The great British country show - a cultural eye-opener

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Leeks as big as legs, best-dressed potatoes, wrestlers in white leggings and lovingly preened cows: the country show is an eclectic celebration of all that’s best in rural Britain. It’s where serious farmers show off their sheepdogs and shop for new tractors, while amateur agriculturalists cheer at the terrier racing and play guess-how-many-balloons-are-in-the-combine-harvester.

It’s a combination of trade, tradition and family fun, with a few oversized vegetables thrown in for good measure. Who, after all, doesn’t love a really, really big cabbage?

An ancient institution

The root of the country show is medieval. These old-fashioned fayres historically saw traders congregate to sell and swap, and hard-toiling labourers down pitchforks for the day for a much-needed break. And for a much-needed gossip – with countryfolk dotted over distant hillsides (and before the advent of sealed roads and the mobile phone), these were times when scattered communities came together to share farming know-how and flirt behind the haystacks.

Access and communication may be easier now but, thankfully, the country show has retained its place in many rural societies. Today there are around 150 of them in Great Britain, of varying sizes and attendance levels, between May and October. The machinery and methods of farming may have changed, but the heart and soul behind these events remains.

The cow parade

The fundamental business of the country fair is livestock. From the clang of metal gates, the strangely wholesome tang of manure and the orchestral movement of moos, bleats and oinks, you can’t escape it.

You might not know, or think you want to know, anything about the various varieties of cow, sheep, pig and even pigeon on display, all of which are fighting for those coveted winners’ rosettes. But to see how much love has been lavished on these prime beasts – with farmers striving to produce the perfect example of their particular breed – is to gain an insight into the complex world of agriculture.

The sheepdog trials are a definite highlight. A cryptic succession of whistles from a man in a flat cap somehow helps a perky collie round up a fluffball of ewes. The only place to head after witnessing such a demonstration is the food tent, where with luck a roasted lamb sandwich will round off the experience.

Best in show

There’s far more to the country show than farm animals. Your first stop should be the artisan tent, where you can pick up local whiskey, hand-carved shepherds’ crooks, jars of honey and embroidered tea cosies – most of them sold by the producers themselves.

Next head to the main ring, where a typical timetable may consist of falconry displays, Cumberland wrestling, pipe-and-drum performances and pony-and-trap contests. And once you’ve witnessed the wonderful chaos of terrier racing, watching boring horses will never be the same again.

Finally, the finest tent of them all: the competition tent. Here, a bewildering number of categories – from ‘biggest onion’ to ‘best crocheted matinee jacket’ and ‘best mini-landscape, in a tray, made of eggshells and toilet roll’ – showcases the skill and ingenuity of the community.

It also shows a dogged desire to win a prize for something. At the Alwinton Border Shepherds’ Show in Northumberland (October) anyone can nominate a new category for a small fee – so if you have a unique talent for carving dinosaurs out of butternut squashes or baking cakes that taste like burgers, next year that rosette could be yours.

Practicalities

British country shows happen throughout the summer. The Royal Agricultural Society of England and its counterparts in Wales and Scotland have listings and information.