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Day 11: Cumbria’s farmers have the Belgian Blues

1997 September 2
by Paul Vallely

“What was wrong with my scones?” Mrs Rowson asked. Perhaps there wasn’t enough cheese in them, her friend suggested. Mrs Rowson looked so forlorn that I ventured to chip in. “I prefer them without too much cheese,” I confided. Mrs Rowson looked grateful in a passing sort of way, but she was unconvinced.

Welcome to the Cockermouth Agricultural Show. I had come a long way in a few days, from a community of prosperity among Ulster’s well-to-do via a more abject experience among the homeless on the streets of Edinburgh. But this was something else. The bus journey from Carlisle seemed to transport me into the past – and a world of innocence, drop scones and lemon cheese.

Here, achievement was measured with red rosettes and highly commendeds for everything from bantams to Belted Galloways. The categories showed respect for proper fruitcake, gingerbread, Viennese fingers and butterfly cakes (four to be submitted). Deference was paid to skill in cross-stitch, crochet and petit point. There were prizes for a knitted garment for a baby, the best thimble – and, for children, handwriting, the arrangement of flowers in moss on a saucer and the decoration of two digestive biscuits. If the categories speak of the past, it is not the era in which the show was founded. Then, almost 150 years ago, was the time when agriculture became an industry rather than a way of life. In 1849 there was a prize for the Best Hired Man (and wife) and another for the farm worker with the most children who had not resorted to the poverty house. On the horizon lowered the black hills which mark the edge of the Lake District, so tall that the clouds seemed to rest upon them, masking hidden places, beckoning like a foreign country. Here in the main ring, between the hired marquees, John Hall had finished judging the Belgian Blues. He lingered to watch the next judge reach his verdict on the Best in Show in all cattle categories. The farmer was only 54, but his face was weathered like red granite. He explained to me the basics of show judging: “A dairy cow wants sharp features, good top lines, good locomotion and the right teat placement. With a Charolais or Simmental you look for medium conformation, not extreme in the muscling, though a Belgian Blue should show off individual muscles like a weight-lifter,” he said. It did not seem profitable to probe all this too closely. The judge in the ring had made his decision. “He’s gone for the cow. I would have, too.” Patches of sawdust littered the rough grass of the wide field, marking the spots where the Limousins, Herdwicks, fell ponies, show jumpers and heavy working horses had performed en route. Beside the road, vintage engines and tractors chugged bronchitically. In the “industrial” tent, which mysteriously included the WI’s damson jam and home baking sale, an ecological furniture maker named Danny Frost was exhibiting fine bowls, tables and dressers made from wind-blown elm and cherry trees. “Please touch,” said the counter-cultural notice beside his display. Now there were three activities in the main ring. A sheepdog was herding geese in one corner. Fox terriers were parading in another. And in a third the burly man-mountain Alf Harrington was calling out the Cumberland and Westmoreland wrestlers. This ancient sport can trace its origins back four millennia. To the outsider it looks like Sumo wrestling for slimmers – all sudden falls, nifty trips and posture-striking. After nearly dying out in the Sixties, it is making a comeback. “Fifty years ago a wrestler could earn a week’s wages in a bout. Today we play for the same money,” said Alf. But there were heartening numbers of under-12s in the ring. “It’s still a community sport – friendly, like,” said Alf, with what I would have romantically described as a farmer’s burr, except that he is an accountant. “But it’s in the blood, you see.” John Hall courteously invited me to lunch in the judges’ tent. Inside they were farmers to a man. They were tightening the slurry regulations, I learnt at a trestle of cold meats, salad and teatime fancies. Soon it would be as bad as Holland. It was terrible getting a herdsman these days; they wanted pounds 18,000 to pounds 20,000, almost double the old rates. No one was doing agriculture at college now; it was all equestrianism and leisure. “I’m thinking about early retirement,” said one rubicund fellow in his forties. Was he joking, I asked John Hall. Sadly, not. “Most farmers have an average working week of 70 hours – 10 hours a day, seven days a week. During calving we’re up all night and catch a couple of hours’ sleep in the afternoon. Yet the return on capital is now only between 1 and 2 per cent. You can have a million-pound farm and not make pounds 20,000 a year.” The moaning farmer is a popular stereotype. But it has, said John Hall, gone beyond that. “Farming is caught in the pressures between the consumer, the taxpayer and the bureaucrat. BSE is only a metaphor for what was happening anyway. The public today want cheaper food, and then object to the intensive farming that produces it.” The agricultural show is a good place to air all this. “It’s one of those events that keep the community together. Agriculture is a lonely job, especially for a small farmer. You’re isolated a lot of the time. Most will go to 10 or 12 shows in the summer. It’s extraordinary how supportive it is.” Before the event there is the preparation – winter committee meetings, the dinner dance, fundraising, the ladies’ social evening. The show is glue for the wider community, too. Back on the field the fire brigade was demonstrating the right and, more spectacularly, the wrong ways to put out a chip fire. The Cockermouth Mountain Rescue team had its logbooks out to prove that they bring stranded sheep, cattle and hounds down from the fell tops, as well as feckless townies. The local feed merchants were offering their annual hospitality. “Most farmers round here run small, mixed farms,” said Jim Peet, of Jim Peet Agriculture. “With harvest, hay, silage, milking, lambing, they always have a lot on their minds when you go to see them at the farm. People are more relaxed here.” His generosity is profitable: at a time when the national feed merchants are 30 per cent down, he is doing very well. At the close of the day, before dismantling began, members of the 84- strong show committee gathered in the secretary’s tent for a glass of sweetish white wine. “You meet people, and that’s what it’s all about,” said Bob, one of the chief stewards. The secretary, Mrs Norma Boyes of Middlegill Farm, smiled vaguely. She was already thinking about next year’s show.


Tomorrow Day 12: Rum-ti-tum, the heartbeat of a nation

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