If you are travelling through the Dales during August and September you may become aware that it is ‘Show Time’ and not in the theatrical sense. It is the time of year for Dales’ folk to show their finest – be it their jam making skills, their sporting prowess or their nurtured progeny. From beetroot to sheep, to children, this is the chance to display the things they are proud of and to be judged in front of one and all.
The shows themselves may seem to the visitor to be relaxed affairs. Locals are dressed in Sunday best and a convivial cheer is apparent amongst the smiling crowds. Children escort proud grandparents around the exhibits placed carefully on wobbly trestle tables in rather soggy marquees that always seem to smell of cow dung. They show off their decorated welly, the animal carefully constructed from vegetables, their gingerbread men, the piece of perfect handwriting and many more depending upon the patience of their long suffering parents. Children and their escorts swell with pride at the prize cards that, hopefully, adorn at least one of their exhibits. Visitors can be spotted as the ones who look somewhat bemused at some of the items on display from the ‘decorated hard boiled egg’ to the ‘two decorated weetabix’ and perhaps wonder how the locals spend their summer.
There is a definite change in the atmosphere in the Dale as show day approaches. Kitchen tables are adorned with drying finger paintings, cows stand patiently whilst they are preened within an inch of their lives, mothers frantically try to construct a fancy dress costume and gardeners pay a little more attention to their produce hoping that this year they may find three matching potatoes that the worms haven’t found first and two courgettes that are almost the same length and size. Tension builds. I remember how each year, on a rainy day in the summer holidays I would be called to the kitchen table to ‘do your handwriting for Malham Show’. It would all begin well with hands washed, pencil sharpened, pristine paper looking up at me optimistically and without fail, each year, it ended in tears. My mother would find me surrounded by screwed up balls of paper, the floor strewn with pencil shavings, snot and tears on my face, the paper, and the table. The difficulties involved in transcribing two lines from text to that piece of paper cannot be underestimated and yet I subjected my own children to the same torture and suspect my grandchildren, if I have any, may be dealt the same fate.
The day itself begins early for exhibitors. Cars are laden with flower arrangements, enormous models ‘constructed from scrap’, carefully cleaned onions and leeks, a flower arrangement entitled ‘the famous five’ as per the show schedule’s instructions – woe betide anyone who endangers these exhibits as they make their way from home to car to the show field. My exhibits are now limited to rather sad produce from my haphazard vegetable plot. I scuttle into the tent early and push my undersized, misshapen entries to the back of the section hoping that no one will notice them amidst the giant onions the size of a child’s head and the enormous leeks that could double as a weapon of self defence. One year my cauliflower entry was particularly tiny, more of a floret than an actual cauliflower. It was the only local entry in its section that year but the judge was so unimpressed by its diminutive stature that he awarded it second prize. Again, it was the only entry.
The day progresses through show jumping, sheep judging, children’s sports, tractor parades, and then comes the fancy dress. Children are summoned, faces cleaned, fragile constructions fished from the back of cars and they become Mo Farah, the Eiffel Tower, Boris Johnson, the entire Tory party – you name it, a child has been dressed up as it. My mother must have attracted much jealousy amongst the fancy dressers the year she had the ingenious idea of ‘dressing’ me as Lady Godiva – the lady who paraded the streets naked on her horse. No hours of costume construction for Mum, an obliging pony, some skin coloured pants and a wig made from baler twine – pure genius. Luckily, I was too in love with Pancake the pony to be worried about my dignity.
If you are lucky enough to be able to incorporate a show into your visit to the Dales I urge you to do so; make sure you look beneath that convivial façade. Underneath is exhaustion from the weeks spent preparing, relief that a child agreed to wear the Olympic rings and dad’s cycling shorts, terror that the new puppy will disgrace itself in the ‘ best looking puppy’ section and most of all delight that the day is over – at least for another year.