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
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.
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).
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’.”
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.
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