On the beautiful August Bank Holiday Monday, we headed out of Norwich for the annual Aylsham Agricultural Show. Under deep blue skies and with a packed programme of competitive events and exhibitions, the show’s organisers were hopeful of exceeding the expected attendance of 18,000.
Having missed the Norfolk Show due to academic commitments, this is the first big public event in Norfolk that I’ve attended this year. It takes place on just one day in the beautiful parkland setting of Blickling Hall, a National Trust property visible across the lake at the centre of the estate.
As much an opportunity to witness the competitive aspects of Norfolk farming and agriculture, the Aylsham Show was a day to observe my fellow Norfolkians. As I am want to parrot on this blog, I was (almost) born and bred in Norfolk, and after a number of years living abroad I’m back with a new found affection for this landscape, these places and, most of all, these people. After years surrounded by unfamiliar accents, turns of phrase and vocabularies, I’m amongst my kin. They even dress as I remember them.
Walking around the show I was reminded of similar events that I visited as a child, including the Norfolk Show and the Wayland Show. These recollections were prompted not by the aerial display of the RAF Battle of Britain flight (above), nor the White Helmets motorcycle display team, nor the falconry, nor the happy smorgasbord of trade stands (including representatives of John Deere tractors, Great Wall trucks and UKIP), but by the shady fringes of the show ground.
I was reminded of a paper given by Dr. Rachel Sara of UWE at a conference I was involved in that explored the temporary architectures of campsites. Sara studied how campers define edges, centres and thresholds between public and private space in a temporary and ad hoc environment. Just like a camp site or a music festival, an agricultural show ground is a like temporary conurbation. Prepared over a number of weeks, different plots and roadways are shaped around the site. Marquees are raised, animal compounds are erected and trailers are dragged into position. Cars, trucks, horse boxes and buses fill out the blocks of this temporary city. For one day, the throngs descend and circulate like shoppers on market day. And throughout the day, individuals and families seek respite around the edges. I remember these shady spots, and I remember the odd coincidences of spectators and the rural environment.
These fringes are where the temporary townscape of the show ground peters out, and odd conjunctions of urbanity and the rural come together. Exhibitors’ cars and trailers tucked deep under trees for shade. Empty horse trailers are recommissioned as ad hoc caravans for their owners to drink prosseco in.
To the south of the site is the most idyllic suburb of the show ground (above) – the spacious meadow assigned for entrants to the equestrian events to park their vehicles. Seven-and-a-half-ton trucks and Land Rovers provide shade for one another. Horses munch hay. Competitors and their families doze in the shade and toast victories around picnic tables. It’s a deeply peaceful but profoundly odd simulation of English rural life, recreated in a field for twelve hours one Bank Holiday Monday in August.
Although, unlike a camp site, spectators at the Aylsham Show don’t make much contribution to the architectures of the show ground, for twelve brief hours they inhabit it and bring it to life. And like all enterprising humans, they discover its climatic nuances. They find the shady hangouts, the restful corners, the spot with a nice view.