Show and tell: Behind the scenes at Yorkshire’s country fairs

The Ryedale Agricutlural Show, 2014
The Ryedale Agricutlural Show, 2014
  • They are a major part of the Yorkshire calendar and now photographer Ian Forsyth tells Sarah Freeman why he decided to focus his lens on the county’s country shows.
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Early on in his career as a documentary photographer, Ian Forsyth was given a sage piece of advice. To get the best out of any job, he was told to “arrive early and stay late”. It’s a mantra he’s carried with him over the years as he’s covered political campaign trails, major sporting events and the odd wedding and it proved key when it came to his latest published collection. Over successive summers, Ian found himself at countless country shows – his aim to capture the people (and the animals) who make these events such a success.

“I would get there before the gates opened to the public and while the owners were still getting their animals ready,” says the Saltburn-based photographer. “It meant that I could get some candid shots before the crowds really arrived.”

The Ryedale Agricultural Show, 2014

The Ryedale Agricultural Show, 2014

The result is a photographic book, The Country Shows of North Yorkshire, which sees Ian travel between some of the biggest events such as Harrogate’s Great Yorkshire Show and some of the smallest, like Borrowby and Ryedale.

“I grew up on the north side of Durham and while country shows do exist in that part of the world, it’s not the same,” he says. “In rural Yorkshire every town and village seems to have its own show and while some are small in scale they are all incredibly well-attended. Each also has its own peculiar character. Yes, there are some things they have in common like the livestock classes and the young lads who look like little old men with their flat caps and pig boards, but every event has a slightly different character.

“The Great Yorkshire Show is obviously the premier event – it’s like the county becomes home to an entire new town which disappears as quickly as it arrives. Everyone who goes is prepared for the crowds, but that’s not a new phenomenon. The GYS was first held in 1838 and right from the start it has attracted thousands of people. In fact, so busy was that first event that police officers had to use their batons to control the large numbers of people trying to force their way in without paying.

“Far less commercial is an event like the Ryedale Agricultural Show. Established in 1855, it has run almost continuously since then and 2016 will see the 150th show takes place. Reinforcing agricultural traditions and renowned for its high standard of entries in all sections, it has a unique family atmosphere, and while a hugely popular and busy show, it retains an intimate feel.”

Yorkshire’s country shows have their roots in the 18th century and they quickly became an integral part of summer life for rural communities. While much has changed for those who make their living from the land since those earliest events, the shows continue to provide a focal point to celebrate the achievements and heritage of the countryside.

“The early country shows were a tip of the hat to acknowledge the hard work and the skills of producers and farmers,” says Ian. “They provided a venue for the rural families to meet and socialise, offering an opportunity for farmworkers to enjoy a break from the day-to-day routine of hard country life.

“Those traditions continue as livestock, animals and poultry are brought to be exhibited and judged based on certain breed traits. They are cleaned, brushed, trimmed and washed down and generally made to look their best ahead of a decision from the judge that will hopefully result in a nod of the head or a handshake and the understated handing over of a rosette, ribbon or cup to the winning owner, the victors proudly displaying it in the pen in which their animal is temporarily housed.”

As well as numerous early starts, Ian dodged frequent downpours, the occasional hailstorm and mud – lots of mud – to get his final collection of photographs. “One thing that you will immediately notice when you attend any of these shows is just how much of a good time the visitors are having. Many of those who visit come to build a stronger connection to the countryside, and for those with young children it gives them an opportunity to see the animals, livestock and events that they otherwise might not get to see.”

Ian’s collection shows farmers at work in the showgrounds and the animals being prepared for competition, but it also features exhausted children asleep in animal pens, and spectators enjoying a can of beer or an ice cream.

“In the entire collection there are just one or two pictures which were posed,” says Ian. “My style has always been to veer away from anything artificial and capture people and places how they really are and I hope sometimes with a little humour.

“What I hope comes through is the dedication and planning of both the organisers and those who take their animals to show. Honestly, it’s unwavering, and while the atmosphere is friendly there is always an undercurrent of pride, competition and rivalry.”

Almost across the board, country shows have been under increasing financial pressure of late, required to deliver more with less, but despite sometimes diminishing budgets their popularity continues.

“Somehow they always find the funds to stage another event and that I think is testament to the fact that these shows are not just about one person, they are about a community coming together and that’s quite powerful,” adds Ian. “Over the last few years as I’ve been to shows in Danby, Masham and Stokesley and as I’ve watched the owners and farmers prepare their horses, animals and livestock for the show with as much care and commitment as any of the rest, I have often felt like I have stepped back in time to a more traditional era.

“There are not many places where you can watch ferret bingo, but Bilsdale Country Show, which held its 105th show in 2015, is one such place and at each show you always spot something new.

“To have visited every country and agricultural show run each year in North Yorkshire would have been an almost impossible task, but I hope this collection gives a snapshot of what these events are all about.

“Whatever the size or location of the show, there is still a strong connect to be found between the owners and their animals, that even today this rural heritage thrives and that across the generations there still remains a passionate and enthusiastic commitment to the traditions of the country show.

“I also hope that it inspires people, who perhaps have never been to one of these events, to experience the smells, the noises and the atmosphere, and see the time and effort that goes into looking after the animals and livestock. When they do they will know that they are joining thousands of others across North Yorkshire and further afield who have all helped in some way to keep this important tradition and culture alive.”

The Country Shows of North Yorkshire by Ian Forsyth is published by Amberley Publishing, priced at £16.99.