Diving Back into English Culture – The Penrith Show

by Daniel Sencier

After a long time away, I deal with returning to England in much the same way as I enter a cold  swimming pool. There’s no point in dipping my toes first, the whole process is agonisingly slow, and I’m afraid that one day I won’t be able to do it; such is the change in a country I once knew so well. No, I march straight down to the deep end, take a deep breath and dive into my hometown agricultural show; English again in a flash! Penrith is and has been for centuries, a key hub in the Cumbrian farming community with tractors, sheep and horses passing through town as regular as tourist caravans.

It’s as old as towns get, with evidence of a settlement dating back to 500BC and was the ancient capital of Cumberland. Our house is relatively modern, dating back to around 1680 and on a back street that used to be the main London Road. Agricultural shows are held throughout England from around June to September, and the date is set in stone regardless of the weather. Bad luck on the day could see a complete washout, or at best everyone wading through muddy fields, steam rising from the rich mix of soil and dung, an almost creamy taste to the air if you allow the imagination to flow! In the north of England, maybe it’s the frequent memories of all those ugly days that makes it oh so wonderful when, as with this year, the Penrith Show was blessed with sunshine.

Although all these shows vary in size, they carry a very common theme throughout and every town/village holds great pride in putting together an amazing catalogue of events where there really is, ‘something for everyone.’ The most obvious on display, just through sheer size, are the horses, and these range from mighty shires capable of pulling massive loads, to tiny ponies smaller than some dogs! The jumping events are a spawning ground with young country folk trying to outgun each other, not just over the sticks but in the fashion stakes too; all farmers seemingly addicted to the principle of strength through breeding! Massive bulls, cows, sheep,  pigs and then to the dogs, rabbits  and chickens, many smaller than  starlings.

“Every town/village holds great pride in putting together an amazing  catalogue of events where there really is something for everyone.”

A prize-winning cow can produce, on average, 8 gallons of milk per day in exchange for 100 pounds of feed, which can include grain, silage, hay, soybean meal, plus vitamins and minerals. You’ll see these interesting facts on display everywhere and what a great idea, getting everyone interested in so much often taken for granted. If you’re a southerner, you might be excused for thinking there are two or three varieties of sheep, but I lost count at this year’s show. The rams seemed out of proportion with reality, some as large as small bulls and showing no fear of anyone.

Others, small and timid, huddled in the corner of their pens, terrified of the surroundings looking, well, as  bewildered as sheep can. The same for the pigs really but they seemed far harder to keep clean, farmers running ahead of the judges, tools at the ready, continually trying to clean up the dung before the huge animals could joyously roll around in it, savouring every steaming squelch!

The sheepdogs always pulled a big crowd, their skills looking vastly enhanced against an animal with similar intelligence to a pigeon, but unable to fly. But you could bring your pet dog and win prizes too, as long as they would obey the simplest  of instructions and not try to eat or become over-acquainted with the other dogs! Cats? I didn’t see any all day; maybe I missed the ‘cat tent.’ Poultry? A sea of chickens, ducks, geese and every other feathered thing you could think of under one giant marquee, but not just birds, their eggs too! I made the mistake of asking a judge just how they decided on the best egg; I was still glued 10 minutes later!

Size, shape, colour, uniformity, balance, and then when broken, whether the yolk sits centrally to the white, the colour, volume, opacity, shell thickness… it went on, and on… then, all 3 or even 6 had to match; synchronised eggs!  Judges were vastly experienced and travelled hundreds of miles  to presideover these fiercely contested events!

At the Penrith Show, you soon begin to realise that you can enter almost anything for a prize, not just  a horse, rabbit or pig but peas, dolls, strawberries, bread, knitwear, wine, jam… even recycled junk models; such is the nature of this special summer day. As a child, I had a pet chicken called ‘snowy’ who followed me around the yard everywhere. One day I noticed  she was missing, so at dinner, while tucking in, I asked, “Grandma, where’s Snowy?” She told me that Snowy had  gone on holiday, and I accepted that, after all, we all needed a holiday. Even the white feathers in the yard hadn’t given me the obvious clue that I was sadly eating my best friend! Well, nothing much has changed, because kids at the show petting rabbits, chickens and sheep seemed oblivious to any connection between them and the food/butcher’s stalls around the ground.

I feel it more open and honest in Thailand, with children well aware from an early age that they are actually eating  animals and a clearer relationship with their food. Shouting, grunting, cheering and clapping ahead? That had to be the Cumberland wrestling! A simple rough circle scored on the grass and two willing opponents who are told to, “tekk hod!” It’s strength and skill from there on to try and get the other person either on their back, out of the ring or break their hold, and it’s best of-three.

The crowd never get bored as each bout lasts around 3 minutes and there’s no break between the next pair coming on. Under 12’s, under 15’s, under 18’s then it goes by weight, up to 12 stones and then ‘any weight’ where the giants or ‘plumb uglae ans’ come out. In recent years they started a ‘Women’s Open’ which is proving extremely popular with the men and this year took place in the only torrential downpour, everyone watching from the packed beer tent, exploding  in rapturous applause as many a country lass displayed their art in gladiatorial style.

Hospitality tents dotted around with free canapés and Champagne if you happened to be a customer, but plenty of hot dogs, burgers, tea and coffee for the commoners. The biggest surprise of the day…” Thai Food” cooked in a wok by a lovely woman from central Thailand, and as friendly as all Thai’s are! I practiced my little Thai to greet her and then quickly broke into English just in case she asked me anything! Had I seen that five years ago I would have dreamt of living in that wonderful country, now three years in I feel so lucky, it’s a reality.

The display of vintage tractors was a must because they gave contrast to the new equipment available to today’s farmers, ranging from hi-tech quad bikes with GPS to monster combine harvesters, more at home in a Transformers movie.  I thought back to my Grandad, who in 1935 had won the All Ireland Championship for turning a straight furrow with a horse and single plough and wished he could be there to see how easy life would get.

Tens of thousands once worked the land in Cumbria, whole villages in full employment, but machines have replaced them all, strawberries being the final challenge. A breathtaking day, all in all, where the local community met with those who put the food on our plates but rarely see eye to eye with us, ‘townies,’ who endlessly complain about animal rights, chemical pollution, muck on the roads and most other things that make ‘countryfolk’ so delightfully different!

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