FIELDS OF DREAMS

TO VISIT A COUN­TRY SHOW IS TO DELVE DEEP INTO OUR NA­TIONAL HER­ITAGE AND EX­PE­RI­ENCE A DAY OUT WITH AN­I­MAL, VEG­ETABLE AND MIN­ERAL AP­PEAL, SAYS JU­LIAN OWEN

The Simple Things - - ESCAPE - Pho­tog­ra­phy: JONATHAN CHERRY

June 2017. Royal Three Coun­ties Show, Malvern. Around 96,000 at­tend one of the jewels in a cal­en­dar of sim­i­lar gath­er­ings stretch­ing the length and breadth of the coun­try from spring through to au­tumn. Many are coun­try­side afi­ciona­dos, peo­ple who know their British Sad­dle­backs from their Berk­shires, keenly con­gre­gat­ing for talks such as Why Al­pacas? and Poul­try Chat. For most, how­ever, the stag­ger­ing vol­ume of pedi­gree live­stock is sim­ply an­other spec­ta­cle to rank along­side hot air bal­loons, ‘xtreme fal­conry’, glo­ri­ous farm pro­duce and men rac­ing up ver­tig­i­nous tree trunks on axe han­dles.

At 8am (they start early), im­mac­u­lately groomed horses and riders warm up for ev­ery­thing from show jump­ing to dray dis­plays. Like, re­ally warm up. The tem­per­a­ture is in the 30s and they’ve barely even started. Con­ces­sions are strict. “You may take off jack­ets and com­pete in shirt sleeves,” says a sergeant ma­jor-ish voice over the Tan­noy, “but shirts must cover shoul­ders and arms to the el­bow.”

Close by, beau­ti­fully brushed don­keys with smil­ing eyes are sur­veyed by stern­faced judges. “What are they look­ing for?” I whis­per to an owner. “Movement, type, con­for­ma­tion.” What’s con­for­ma­tion? “That they have legs on all four cor­ners.”

As Wilt­shire county or­gan­iser of the Na­tional Union of Agri­cul­tural Work­ers, my grand­dad would have been some­thing of a noise at gath­er­ings like this. He died be­fore I was old enough to at­tend but, later, my nan and I would an­nu­ally bus to the Royal Bath & West Show, where she’d be greeted with “Keep­ing all right, Ethel?” from kindly old com­rades in the union tent.

Through adult eyes, the ‘grand pa­rade’ of clipped, spot-washed, blow-dried and baby -oiled bovines seems al­most hyp­notic, but »

chil­dren need more. And they get it: mo­tocross dis­play teams, fair­ground, an­i­mal pet­ting...

Ex­per­tise abounds. There is noth­ing Reg Marshall can’t tell you about carved walk­ing stick han­dles. A ram’s horn, for ex­am­ple, re­quires re­peated heat­ing and cool­ing to bend it into shape: “If you try do­ing it in one go, the pres­sure cracks it.” Re­cently, Reg met a chap down Ex­eter way who strug­gled to ac­cept third place for his wild boar’s head. “I said, ‘The carv­ing is absolutely beautiful, but this bit will rough your finger when you walk. If you’d put it an inch for­ward, you’d have had first.’ I al­ways say I judge the stick, not the man.”

While not ev­ery county show has freefalling parachutists, Reg’s an­cient craft and twin­kling pres­ence is a re­minder that, at its core, the Three Coun­ties Show is like any of the other 150-plus county fairs held each year. The fun­da­men­tals of farm­ing and coun­try tra­di­tions live on.

VIN­TAGE VE­HI­CLES

As ubiq­ui­tous as sheep herd­ing and Shet­land ponies – and quite right, too, a steam trac­tion engine in full ef­fect is a spec­tac­u­lar sight even to­day; lord knows how they ap­peared to 19th cen­tury farm work­ers, breath­ing fire and driv­ing thresh­ers and balers with un­prece­dented power. Other county show favourites in­clude tiny petrol-pow­ered por­ta­ble engines from the 1940s, old cars, all sorts – the Three Coun­ties boasted a lovely teardrop-shaped car­a­van, in old shed green and clot­ted cream (see page 69).

