All the fun of the fair: The eccentric British country show is alive and kicking

From bonny baby competitions to giant marrow contests, the country show is a peculiarly British institution. Christopher Hirst weighs up the contestants at North Yorkshire's Thornton le Dale show
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Some people achieve transporting bliss through meditation, prayer or exercise, but I've found that a pig competition in a village show does the job for me. It's hard to explain, but the spectacle of boars, sows and gilts (females yet to have a litter), whether snoozing in their pens, rooting for food or trotting round in competition, induces in me a profound sense of happiness and contentment.

I get my annual fix of porcine transcendence at the Thornton le Dale Show, which takes place in an idyllic setting in North Yorkshire. Sometimes there may be a moment of friction that involves combatants being separated with pig boards ("They were falling out in lumps at the Sutton-in-the-Forest show," I was informed), but generally a sense of bucolic ease prevails. PG Wodehouse's pig-loving hero Lord Emsworth would feel very much at home here.

While country shows in the south have fallen prey to gigantism, with livestock often edged out by car and tractor displays, conservatory companies, supermarket promotions and hucksters of dubious Liebfraumilch, the village show continues to thrive in the north. This is where these summer entertainments began. Dating from 1763, the show at Wolsingham, County Durham, claims to be the first.

Northern shows range from the Great Yorkshire, a mammoth event in Harrogate founded in 1838, to the delightful Rosedale, which takes place in an upland hamlet near Whitby. Still boasting a Bonny Baby Competition (since even the most ill-favoured plug-ugly is a paragon of beauty in the eyes of its mother), Rosedale provided an unintended entertainment last year. While I was sinking a pint in the large, crowded beer tent, a rogue gust barrelled up the stunningly beautiful valley where the show is located. There was a sudden wrenching billow and the whole tent took off and blew away into an adjoining field. People eating lunch were momentarily frozen, forks in mid-away, before continuing their feast in an extra-mural setting.

A relative newcomer, now in its 91st year, Thornton le Dale is a middling-sized affair, attracting around 15,000 visitors if the weather is fine. Many are drawn by the entertainments, which this year featured a swing band and jousting. Others are lured by the large produce tent with 256 classes ranging from "A summer dessert in a glass" to "A bale or truss of this season's hay". The animal sections are a potent draw for those intrigued by "Anglo-Nubian goat in milk" or "Primitive Female Gimmer Lamb", though the show continued even when the stockyard descant of lowing cattle and braying ewes was missing due to BSE and foot-and-mouth disease. The Derwent Hunt Parade of Hounds is also warmly received despite the threat of a female commentator a few years ago: "This pack will all be destroyed if hunting is banned".

Ever since I inherited a small house near the North Yorkshire coast, my wife and I have passed a good chunk of the summer up here, and our day out at Thornton le Dale is a highlight of our stay. After writing about the show in this newspaper several years ago, I was asked to judge Best Matching Pair of Pigs. The following year, I suggested a new category for "Most Charming Pig", though this did not become a fixture, possibly due to its sentimental nature. "I always say that a pig is a friend for life," one breeder pointed out, "until you eat it."

Showing remarkable judicial versatility, my wife and I subsequently assessed scarecrows, fruit liqueurs, photographic entries on the theme of "Yellow" and children's crafts. The latter proved to be something of a poisoned chalice. You knew that by singling out the winner of "A painted face on a boiled egg, wearing a hat" or "A flower arrangement in an unusual container", you were inflicting disappointment on less accomplished entrants.

Two years ago, we compared the merits of 22 homemade sausages. Our tasting took place in unfortunate proximity to the pig arena, though the Judges' Lunch Tent provided a cordon sanitaire. Since our fryer mixed up the sausages, we were obliged to have a second tasting with ruinous consequences for my digestion. Country memories are long and our selection from the anonymous bangers still rankles with certain disappointed parties. Last year, we moved on to homemade pork pies. This went without hitch since there were only five entries, though there was a slight hiccup when Radio York did a live interview with me afterwards.

"I believe you've been judging pigs?"

"Well, yes, but post-mortem."

"How do you mean?"

"I've been doing pork pies."

"With that, we'll go back to the studio."

This year, I returned to judging pork on the trotter. Class 164 was "Pair of Pigs, any breed or cross, most suitable for the trade". A couple of days before the show, I had a preparatory seminar with my friend Nick Hargrave, the show's pig secretary.

"I remember the points to look out for from last time," I told him. "A good underline and an even number of teats."

"No!" he yelled. "You'll give yourself away if you start looking at the underline. These pigs are going for sausages, not breeding. They're normally five months old and weigh at least 75-85 kilos. You want a big square loin and a long square back. And no squidginess at the shoulder. You don't want them to be overfat." Another pigman put it more bluntly: "You want a good arse and strong legs – something that'll make a great carcass."

