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My Uncle George’s lemon curd

2009 May 16
by Paul Vallely

My Uncle George once stirred his lemon curd with a plastic spoon. It melted. But he was blowed, he said, if he was going to let all those good eggs, butter and sugar go to waste. So he bottled it up anyway. It did not win Best In Show. Indeed my Auntie Joan, who was a stickler in such matters, would not even let him enter it, on the grounds that it tasted of plastic. Which it did. Uncle George would have eaten it all himself, just to prove a point, though he also tried to feed it to us kids. But his wife, who was a member of the Women’s Institute, made him throw the whole lot away. There is family honour in such matters.

The past is another country, to misquote L P Hartley – not the Hartley in the Yellow Pages adverts, but the other Hartley. But it is a two way process. Some places are another time. Prominent among them is the British country show. Each time I visit one I regress to another era, to the sheepdog trials of my childhood holidays in Swaledale or the hill races of the Lake District in which rugged runners left the rest of us behind among the stalls and marquees of the valley floor, straining our necks as they disappeared, white dots among the sheep and heather of the great fellsides that stretched to the sky in every direction.

When they had gone from our sight we turned back to the big white tents in which the runner beans, cut flowers and home-made marmalades stood on long wooden trestle tables, spotted with the occasional rosette which were the judges’ marks of tribute.

If you were lucky there might be something really unusual, like Cumberland & Westmorland wrestling at the Penrith show. But I only ever saw that on posters because I was always somewhere else. Yet it was a good somewhere else, which combined the exotic with the everyday, in that what you saw was always the same – the cabbages, cakes and chrysanthemums – and yet so different from the life you lived back in town.

Country shows took their names from places – little village affairs in places like Arkengathdale or massive county gatherings such as the Great Yorkshire Show down at Harrogate. Far-off shows were Royal, like the Welsh, the Norfolk, or the Highland even. They were places renowned for exotica like ploughing competitions, ferret-racing and mole-catching displays. But only the Yorkshire show was Great.

Still, there were some things they all shared. Animal husbandry, livestock judging, shire horses with their shanks like hairy flared trousers. There were roses and dahlias; potatoes, carrots and leeks, the finest not the biggest; this was not the North-East; this was produce of farming men, not the braggart products of the hobbies of miners. There were Victoria sponges, bracks and finely-fruited cakes, light and spicy or heavy and plum-dark, watched over by thin grey bespectacled ladies in cardigans or jolly bustling red-faced farmers wives out of Beryl Cook.

There would be a dog show, and a bonny baby competition. And at the end of the day they would release balloons, filled from huge hissing cylinders, with brown parcel tickets dangling from them bearing the names of hopeful children, mine included, as they launched off into the future.

If it was everyday stuff it was also was splendidly alien to us holidaying townies. There might be clay-shooting or falconry or even be farriers shoeing horses. There were the gymkhana ponies of the posh people of the county set. But it was not about class; farming men of serf stock raced shoulder to shoulder with the aristocracy in the four-in-hands carriage race. No, the divide was between town and country. Towns were places where people were crammed so close together that salvation lay in pretending the others were not there, so we passed silently in the street, ignoring the pressing of the crowd. In the country, by contrast, folk were so few, and the distance between them so great, that opportunities had actively to be sought to link up with others. And nowhere was greater for that than the show.

Things are changing now. Shows which were once mid-week, and just for country folk in farming communities, are now held over weekends or on bank holidays to draw visitors from the towns on whose custom they depend to make a profit. They include bouncy castles  and funfairs, and anachronisms like Sealed Knot battle re-enactments or Victorian fairground rides. The Royal Bath & West at Shepton Mallet this month is advertising celebrities as a draw: the fashion designer Jeff Banks will judge a ‘best dressed couple’ competition, Martin Roberts, of BBC TV’s Homes Under the Hammer will be there and top of the bill will be the actor who played Chewbacca in Star Wars making only his third public appearance in the UK in 10 years.

For all that, somewhere between the pets tent, the horticulture marquee and the terrier racing, there can still be caught a glimpse of another world, of a different pace and of older tweedy values. It is a place where the answer lies still in the soil, even if nowadays most of us aren’t quite sure what the question is.

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