summer flowers at Coverack

"My favourite day of the year"

Next year, our local Horticultural Society celebrates the 60th anniversary of the village horticultural show. It's seems a little early to be making plans for next summer while I'm still desperately hanging onto this one, ever hopeful that there might be a few more days of sunshine, but even at my most optimistic, I can't deny the signs. My suntan's fading as the leaves are falling, young swallows are practising acrobatics over the pond, skimming the surface for flies, dodging between metallic-green dragonflies and squirrels are shaking the young nuts of the hazel trees.

I'm passionate about anything to do with gardening - my garden is part of who I am. Just as I've inherited my mother's genes in ways I'm not inclined to reveal. I'll just say, my family recognise certain characteristics and when my husband's remarks, 'You're getting just like your mother', they know what he means! She gave me something else: a love of flowers. She enveloped our childhood with sensuously scented roses, night-scented stock, freesias and lavender. The garden she created, embodied our mother's soul as she found it hard to express affection with hugs and cuddles as a consequence of her own tough, loveless childhood.

More than thirty years ago, an old boy in the hamlet where we lived, asked if I would like to be Secretary of the village horticultural show as the incumbent one had shuffled off to double-dig his trenches in the sky. I was honoured - a young thing from the City being asked to join the gardening elite! Of course, they were desperate... no secretary, no show! The village cabal figured that as I'd made a garden out of a building site and could string a few words together, I'd be OK for the job. And here I am, all these years later, still steering it along. Why? I love it. The simplicity of a community coming together to show off their flowers, vegetables and cookery, catch up with gossip over a cuppa, is at the heart of country life. It's not as competitive as in years gone by - I haven't had any complaints about competitors removing a name ticket from another's bigger exhibit and more women are entering vegetable classes. Oh, yes, there's sexism in the garden; men grow dahlias, chrysants and leeks - strong, upright, sturdy stuff and women enter floppy, soft roses, sweet peas.

Historically, going back before the Second World War, both villages in our parish had Agricultural Shows which were a highlight of the calendar. Processions led by brass bands, escorted villagers to the fields where the competitions were held. There were classes for cattle, heavy horses, resplendent with polished brasses and flowers, and show jumping, along with horticultural and cookery competitions. Farmers used these sturdy horses for farm work and paired up with a neighbour for ploughing and harvesting and donkeys were in common use along the rocky coast paths. By the early 1950s, tractors had replaced the horses and the old ways disappeared as farming methods intensified. The Agricultural Show became the Horticultural Show and has remained in that format for 60 years.

Nowadays, some of the exhibitors are a couple of generation along from men who took part back then, with the evidence being the names inscribed on some of the slightly tarnished, but treasured, cups. Our oldest, most prized cup, is the Hebden Coombe Challenge Cup for most points in the vegetable section, donated by Hebden Coombe who was the one -armed landlord of The Paris pub, while our newest cup has been donated by Angela, daughter of the legendary shopkeeper, Brenda, awarded for most points in Cornish Cookery...a pasty, heavy cake, fairings and splits...that's about as traditional as it gets!

Flower section Dhalias at the show Baking section Floral displays Children's section

The Show takes place in an old hall in one of the most beautiful positions for village halls anywhere, on a grassy slope above a shingle beach, surrounded by sea on three sides. The wooden walls, provide a perfect backdrop to the exhibits and one's senses are filled with the smell of freshly baked bread and the scent of flowers. It is one of those lovely occasions that makes village life the envy of visitors. Anyone can enter and exhibits vary from a handful of knobbly beans to 'serious' vegetables. To define a 'serious' vegetable, these are generally potatoes, leeks, onions and parsnips that appear to have been genetically engineered to abnormal proportions; whenever the question is asked, 'Does size matter?', the answer is a definite, 'Yes'. Enormous leeks, with the girth of an anaconda, are grown in tubes with tissue paper stuffed in the top to keep dirt out until it's show time. The exhibitors have no idea what's going on inside the tube, but if they're lucky, what emerges is a blanched, metre long specimen whose fate is to be toted around all the shows in the area and shown off, time and time again.

However, this 'every day story of country folk' isn't always quite as cosy as it seems and is surprisingly competitive. There are classes for photography, flowers, floral art, children's art and a domestic section, where traditionally, the emphasis was on Cornish stalwarts- heavy cake, yeast buns, fairings and a loaf of white bread, however, we've moved with the times and include fancy bread with exotic entries of foccacia with rock salt and rosemary, olive ciabatta, cupcakes and chocolate gateaux. Now, here's a thing - most women when making a chocolate cake, make two cakes in sponge tins and fill with butter cream and decorate... but that's not a cake! How wrong could you be... this is a sponge and not a cake! According to the 'rules', (I'm yet to discover who made the rules) a cake must never be in two halves and all those silly enough not to know, won't have their cake/sponge, judged! And what about the farmer's wife of forty years, whose pasty was disqualified as it had been glazed and one of the sweetest souls I know, brings her tape measure to check the dimensions of other women's floral arrangements to ensure they're within the regulations!

Village shows came about as a result of a rural way of life. Self-sufficiency equates with human survival. If horses and cattle were strong and healthy, they would work harder and provide for families. Women cooked, baked, made preserves and kept chickens and men grew vegetables amongst the flowers in cottage gardens. It delights me that our village show isn't out of place or time today, and when one woman came into the hall, arms filled with flowers and a basket of bread, jam and cakes, and smiled, 'Here I am again, this is my favourite day of the year'... it has a future.

Thanks to Alison McGregor for the use of her photographs.

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