Journalist, editor and producer covering society, business, architecture, tourism, rural regeneration, conservation. I work/have worked for The Guardian, Telegraph, Times, Financial Times, Conde Nast Traveller, Business Life, Business Insider, Reader's Digest, Icon Films and the BBC. I also provide consultancy services to international brands.
Hot ferrets sleep in boxes, low-slung sheep dogs drive ducks over an obstacle course in the sportsfield, and traders do a roaring trade in tripe sticks, candy floss, PVC coated tablecloths, overalls and rigger boots. The 87th annual village show is underway behind the pond at Thornton le Dale, laid out like a Tudor battlefield, all flapping marquees, rings and trader bustle. It’s pulled big crowds – 15-20,000 expected today. Some are sitting in folding chairs watching the Royal Artillery Flying Gunners ride motorbikes around the main ring, waiting for the bale tossing and terrier racing to begin; others perambulating, children, lurchers and whippets in tow, past the Yorkshire Ambulance Service tent, the wild bird nest box display and horseshoe tossing. Sing Sing Sing (With a Swing) from a live band near the goat pens wafts over barking and echo on the compere’s loudspeaker.
For visitors who take a wrong turn and stumble across them, country shows are a step back in time, picture-perfect living history, Elysian fields. In the Northeast at least, they are not evocations of how life was, but a comforting affirmation of how life is. No-one’s immune to the whiff of nostalgia – the vintage tractors draw an admiring crowd, but when a cherry red cart pulled by Prince, a heavy horse grinds to a halt by my foot with shaft problems and I ask if Mr Hesketh the driver can remember the olden days when farmers still worked with horses, he fixes me a withering look. Apparently he still does, and he’s not the only one. Prince does all the chain harrowing. He’s not a fancy horse. He’s a working horse; a Yorkshire horse. And in the peaceful honey glow of the peppermint produce marquee, the riveting displays of eggs, 2-foot cabbages and undressed onions the size of a head are not a homage to Wallace and Grommit: the Curse of the Were-Rabbit; neither are the shepherd’s crooks with their knots and horn handles simply beautiful, but functional.
So while tourists are welcome voyeurs, the shows are for farmers, by farmers and a big day on the agricultural calendar. “It started with local farmers wanting to show off their animals to each other,” says Martin Blythe, Thornton-le-Dale’s Chairman “then we got local handicrafts – the women’s side of things. Now there’s all sorts, entertainment for all. Some people are happy to look at the back end of a cow. Others say once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all. Wetherby’s gone out; Snaith – because they didn’t go with the times.” With the average age of the show committee at 70, there’s some concern over its future, but says Blythe, “We encourage the youngsters to get involved, with entries for calves and young sheep handlers. Once they’ve got a taste for it, they’ll continue to show in later years.“
Shepherd’s crooks and youngsters are both in evidence in the sheep field, the showground’s heartland. In the ring there’s a row of belligerent rams (‘they don’t like the dogs round them’) and cheery handlers. Men, all in tweed jackets, checked shirts, caps and trilbys, watch over the fence, leaning on crooks, making wisecracks; a handler clears his sheep’s nostrils, tenderly smooths his nose fleece with a thumb. The judging of Best Sheep in Show is leisurely, surreptitious and mysterious. Rosettes allocated, a fresh batch of fat sheep hurtle down to the show pen towing their junior handlers. One ewe wild-eyed bolts, rolls and knocks her 8-year old white coated handler, Jenny Dale against the fence. “But she didn’t let go” notes her mother. It’s tough up north. There are three Dale siblings battling for the title. “They’ve been involved with these sheep since lambing, and prepared them for show themselves. Farming’s hard work and not a lot of money in it, but this makes it all worthwhile, gives them a sense of achievement. I’m hoping they’ll stay interested.”
