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Royal Berkshire County Show

Yesterday I went to the Royal Berkshire Agricultural Show with Mark. The best part about the show is getting to see the animals, and getting to meet the people who keep them.

For example, how about this lovely Welsh Black Mountain Sheep, and all her rosettes!

…and I discovered that this shy Boreray ram lives in a flock of sheep quite local to me, which is exciting news. I am slightly obsessed at the moment with our critically endangered Boreray numbers.

These Southdown sheep were delighting everyone in the stock tent.

…while this Leicester Longwool was struggling to stay awake in the soporific warmth of the sunny tent.

His buddy had one of the finest sheep’s noses I’ve ever seen. Seriously, there are few things in the world more lovely than a sheep’s nose.

This year’s show was selected as the venue for the Aberdeen Angus national finals, so there were some seriously impressive bulls to be seen. I think this was the champion of the Aberdeen Angus Bulls.

We were awed by the bulls! This magnificent beast is, I think, a Limousin.

There were some equally proud Rams on show, but perhaps the finest set of horns I saw yesterday belonged to this well-decorated Jacob.

The sight of farmers standing in a row with animals they have fed and watered and nurtured from birth makes me feel extremely emotional. I am only a tourist to the world of farming, but from visiting shepherds and reading about the difficult work and the heartbreak involved in breeding and maintaining animals, these moments in show rings seem especially victorious to me.

You get to see the animals looking their best.

However there are many aspects of the Royal Berkshire County Show which I do not enjoy. For example, why is there so little breed-specific meat available to buy from the hot food vendors? Although many such vendors have the red tractor symbol on their stalls and signs proudly declaring that the burgers etc. are made of British meat, I feel this is tokenistic in terms of actually supporting small producers and especially people who keep rare breed animals. I know of one farmer in Cumbria who sells Herdwick meat directly off her farm, because supermarkets will not pay a premium for what she is producing, (even though Herdwick meat is prized as a regional Cumbrian delicacy). I suspect that – similarly – the high cost of hiring a pitch at the Berkshire County Show prices many of the smaller and more specific producers completely out of being able to sell their wares there.

The same seems true also of the craft tents. It is to my mind insane that not one single independent, UK yarn company working with British Wool exhibits at the Royal Berkshire County Show. You can find all manner of bamboo and hemp products in the so-called ECO-VILLAGE area, and many examples of finest cashmere and alpaca elsewhere in the show, and yet British Wool as a home-insulate or a hand-knitting wool is nowhere to be seen! There is an amazing library of yarns that have been spun from many different breeds by the incredibly talented Linda Scurr who some of you may know from Yarnmaker magazine, but this is tucked away in a corner of the sheep tent, and of course is not for sale, (it is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen) meanwhile the craft tent is rammed with Fabergé eggs, ceramic gnomes, and paintings of meerkats with no perceptible ties to local agricultural practice whatsoever.

Wandering between relentless aisles of HOG ROAST and GREAT BRITISH BURGER stalls, I found myself increasingly questioning the true value of the show to agricultural producers, and wondering about the relationship between the Royal Berkshire County Show and the real economics of farming. At times I felt I was in a kind of grotesque fetishisation of the pastoral idyll; a pop-up Disney wonderland where you can buy a bun stuffed with meat for under a fiver, pet all the pretty animals and sit on the grass with your strawberries and cream feeling “all British” or something.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to admire the lovely animals, (and they are lovely) or wanting to eat burgers in the September sunshine, but I do wish that this experience wasn’t so overwhelmingly the focus for what is supposed to be the County Agricultural Show. The programme (which costs £4) has no detail on the different classes for the livestock competitions, (you cannot find out when the Wool-on-the-hoof prizes are being awarded, for instance) but instead is dominated with advertisements for massive 4x4s, professional landscapers, vintage car dealers, and estate agents featuring the outlandish mansions currently on their books. Of all the publications I have ever read in my life, this one showed the least commitment to publicising in any reality the actual world of agriculture as I understand it.

I disapprove of the fact that the animals are off to one side, while the traders are placed centrally, purveying their agricultural-drag-show amidst a hideous frill of union jack bunting and tweed. I think it is ridiculous that the information about the livestock competitions is not given pride of place in the stupid brochure amidst the glossy photos of monstrous country palaces and gleaming SUVs. I did not approve of the stand-up routine delivered whilst the sheep were being sheared, (even though I admired the undoubted skill of the Australian shearer doing that job) and I think it is a crying shame that breed-specific food products were not given a more prominent presence amongst the hot food vendors at the event. The Royal Berkshire County Show treats the public like morons, and I am sad, because I would like to have learned more about these eggs.

…and these ducks.

Luckily, one wonderful lady in the Poultry tent told us that in a couple of weeks’ time there will be a show South of Leicester featuring many domestic ducks. She said there will be fewer fancy birds there than at the clownshoes* RBCS, because this other show “is for people who are really interested in keeping ducks”.

Says it all, really.

*She did not actually use the phrase “clownshoes”

I would really love to hear from producers who showed at the RBCS; is it awesome? Have I got it all wrong? Or is this really a hideous fayre-gone-rogue that really just benefits professional burger vendors and the makers of Fabergé eggs?

