Waking up these last few mornings has been a strange and almost disorientating experience.
- There was no hangover.
- The first attack on my senses was not bright white sunlight, glaring through barred windows and fashioning stripes across my bedspread.
- The second attack was not the smell of horse. Nor was it the chill of a damp, cold air; the type that of damp cold air that you only experience when at best, glamping.
- My bed was not Argos’ finest blow-up offering.
- At 7 am, there was no voice booming across a public address system, testing it at first, with a ‘1, 2 3 and 4… 4, 3, 2 and 1’. I’ve always questioned the ‘and 4’, the ‘and 1’ but, God, how I miss it this morning. Then, testing over, that same familiar voice should have been welcoming us to Builth Wells, to the showground, to the Royal Welsh show.
This will be the first time I have missed a week at the show in well over 20 years. And waking without it, I felt utterly bereft. I still feel utterly bereft. And I suspect, so will many, many others.
At the beginning of the season, when the first shows were cancelled, I really wasn’t that bothered. I didn’t mind missing the little ones; those ones where it’s still cold and you’re in grave danger of rain seeping through your tweeds, your shirt, your vest.
I didn’t complain about the cancellations either. I agreed wholeheartedly with the ‘there’s-more-to-life-than-showing’ posts on social media. Safeguarding our own health and that of our families and friends must take priority. Safeguarding the lives of the public must take priority.
Yet, a few months on, I am lamenting the loss of county show after county show. Although I wasn’t surprised to see Horse of the Year Show cancelled, I was surprised by how disappointed I was when the announcement was finally made. And I berated myself for it.
Missing the Royal Highland Show and the Great Yorkshire Show brought the feelings of loss and poignant nostalgia to a new sharpness, so I braced myself for the inevitable wave that would come this week, my favourite week of the year. I feel like I’m teetering on the edge and something small like spilling curry on my clean pyjamas later tonight might tip me over and I will shed actual tears.
Before I am subjected to a barrage of criticism for feeling this way, don’t bother: I have picked myself apart enough and dragged through the remains. And having done so, I now won’t apologise.
It’s not that the show is a week-long holiday. Between showing, stewarding and socialising, we self-serve an exhaustive punishment for our own enthusiasm. There is no lounging. In fact, I often feel that we need a holiday in the immediate aftermath to get over it.
It’s frenzied from start to finish. Even our attempts to make it there are stressful. Nadia, our mother’s friend-from-work comes with us to the show every year. Every year she turns up with food, clothing, bedding and hilarity bang-on time. She does this despite knowing we will be running three hours late. My mother will have finished questionably productive bouts of hoovering somewhere pointless like the patio, and will have absconded to M&S. Three hours after Nadia’s arrival, we will leave, in convoy, and run late for the rest of the week.
Most days are spent hungover and tired, which may account for some of the lateness, on reflection, and certainly accounts for the slightly bleary-eyed, dishevelled look one adopts from Day 2. Last year I took to drying my hair in the cattle lines using the dryer a friend has for her cattle. Don’t get me wrong, this giant-hoover-like contraption worked marvellously when it came to the drying, but the styling was trickier: cows don’t need mirrors. Efforts to stay clean are often undermined by your constant proximity to livestock and lack of proximity to an actual bathroom. It is an actual impossibility to have clean feet on account of the layer of grime that builds on the shower floor.
Efforts to curate a wardrobe with even a modicum of style are similarly undermined by the same sleep-deprived-alcohol-induced and whiffy factors. When off duty – out of the ring and neither stewarding nor competing – I think I can safely speak for both Maggie and I, that we no longer care how we look. But in the ring, we strive to present the best version of ourselves. It’s easy as a competitor: your ‘outfit’ is predetermined and tried-and-tested. But as a steward, it’s not so simple. Hats must be worn, shoulders covered, toes concealed. We try our absolute best to turn up for stewarding in a state that is presentable, for we do not only represent ourselves. Largely, I believe we manage it. I say largely, because here’s the truth: despite of these efforts and usually having elicited some form of compliment, I know that we probably smell. That veneer of ‘presentable’ is a thin veil: we are hungover and grimy, wrapped in our Sunday-best.