A first prize averages £15, but at the biggest shows in the land, such as the Royal, the Royal Highland, the Royal Welsh and East of England Country Show, winning can be a major factor in the success of a business. All the major shows this year reported stiff competition and high attendance from far and wide, the Great Yorkshire in Harrogate attracting the Prince of Wales from Gloucestershire, and a prize-winning pig Portbready Beryl from Dorset. As Angus Wielkopolski of St Helen’s Farm who won the overall Farming Championship for his goat produce says “we’re selling our own branded products so it’s lovely to get the recognition, have someone else blow our trumpet.” Another major function of the super scale shows is education, a chance for a dispersed industry to catch up on the latest thinking on subsidy cuts, climate change and alternative crops. The Royal Show’s conferences say organisers, were not only well-attended by peers but by city-dwelling policy makers keen to glean the information they need on farming and the rural way of life.
This all works in a more languid, straw-chewing, joyous way across the myriad of small county shows in fields across Britain each summer. They are essentially, a peer review. “So the farmers can see you’ve got canny stock, keep your name in mind”, says secretary of the forthcoming 164th Bellingham Show, Katrina Anderson, whose husband Brian has bred black face tups in the Northumbrian hill country for forty years.
But also a celebration. “It’s the end of the summer. There’s a nip in the air, the nights are cutting in. This is the first time most farmers have seen each other since November. We’ll see each other a lot from now at the autumn sales through September and October then there’s nothing through to the next show. There’s a lot of comraderie in sheep, still competitive mind, but it’s very solitary up on a hill farm and hard, we all struggled through foot and mouth in 2001 and there’s some farmers on Hadrian’s Wall that were completely taken out, lost their breeding lines, but sheepmen help each other out. Not decrying horsemen but whether manager, shepherd, tenant farmer or owner farmer there’s never any difference, no class distinction in hill farming, all just treated the same and will all get together in the beer tent.”
The importance of solidarity lies at the heart of the forthcoming Egton show, too. The programme has cart horses on the front cover, a lone farmer and the Samaritans’ number on the back. “Agriculture has a high rate of suicide in this area,” says Daphne Jackson, show secretary, “for the fact it’s isolated, solitary work with no-one to talk to; with the financial pressures there isn’t always the extra set of hands that is needed moving sheep or beasts. So this is a good day out, a big social occasion, and while prize money isn’t too much, £12 for first place in all sheep classes, it’s about the pride they’ve taken in the animal. Farmers come from far and wide to see people they haven’t seen from last year. It’s reward for hard work. Haytime’s finished, silage is usually well on. It’s a good time.”
Back at Thornton-le-Dale, the sun slats through the trees and things are winding down. There’s reflection on the day’s events (“I like to see a male being a male. He had a bit of show about him – he were a good sheep”), livestock’ is being nudged back into holding pens (‘out tha way, give over’), soothing words whispered to bulls. Sheep shelter in the shade of fleeces slung over fences, a sort of before and after tableau, and Mr and Mrs Popham relax on deckchairs in the goat pens with a Thermos and whippets Jim and Mackie. Two whiskered octogenarians greet each other by the racing pigeons: ‘Now then Harry! Aye it’s been a fine day, a fine day’, and all, replete after a year’s worth of socialising, pack up their yows, gimmers and beasts and return to their solitary toil.
The rest of us hang around in a world where seasons, traditions and communities are eroded and hope they come back. As does Philip Larkin in Show Saturday. The Bellingham Show farmers also like a poem written about their racing pigs, but I think Larkin puts it better: “Back now to autumn, leaving the ended husk / Of summer that brought them here for Show Saturday / Let it stay hidden there like strength, / … something people do…; / something they share / That breaks ancestrally each year into / Regenerate union. Let it always be there.”
COPYRIGHT SORREL DOWNER / FINANCIAL TIMES
This is the HQ for archive features, and an introduction to current projects. See also somewheresville, the travel blog; Vimeo for videos, LinkedIn for skills and contact details, and Joy Soup for multimedia content news, reviews and services offered.