7 Responses to Royal Berkshire County Show

  1. Fiona says:

    We had a similar experience recently at our local agricultural fair (Vancouver Island on the west coast of Canada). There was very little information about the animals and too many vendors of ‘tat’. We also had a visit to the UK this summer and I was very saddened not to be able to find any British wool at all. Even when I managed to find a nominally UK company, the yarn was produced in Turkey. I know it is out there, I just couldn’t find it. :(

  2. Kate says:

    Boo! It seems as if there were 2 shows going on here: the one in which the farmers, shepherds, and their livestock competed, and the other one for the money-spending public. It does strike me that things are moving in the right direction elsewhere in the UK — Shetland wool week, for example, grew directly out of the Shetland flock book judging – similar events are now taking place in Yorkshire & Strathearn which have clear links to local landscapes and the animals & producers that inhabit them. Perhaps the Royal Berkshire just needs to re- think its marketing priorities: the programme may be full of 4×4 retailers, and the craft tent full of gnomes simply because these businesses were the first to stump up a hefty fee. Other shows have other, (perhaps less generically commercial) priorities, for example, limiting the number of certain types of business that can attend, or ( like Woolfest) selecting vendors on the grounds of their relevance to the theme of the show…

    Either way, the craft tent sounds very disappointing. The mere sight of a Faberge egg is enough to make me want to run around breaking things…

    • You are spot on about the existence of two shows running in parallel. I keep thinking about the parade of livestock in the main arena at 4pm, which was amazing in terms of the animals on show. The seats were by no means full, but the man who commentated on the event did a fantastic job of explaining all the different breeds and the history of them, over the tannoys. When the cattle breeders were given their prizes and cups, there was a proper speech about how amazing British Beef is, and how we should all do our best to buy British Beef. Yet leaving the arena, I could not find any breed-specific beef to buy, to eat, anywhere!

      I agree that elsewhere in the UK things seem to be moving in the right direction; part of the reason for my outrage is that I have seen better shows everywhere else in the UK but BERKSHIRE where I LIVE! Woolfest and the rare breeds show at the open air museum in Sussex are some of the better examples of events I’ve attended which really close the gap between producers and consumers, and I think there is a lot to be said for judicious curation of vendors.

      I will write to the festival organisers with my suggestions on how the show could be improved, because I really think the show is an amazing opportunity to celebrate our different breeds, and I would really like to see more integration of the two shows into one.

  3. jeannette says:

    yeah. epcot country.
    is there an alt. country fair system?
    this is reverberating somewhere between the difficulties that mrs. governor rockefeller encountered when she tried to organize the quilting women of west virginia in a coop to promote and make quilts for her interior decorator friends who purveyed them in turn to their park avenue customers. who were not best pleased by the polyester fabrics used by the modern farm ladies.

    and, a sort of squirearchy world of suburban rich people, as carefully targeted by the editors here in the u.s. of the new yorker magazine and there, i believe, by the eds of country life.
    http://www.amazon.com/The-World-through-Monocle-Midcentury/dp/0674961935

    As well as smock-frocked yokels and thatched cottages it was necessary to have a gentry and an aristocracy. The country-house revival of the Nineties, out of which Country Life was born, kept Gertrude Jekyll and Lutyens busy. The magazine itself employed them both. Miss Jekyll wrote, Lutyens designed the offices, they worked together on two houses and gardens for the founder of Country Life, Edward Hudson. The magazine arguably was the first ‘lifestyle’ publication, reflecting the way the staff and many of the leaders wanted to live rather than the way in which they actually did. It became the ‘keeper of the architectural conscience of the nation’, and it also enabled socially ambitious young men to stay in grand houses and carry dowagers’ handbags. A mandarin sense of social nuance was needed to keep the ‘wrong people’ out when the ‘right people’ were still so tentative. Over this scene Miss Jekyll, looking increasingly like the reassuring ghost of Queen Victoria, presided. As actual space and wild countryside grew scarcer, so the past, the England of rural crafts and country houses, was becoming the private leisure park of the artistic middle class. Now, of course, the gates have been thrown open in the name of Heritage, and chintz and mixed borders have swept down the classes. Miss Jekyll would not have been pleased.
    http://www.lrb.co.uk/v13/n23/rosemary-hill/smocks

  4. Jo Ford says:

    What a shame, and a missed opportunity! I hope the show producers heed your comments and make appropriate changes next year.
    I LOVE your photos :-) – I think my favourite is the sleepy Leicester Longwool, but they all have their won charm.
    Thank you

  5. Fergus Ford says:

    Mega dislike :( Sorry the show was such a bummer – I think the sad thing is that the Clownshoes at the RBCS need to make a profit from their show Zincy, and Jo Public would rather read about a new Land Rover than the different breeds of sheep…not that I am excusing it, by any means, but unfortunately the dollar is king :(

    Great shots of the SHEEPS though – I particularly like sleepy sheep!

    Hope you have better luck and less gross commercialism at the Duck Show in Leicester….I await with baited breath :) xxx

  6. Lara says:

    I wish she had used the *clownshoes* word. I think it is because it is a Royal Agricultural show – they are quite bobbins and not really for proper farmers. It is one of the reason that the Royal Show (at Stoneleigh) stopped running because they became less relevant to the agricultural sector. When I worked at Defra we scaled back going to a lot of the big shows because they got so general and not related to farming at all. (I think the 3 counties, Royal Yorkshire, Norfolk would all be quite similar – certainly the ones I worked were). I think sector specific events like the Dairy Show or very local livestock markets are where the farmers/more agricultural stuff will be. There are about 80 livestock markets left. It is a shame because the main shows would be a fab opportunity to get more people to appreciate things about farming…

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