Westmorland County Show 2012
It’s a world I know so well yet don’t know at all. A world on my doorstep that might as well be Mars. A world I have free access to that’s also something of a private members club. A world that one day a year is open to all at the Westmorland County Show. I may live in the countryside but that doesn’t mean I can tell one sheep from another, know how to judge a cow or feel ready for Cumberland wrestling….
How do you tell a Masham from a Teesdale?
Today I learn that sheep come in many colours. In fact many being judged today have more exciting fur coats than Primark. And although I pass sheep every day when I enter and leave my village, I suddenly realise I’ve never bothered to really look at them. Today I do; I walk from pen to pen as the rain beats down on their woolly backs and get myself an education.
Big lettered signs shout breed names at me – Wensleydale, Charollais, Masham, Teeswater, Herdwick – but I know I’ll never remember that. But at least I start to see differences – the ones as amber as a traffic lights, the ones with dreadlocks, the dog-nosed starey ones. I know what I mean. But I’m still not sure what a gimmer lamb is. But I do know they judge them in terminal and non-terminal categories. I leave you to work out what that means.
I’m at home in the food tent
Normally at the county show I don’t leave the food tent. This one is the biggest of any one day agricultural show in England with its 65 stalls and a food theatre. It’s a countryside melting pot of small, local food producers. If you can get it into a jar, then it’ll be at the show, in the food tent. We think we’re eating local when we buy sausages from Booths but here the butchers is a bit more complicated. I can’t decide what to have for tea – wild boar, wild game pie, smoked eel, goose, mallard, hare, grouse, pheasant, partridge, Cumbrian chorizo. Or kippers by post. Kippers by post? Really? Pity that postman. I have been known to spend six hours walking around the food tent sampling the wares. But recession has hit, and samples are harder to come by.
“I’m not giving any samples out to either adults or children,” one producer tells me.
Perhaps it’s just as well where the butcher’s concerned although I would have liked to try some cake with my coffee.
It’s all rosettes and prizes
The British countryside is a very competitive place. In the craft tent people are spinning, turning, coppicing, baking, rush searing, lace making, quilting and crook making in the hope of being best in show. Out in other tents and on the show fields horses, pigs, cows, sheep are being judged. There are rosettes being handed out for everything. While some are neatly pinned to cakes, crafts and crooks; others are shoved in well-worn pockets of prize winning farmers. I used to think farmers were all the same but they come in different breeds too. The sheep farmers look more like shepherds; all flat caps, silver hair, crooks and tweed. The dairy lads are smart, like city boys in doctors coats and ties, their white show uniforms soon splattered in mud, muck and milk.
On the show field the cows are leaking all over the grass. Veins pop out of their balloon like udders, as they are dragged out for judging in a bovine beauty pageant. How do you judge a cow? What do you look for? Watching these judges it seems to be a combination of boobs, bums and bone structure. Not that different to Miss World then. But I have to admit it’s the first time I’ve found a cow attractive. Should I be worried?
I watch as the cows are milked, but there’s a gate between them and us, and it reminds me of our two separate worlds. I am under a misguided illusion that I’m a Country boy now. In our village we live amongst the inhabitants of the farming world, but really know little of their customs. They don’t recognise me as one of their kind as they meet and greet, and I have no real idea about their lives and routines. I wander around the pig enclosure and wonder why they are all asleep in the middle of the day. Do pigs have siesta? I really should know this. Where did the Cumberland Wrestlers get those white vests and longjohns?
Imagine this if you dare; a farmer’s field marked with a ring of sawdust. In the middle, in stocking feet, a couple rest their chins on each other’s shoulders. They wrap their arms around each other, left arm over, right arm under in a gentle embrace, their hands clasped tightly behind each other’s backs, just above the superman pants.
“On guard” says the referee.
The two men grunt and tighten the unbreakable hand hold.
What is that all about?
Maybe my kids will be locals
I meet my daughter at one of the sheep pens.
“I know all about sheep,” she says. “If you take one and press a spot on its back, its tail wiggles. Did you know that?”
I didn’t. But I do now. I learn something new every year at The Westmorland Show. I’m hoping one day it’ll turn me into a native. Meanwhile, if you live in or are visiting England, make a date to attend one of the agricultural shows. They’re smelly, colourful, noisy, rainy, happy, traditional and very, very rural. And a great education in the countryside.
Do you feel comfortable in the countryside? Have you ever felt a bit of an alien in your community? We’d love to hear your thoughts and comments.