The end of August and beginning of September means showtime in Wales. Every other field is filled with sheepdog trials and normally sleepy towns are gridlocked with traffic. The shows here are a muddy and unglamorous event and a fixed part of the annual calendar. Today is the county show. Now to some, this will conjure up a vision of endless tents filled with things to buy - you haven't been to a Welsh show have you? Picture a sea of mud, 50 vintage tractors, a half deflated bouncy castle and a horse box with some paintings of, well, horses, inside and you have summed it up. And that is the county show.
The thing is that here, it is not about the shopping, it's about the gossiping. Everybody turns up at some point and a couple of hours drifting around the show ring is enough time to do six months worth of socialising. In between the air kissing and grumbling about the weather, a phalanx of small children on unruly ponies charge around the ring putting Thelwell to shame before sobbing that they didn't get first prize, possibly resorting to fistfights on the way out of the ring. In the next door ring there is the sound of showjumps being smashed to smithereens or the tannoy announcing in Welsh and English that little Dilys and her pony Hoity Toity have been eliminated, could they please leave the ring.
Whilst all this is going on people produce squashed sandwiches and boiled eggs from waterproof coats so ingrained with mud and livestock that the coats run away on their own if you take them off. Luckily various people also seem to produce alcohol from poaching pockets. Hurrah for the boy scout mentality.
This is only the start of the show circuit. The pressure will start mounting for me on Saturday when the village show will dominate the scene. Now, it is a moral obligation to enter as much as possible into the show. It costs 50p for each entry and you win NOTHING but kudos and a piece of card saying you won nothing. Despite this, the community spirit lurches into action around this time of year and I will prepare to humiliate myself by entering various categories. I think I can manage three pieces of rhubarb, and three carrots (even though my carrots are really more like those very expensive miniature ones that supermarkets sell). I will attempt the Lemon curd category, and the fruit jam category though I am bitter about this last one.
Modesty aside, I make a mean pot of jam. I have to as I have such a ridiculous quantity of raspberries each year that jam is the only way to use them all up. Despite this, every year, my jam is SNUBBED. It never even gets a bloody look in and I don't know why not. I think there is a plot, a conspiracy and possibly some backhanders going on. I have high hopes for this year's batch and will be gutted if I don't even get third prize of nothing.
I can probably take the longest thistle category with ease. I walked past one the other day that was taller than me. Then there is the hugely competitive cactus entry. For 10 years now I have swept first place with Spike, the lethal cactus that I only have because it is too spiky to actually throw away. It has now become a tradition to enter the wretched thing, even though it stabs me enough times to make me into a colander on the trip to and from the village.
The other part of the village show is the sheep dog trials. These take place in a field down the road, and are highly entertaining. People travel miles to enter, going to several trials in a day and being notified in the post if they won. The whole thing will take about 12 hours to complete - seriously. Now, I'm not dedicated enough to watch all 12 hours, but I will go down for an hour or so. This is what I will see:
At the far end of one of the larger fields are some of the younger boys from the village with a pen of sheep. They are in charge of letting 5 sheep out at a time for the intrepid trialler and their dog to hustle round the course. The problem is that the boys usually manage to stash a crate or seven of beer in with the sheep, beer that they steadily work their way through as though their lives depend on it. By the latter half of the show they are seeing double and shouldn't be in charge of a woolly jumper, let alone a woolly mammal. Sometimes they let out ten sheep, others two, sometimes none at all.
Meanwhile, the sheep, who may also have imbibed some of the alcohol judging by their behaviour, come hurtling out of the pen with the sole intent of humiliating the contestant and their dog. It is strangely gripping to watch. The shepherd is not allowed to move from their post other than to close the gate on the sheep once they have penned them. The cool shepherds whistle calmly and you watch their dog streak up the side of the field and dash and dart around the sheep taking them round the course with the minimum of fuss and very little instruction from the shepherd. They whisk the sheep through the posts and into the pen as though the whole thing were remote controlled. To be honest, when you see this happen it is true poetry in motion - the ultimate union of man and dog, it appears effortless and calm. Then you get the amateurs.
On they come, quivering with nerves, and blow the first whistle command. The dog runs up the side of the field and the sheep run down the other, the dog cuts across the field to catch up with the sheep. The sheep have a quick conference and decide it would be amusing to split up and chase the dog. The shepherd is going red in the face from whistling so much and resorts to shouting. The sheep approach a set of posts and then whisk around the outside of them. The shepherd starts crying, the audience are crying with laughter. Finally, the judge takes pity and eliminates them.
It's all good, clean, muddy fun. Unless my jam doesn't win......
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