000 people.
It’s first home was the Henniker estate at Thornham Magna. “There were only about 100 people there,” said Sarah.
Later it moved to its current home at Haughley Park and the last time it was held in 2019 – before Covid forced a two year break – close on 10,000 people attended over the two days.
“I think it’s always quite unexpected for people. They think it’s going to be all wood, and people chopping away, and nothing else,” said Tarby.
“But there are a lot of performers, and shows going on all the time. I don’t advertise everything because I want people to be surprised.
“It’s a real family event. The cost is much lower than many others. Once people are in the gates, all the performances, and children’s and adult’s workshops are free.
“There are a lot of craftspeople in this area. It gives them somewhere to connect to the public.”
Tarby has now retired from organising the fair, and the job has been taken on by daughter Sarah, administrator Sue Taylor and site manager Toby Lush.
Sarah has worked alongside Tarby through many events over the years and says she is now looking forward to keeping this magical event alive.
It will be another year of artists and craftspeople from all over the country sharing their love of wood and the creativity that grows from it.
There will be something for all members of the family, with the focus on inclusiveness that is part of Tarby’s unique design.
“What Mum created was somewhere whole families could go and learn new skills. It’s all around families doing things outside, and learning things,” she said.
That includes free workshops, and demonstrations of wood carving, chain saw carving, musical instrument making, hurdle making, boat building, and wood turning.
Visitors can also enjoy gypsy caravan displays, den building, puppet making, tree climbing, and stalls from local and national wood workers and craftspeople.
As ever they can expect the unexpected, spontaneous surprises, street entertainers, shows from international performers and wandering musicians.
Local food and drink, including beers and cider, will be available, while music will be provided by a mix of bands and solo performers with some special guest appearances on the acoustic stage.
Weird and Wonderful Wood takes place at Haughley Park, near Wetherden, IP14 3JY on Saturday May 14 from 10.30am to 6pm and Sunday May 15 from 10.30am to 5pm.
Admission per day: Adults £12, Concessions £9, Children under 12 £6, and under 3s free.