NOV­EL­TIES

Birds at county shows have long been a

se­ri­ous con­cern. This month, for ex­am­ple, you’ll find The Poul­try Club of Great Bri­tain, founded 1877, show­cas­ing the best of stock blood­lines at Northum­ber­land County Show (28 May) and Stafford County Show (30–31 May). Along­side that, though – and rank­ing along­side the dry cream cracker eat­ing com­pe­ti­tion in the nov­elty stakes – we find at­trac­tions such as the Quack Pack: former One Man and His

Dog fi­nal­ist, Meirion Owen, herds ducks us­ing col­lies and thinly veiled threats: “It’s been a hard two days for the ducks. They mis­be­haved. I told them overnight, ‘Boys, it’s our last day, and if you mis­be­have we could have a bar­be­cue tonight and I’m not tak­ing you back to West Wales’.”

AN­I­MAL PA­RADES

The grand pa­rade is the blue riband event of any coun­try fair worth its salted but­ter. Ex­pect rosette-sport­ing cows, some like walk­ing deep-pile rugs, oth­ers adorned with pom-pom tails, to swag­ger through the site like the su­per­mod­els of the live­stock world. Or glis­ten­ing horses do­ing the same, re­plete with in­tri­cately plaited manes and che­quer-pat­terned rumps. Or »

“Many are coun­try­side afi­ciona­dos... keenly con­gre­gat­ing for talks such as ‘ Why Al­pacas?’ and ‘Poul­try Chat’”

“Far­ri­er­ing is the beach vol­ley­ball of the show, with an audience of ogling teens”

end­less vari­a­tions: Kent County Show (6-8 July), for ex­am­ple, makes like an au­di­tion for Sher­lock with a pa­rade of blood­hounds. You’ll prob­a­bly find rep­re­sen­ta­tives from all man­ner of an­i­mal sup­port­ers, too. Not just the RSPCA and the usual wildlife trusts, but lesser-spot­ted bod­ies such as the Game & Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Trust, ven­er­a­ble denizens of the ‘killing an­i­mals is the best way to con­serve them’ wing of wildlife char­i­ties.

HORSES PULLING STUFF

Whether it’s pulling a plough, trap or car­riage, some­where on site you’re al­most cer­tain to find a hard-work­ing horse in har­ness. Some scenes are faintly ridicu­lous, such as grand, foot­man-book­ended stage coaches car­ry­ing women in out­size hats and long late-Vic­to­rian skirts round and round a field; oth­ers, like se­ri­ously quick and ag­ile horses slalom­ing through a se­ries of cones, guided by a driver in a two-wheel trap work­ing over­time on the reins, are prop­erly thrilling.

COM­PET­I­TIVE CRAFTS SKILLS

It could be walling, cook­ery, scare­crows, all sorts. If you’re re­ally lucky, it will be far­ri­er­ing, with teams rac­ing to un-shoe a horse, forge a re­place­ment, or get their beast re-shod. It’s very much the beach vol­ley­ball of the Three Coun­ties Show, in an ‘are you re­ally here for the sport?’ kind of way. An audience al­most ex­clu­sively com­pris­ing teenage girls sat rapt as young men in vests and jeans – nat­u­rally bronzed and gleam­ing, toned and tat­tooed, roll-ups dan­gling non­cha­lantly – went about their se­ri­ously daz­zling work.

Find a county or coun­try show at farmin­guk.com/coun­tryshowsande­vents. The 2018 Royal Three Coun­ties Show runs from 15–17 June; roy­althree­coun­ties.co.uk.

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The mane event: 1 horse ac­ro­bat­ics. 2 Trac­tors on tour. 3 A gag­gle have a gig­gle at a goose­dog’s ex­pense. 4 Axe race - two words one doesn’t usu­ally hear in the same sen­tence, with good rea­son 1

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