Every year Gosforth, like many other small communities, hosts an agricultural show. When we were children, at school in a neighbouring village, the whole school had a half-holiday in order to "go to t'show." Now, the show is held in August, presumably to maximise the chances of fine weather. Some irony there, I feel.
My eldest cousin has been associated with this show for over fifty years, faithfully entering her baking and craft items in the Industrial sections and now presiding over this part of the event. Most of the others taking part have similarly been part of this rural community all their lives. Each year they bake scones and gingerbread, make lemon curd and rum butter, pick out six eggs from their laying hens in order to compete against each other in the many classes. And they bake constantly, not in a Post-Modern reaction to the ills of the world, but to fuel the relentless toil on the land. Just the names on the silver trophies for the most points in each section is like a roll-call of the farming wives of the past, women whose baking was legendary, or who could knit a pullover out of ravelled out yarn, or make a pegged mat out of old serge suits.
Some years ago sociologists from Newcastle University conducted a research project into Gosforth and its people. A defining characteristic of conversations at social gatherings, particularly of women, seemed to be "Claiming Kin" ie tracing who was whose second cousin twice removed. Hours could be spent on this activity. "Ah, but who was she afore she were wed?" Within minutes of arriving at the show tent I found myself engaged in this activity .
My role at this year's event was to judge the knitting. Now, I did have some qualms about this when my cousin asked me to do it. Personally, I like to see knitting as a collaborative activity where we can all be inspired by each other's work, and can enjoy learning new skills. I don't enter competitions myself. However, my cousin convinced me that I had the one essential qualification: I live "Down South", and am therefore not part of that close community. To that extent, I would be an objective judge. Weeks before the event, I was sent the schedule of classes: a scarf, an item to be donated to the Special Care Baby Unit, a knitted plate with four knitted cakes, an item in four-ply or finer, and an item in DK or heavier. No judging criteria, of course.
At the event each item is ticketed, the name of the entrant hidden on the reverse. Each judge is accompanied by two Stewards, there to ensure fair play, and to record the judgements, writing out the coloured cards for First, Second and Third. Apparently, the ladies on the committee horse-trade, so that stewards are allocated to crafts which they will not enter themselves. We began. A class of scarves, in which at least five were made of that ruffle yarn which produces a wearable scarf, but is hardly recognisable as knitting. So, how to decide between an airy cobweb lace stole in feather and fan and a bright lace triangle in a more modern idiom? In the end, I went for the one which displayed a wider range of knitting skills.
By pure chance I gave first prize in the baby section to my cousin's exquisite little lace matinee coat, not least because it was small enough to fit a new-born. And so we went on.
The day before, it began to rain. Nothing very spectacular, but enough to dampen the ground. On the day of the show it set in with a vengeance, dumping huge quantities of water out of the sky, and keeping it up for several hours. Gusts of wind threw the rain over anyone venturing out of a tent. Underfoot, vehicles rapidly churned the grass into a quagmire, ankle-deep. An impressive amount of tractor power was in attendance at the show; soon, it was being deployed to rescue cars stuck in the mud. The Grand Parade of cattle was cancelled. The cattle tent itself was blown over.
We waded back to our car, soaked to the skin despite anoraks and waterproof trousers. I've rarely been so wet. My second-best trainers have been through the washing machine but still have a distinctive swampy smell.
Gosforth Show 2016 - one to remember.
And, for the Show Committee, work will soon start on organising the 2017 event.