As is customary, the day of the show began with a downpour. We trudged through the splats to deposit our entries in the Produce Tent. Mrs Hirst's lemon curd joined 15 other bright yellow pots, while her raspberry jam swelled the field to 23. Possibly due to a special prize of £10, this event is the preserving equivalent of the Grand National. Following a challenge ("Doubles at dawn!") from Martin Blythe, chairman of the show, I entered three carefully matured vintages in the class for "1 bottle fruit liqueur".

We lacked sufficient confidence to enter the baking section, even though Thornton le Dale's specifications are easy-going compared to other shows: "1 Sponge Fruit Flan (case must be homemade)". As Harry Pearson, who wrote a book called Racing Pigs and Giant Marrows about northern shows, pointed out: "The baking section is ruled over by a set of principles so rigid and arcane they make Japanese etiquette look laissez-faire. Woe betide any novice who enters a savoury flan in a fluted dish." My wife's shortcake got the thumbs-down at the Hunmanby Show because it spread to 7 inches instead of the specified "6-6.5 inch diameter". My mother's "Victoria Sandwich with raspberry jam" came second even though it was the only entry. She never bothered entering after that.

At 9am, the tables in the big marquee were laden with onions the size of babies' heads, their roots combed into girly pigtails, scones like miniature castles and cabbages that resembled swirly nebulae snapped by Hubble.

There were sweet peas like a fragrant swarm of butterflies and arrangements of cruelly beheaded pansies. Finessing a trio of yard-long carrots with roots of rapier fineness, Fred Whitwell of Gringle near Whitby explained that they were grown in 40-gallon drums of sand mixed with expensive compost. "Even so, there's a trace of carrot fly on one of them," he tutted over a few scarcely perceptible specks. "I brought the wrong carrot."

The rain had stopped by the time we came out of the Produce Tent and the Show Ring was occupied by ponies and jodhpured girls, all groomed to within an inch of their lives. Trade stands were already doing brisk business. Even in Yorkshire, purse strings are magically loosened at country shows.

Peering at one stall selling a prodigious range of antique confectionery, I was sad to see that the liquorice pipes had disappeared. For some years, the manufacturer continued selling this item by changing the colour of the "dottle" hundreds and thousands from red to green, but the authorities saw even this as a dangerous temptation to lure youngsters on the road to briar pipe and St Bruno. "Mind you, we still do sweet tobacco," said the stallholder. "It's coconut shreds in sugar and cocoa, but we sell it in paper bags not pouches."

I always like to linger at the horse equipment stall, which sells such exotica as udder grease and "Naff Off" fly repellent. Reading my mind, the retailer informed me: "Yes, I've had the Princess Royal as a customer. It's not every stallholder whose products have been fondled by Anne and Zara."

The pens in the goat section were covered by a blue plastic awning. A goateed, mythological head appeared over the top, turned through 180 degrees, and started lapping the rainwater that had collected in a little pool. Nearby, in the pens devoted to rare and minority breeds of sheep, a black-horned, North Ronaldsay ram called Errol was being furiously groomed by Don Clarke from Sherriff Hutton. "They can be a bit awkward," said his friend Angela Dick, while Errol shot a mad, yellow glare in our direction. Maybe he had a point, since Angela went on to discuss his culinary potential. "They have a different flavour to a commercial sheep. He is 18 months old and technically mutton but he needs another summer's grass before he ends up on the plate."

An outburst of grunting and snorting indicated our destination. Shaded by overhanging branches, the pig arena was occupied by a dozen rare breed sows, guided around a circuit by the sticks of their owners. Occasional outbursts of porcine exuberance were curbed by pig boards emblazoned with the words "Barclays Bank". Originally woodland creatures, pigs tend to charge at anything they can see through but are rebuffed by the opaque, which may well be a tree. Most of the pigs at Thornton le Dale are rare breeds grown by smallholders. It is easy to identify the Gloucestershire Old Spots by their archipelago of markings. Handsome ginger Tamworths are equally distinctive. "People messed about with it," said Nick Hargrave. "They were originally small pigs but got interbred with Large Whites." The flop-eared Saddlebacks are black pigs fore and aft, but white pigs in the shoulder area. Hampshires look pretty much like saddlebacks except for their prick ears. "They took Saddlebacks to America in colonial times and 200 years later they came back looking like this." The Berkshire breed, beloved by Lord Emsworth, is a dark pig with six white points – four on the trotters, one on the nose and one on the bristles of the tail, while the Middle White is distinguished by a squashed nose as if it was pressing against an invisible window pane.

"You have trouble making money on rare breeds," explained Richard Horsley, who farms at Acaster. "The meat is too fatty for the commercial trade." In the 19th century, the fat pig became an object of great interest. Posters would advertise immense porkers that resembled balloons with a tiny trotter poking out at each corner: "The pig will be on its feet at 2, 4 and 6pm." One "stupendous novelty" weighing almost 100 stones (636 kilos) was said to have earnt £3,000 in three years from spectators. Even then, it was recognised that such obesity was not sensible. In 1882, a pig judge at Reading complained about flesh that was "all blubber with little of the lean flesh that is wholesome for man".