It hurts your legs. The showground is formed of layers carved into a hill, and so even the shortest of ‘journeys’ about the ground inevitably involves achy muscles.
I could go on with the negatives, but for all the bad, it is heavily outweighed by the good.
As a competitor, and as a Welsh breeds enthusiast, the Royal Welsh is our Mecca, our hallowed ground. It is our cup final, our Olympics, and our Oscars, all rolled into one. The main ring is inspiration, it’s entertainment, it’s thrills and spills and dreams made and dreams shattered. It’s aims and it’s motivation. It’s luck and it’s graft and it’s learning and it’s lifetime achievements. Red rosettes are coveted and treasured.
I certainly treasure mine, and I treasure the memories of watching Maggie win hers. I have wept with friends who weep because their stars have aligned and hard-work has paid off. I cherish recollections of partying hard in celebration, but I’ll refrain from tales of those times for now at least. Like I said, I savour those memories, those souvenirs. The same goes for some cattle and some sheep exhibitors: winning means winning the world and all its wonders. Disclaimer: the same might apply for goat, poultry and pig exhibitors, but I don’t know any of those so I can’t say for sure.
Nevertheless, the reason why we miss this show in particular, this show so much more than the others is not because of those red rosettes at all. Rather, it’s something else entirely. In fact, the rosettes are just one piece in a vast and joyous jigsaw.
I miss the horses. Trust me when I say that for a lover of horses, there is nothing like the main ring when the Welsh breeds are in situ. I don’t just mean the fire and elegance of cobs, the most infamous of all. But also, the pluck of the ponies, their large personalities in their little bodies. Even the noises they make; the sounds of brood mares uttering their guttural reassurances to foals gives me goose-bumps.
I miss the unknown and the tension. Who will win? Who will have their day and who will have to wait for another? Whose dreams will be made and whose will be shattered?
I miss the faces. The show is an opportunity to meet with old friends. It’s a place to laugh and gossip, to toast and to dance together where geography and circumstance may otherwise prevent it. There will be people who I will not have seen since the show last year, and yet will greet them as old friends that I had spoken to only yesterday. Now that reunion will need to wait until next year, if ever we return to some semblance of normality. In this way, the agricultural shows provide a vital lifeline for many farming folk who rely on these chances to get out and to interact with others. They are a balm for the mind and soul.
I miss the revelry and the mischief. It is a week of little sleep. Take a trip into town after dark and the streets are alive with activity. People spill, drunk and merry, from doorways and the ground shakes with the thuds of heavy beats emitted from the town’s annual epicentre: a large marquee behind the pubs. It’s messy and raucous, and I love it.
I miss the vigour. The hive of activity that engulfs the stables every morning and every evening brings an energy and excitement that is infectious. By the eve of the show’s opening, that energy has seeped through to your core so that you wake instinctively excited about the day ahead. It propels you forwards through the day’s highs and lows and into the night and then into the morning to start all over again.
But more than anything, I miss the belonging. Because that’s the real magic. For a week, the showground becomes awash with peoples of all ages and walks of life with broadly common interests. Split the showground into sections, and you’ll find its microcosms, where friendships and enmities are long and enduring, where work is common, and goals, pride, pitfalls are mutually understood. Hearts beat to one drum oblivious to the world beyond the gates.
Perhaps that’s why as a family, we chose to steward, too. It allows us to belong and to contribute in a way that simply visiting – or even competing – cannot. We’ve a role to play and it’s a privileged one, seeing up-close the exhibits forward, knowing the judge’s thoughts – we’ve learned so much that way – and being amongst the first to congratulate.
There you have it. I have picked it apart and that’s my analysis. No Royal Welsh this week feels rubbish. Out-and-out smelly, rotting, spewing-out-of-the-bin rubbish. I’m unapologetic. So what to do? I guess I’ll share a few highlights on social media. Call some friends I should have been seeing. But mainly, I think I’ll look forward to next year. Can you even imagine how exciting it will be?