After a ropey year for British agriculture, with a soggy summer and long winter leaving many farmers empty of pocket and heavy under the eyes, this week brings relief: the 150th Royal Bath & West.
The show, the first of the season, is a sort of Glastonbury for farmers, and held down the road in Shepton Mallet, Somerset.
Beneath the bunting, and surrounded by baying spectators in wellies and anoraks, six ferrets are goaded through a series of pipes bound together with chicken wire – the first ferret race of the day.
Prize pygmy goats, pigs wearing rosettes and a 5ft Victoria sponge cake are among the other attractions. Britain’s finest beasts and agricultural produce will be judged and take to the podium at this year’s four-day event, separating the common and garden chicken from the champion cock; the home-brewed drain cleaner from the acclaimed organic wine. The cheese, honey and cider stalls are popular.
The air’s ripe with the pong of manure and sweet barbecued meat.
First up in the ring, the champion cattle. As fat grey clouds sit above this lustrous patch of the West Country, beef and sheep farmer GG Morris from Carmarthen, south Wales, who is also a judge this year, considers a line of enormous cows being commandeered into formation by burly men in white lab coats.
Inside the ring, judges in bowler hats stroke their chins, deliberating over which animal has the best “conformation”, evaluating weight for age (“particularly important in continental breeds”) and which is most developed in the prize areas of butchery, specifically the hind quarters and loin.
The winner of this – a limousin heffer, which was awarded the interbreed title for best individual beef animal – will go on, as one of a pair, to enter the prestigious Burke Trophy, the world cup of beef cattle breeding, the final of which will be contested today.
For Mr Morris, the show is all about the animals, and a “nice chance to exchange views and view quality livestock, after a depressing period”.
In the main pig pen, Peggy Darvill from Lake Farm in Toller Whelme, West Dorset, preened her contender, a Gloucester Old Spot for whom she frankly had low expectations. Time will tell if its back is deemed straight enough or its nipples satisfactory, but Ms Darvill is “not hopeful, not against the ones who have been in here today”.
Needless to say, the winning ferret owner was Terry Moule, something of a legend in these circles – a Sheikh Mohammed of the ferret-racing world. The Devon-based trainer recently returned to the ferret-racing arena after chopping off his finger with a handsaw. His victorious creature crosses the line – and makes a dash for it, but Mr Moule soon recaptures the boisterous mammal.
Better-behaved were the canine members of the Sealyham Terrier Club, rallying interest in what was once a socialite’s handbag dog of choice but is now an endangered breed with just 79 pups bred last year in the UK. (They need to breed within 300 and 500 a year to get off the vulnerable list.) Owner Harry Parsons says the Queen used to keep them, as did Humphrey Bogart: “But when he wasn’t acting he was womanising, and when he wasn’t womanising, he was drunk, so what time did he have for the Sealyham?”
Seven-year-old Grace Denning was competing for best young herdsmen – a competition she first entered aged three.
Dressed in their lab coats, with expressions of intense concentration, she and fellow junior showmen prepare to drag and push a remarkable array of cattle – some of whom are three times the size of the figure pulling them along by a rope – around one of the smaller arenas.
By teatime, word got out about the presence of a 5ft Victoria sponge – a record – which required 600 eggs, 100 pounds of sugar and butter, and an industrial oven inside a steel factory, not to mention a forklift truck to drag it out.
Marian Evans, from Bath, was yet to track it down, and sated her appetite with a glass of Pimm’s and a bowl of strawberries and cream. Pulling her anorak tight around her chest as the crosswind picked up, she strained a smile: “I mean this is what it’s all about, isn’t it? The Great British summer.”