Pig racing was also popular at country fairs. Young pigs can show an impressive turn of speed and there was a breed, now sadly extinct, called the Irish Greyhound that could "leap a five-barred gate with ease". There was even a fascination with intelligent porkers. Toby the Sapient Pig could "play at cards, tell any person what o'clock it is – to the minute by their own watch – tell the age of anyone in the company and discover a person's thoughts."

The real pig judge at Thornton le Dale, responsible for 99 per cent of the adjudication in the arena, was Andrew Warriner, a farmer from Cryke near York. Though Andrew admitted he had bought his judge's bowler from a joke shop in Whitby, he took his judicial duties very seriously, gazing long and hard before coming to a verdict. "It's a really exceptional year – these are fantastic pigs," he said, pointing out the outstanding features of a Berkshire boar. "It should have three to four teats in front of the sheath."

"What's that?"

Andrew's eyes rolled heavenwards at the ignorance of his fellow judge. "It's where the penis comes out. It should also have good big hams and be quite lean over the shoulder."

Advised by Nick, I made my selection of the best pair of pigs for the trade. He nudged me in the direction of a pair of white pigs of the Welsh breed, which is slim enough for commercial purposes. "They're in very good nick with plenty of dinners and plenty of breakfasts in them. Nice and hammy at the backside."

"And no squidginess at the shoulder," I added knowledgably.

A Berkshire sow, already adorned with a rosette supplied by the PG Wodehouse Society for being top of its class, also took best in show.

While the entries went to have a welcome snooze in their hay-lined pens, we were able to continue our porcine assessment in the Judges' Lunch Tent, since our beef salad was augmented by the 10 entries in the pork pie section. Martin, the show chairman, had swept the board with winners in all four categories (4-inch tin-baked, hot water and butter crust; hand-raised, hot water and butter crust). "I reared this meat," said Nick. "It's from my British Saddlebacks." I must admit that my recent encounter with the living beasts did not put me off the pies in the least. Martin's pies were an edible explanation of why Yorkshire will remain a carnivorous redoubt when the rest of the world turns vegetarian. They were nothing less than magnificent, with crunch crusts containing succulent meat embedded in richly flavoured jelly. The bliss delivered by the intelligent, likeable pig continues into the afterlife.

In the afternoon, the range of entertainment at Thornton le Dale almost matched Glastonbury. Accompanied by the theme music from El Cid, medieval knights directed shaky lances at one another (a crackly loudspeaker announced: "And now into the lists, Sir Arthur challenges Sir Henry... Are you all right, Sir Henry?"), while a few paces away the East Coast Big Band blasted out "Sweet Georgia Brown". The choice of headliner is a major headache for Martin Blythe. "We want lots of kids to come and they like something exciting. We try to get a new top act each year, though we had the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse for four years on the trot. The leader was simply amazing. He'd swing under his horse and ride at full tilt with his head two inches from the ground." I always relished the moment when the commentator urged the crowd to cheer for their favourite horseman: "Let's hear it for the Grim Repeater... And now, a big hand for Pestilence!" After the stunt team decamped for Spain, where there is more equine movie work, Martin was obliged to seek new thrills. "For next year, we've already booked Rocking Horse Productions, an orc show based on Tolkien."

Back in the Produce Tent, we discovered how our entries had fared. After being sampled by the judicial spatula (carefully washed between each tasting), Mrs Hirst's raspberry jam was placed among the also-runs. Same went for her lemon curd. "I knew it wouldn't win anything," she sighed. "It curdled a bit." But her crab apple jelly took the £1 third prize in the class for "1 jar jelly (any fruit)". No lottery winner could have been more ecstatic: "I gotta prize!". Since it cost 50p to enter, we were 50p up. My crème de framboises scooped second prize (£3) in the fruit liqueurs, a success that I did not fail to point out to my rival Martin. "I noticed that a raspberry vodka came first," Martin sniffed. "I think the judge must like raspberries."

Clasping a sheaf of prize certificates, Fred Whitwell of Gringle near Whitby was awarded the 1953 Coronation Trophy for Overall Garden Produce. Despite his concern about carrot fly, he also got a special medal for his carrots from the judge, Mr N Butler of North Wales. William Gent, the Chief Steward for Shepherds' Crooks and Walking Sticks, said it had been the best year ever. "We had 284 sticks entered, including five of the best stick makers in the country. They only had 150 at the Great Yorkshire." His satisfaction was echoed by the show chairman, who said that everything had gone well, "except for the motorcycle stunt man who had to withdraw for technical reasons. We got a stagecoach act at the last minute."

Thornton le Dale's annual bash used to end with a bale-tossing competition, but this was terminated a few years ago when an over-refreshed participant contrived to spear himself in the head with his baling fork. Now the programme concludes with the children's tug-of-war, which has fewer possibilities for self-harm. There was, however, one other event that continued while dusk descended. Across the empty showground, there echoed a request from the Lurcher Show: "Any more rough hair bitches?"