Can you remember what any of these pictures from previous blogs are? No, nor can I…
The members of the New Forest Agricultural & Horticultural Association, formed nearly a hundred years ago, would be unlikely to recognise the New Forest Show of the twenty first century. The early shows cost two shillings and four pence to get in with competitions, one tent and livestock tethered up to a piece of rope between two oak trees.
The modern show is on for three days and it would take three days to see all the events and exhibits; it can be quite exhausting being a visitor, let alone for the people working and taking part. On Tuesday, armed with our tickets from Stewarts Garden Centre giving us entry to their hospitality tent, we enjoyed free light refreshments all day, ample toilets with no queues and seats by one of the main rings; albeit looking into the blazing sun. As we sipped our first cup of tea riders were showing off their working hunters. The beautiful horses were examined for their looks then observed for their elegance and obedience as they trotted, cantered and galloped round the ring. The male judges wore bowler hats and for the lady judges a hat wider than their hips was the dress code, they all had very big hats!
I wandered off at intervals to explore the show ground. Arts and crafts, holiday homes, furniture makers and funeral directors all had stands, alongside vintage farm machinery and ferret racing. In their quarters the ferrets had tiny hammocks to sleep in, more exclusive than the tent full of show rabbits.
I came across a dancing sheep display and learned a lot about sheep as well as having a good laugh; the finale was the shearing of a sheep, it’s not easy to be a stand up comedian and shear sheep at the same time.
Stewarts had a garden display, with beautiful wildflower beds; you could buy packets of seeds to make your own. There was a garden tent with exquisite flowers and a guess the weight of the cabbage. The Women’s Institute had a varied and delightful display to celebrate their centenary; the theme was a woman who has inspired you; each entry had to feature three different crafts, variety and imagination was in abundance.
Back at the show ring the cows and sheep were having a winners’ parade, the highlight being a ram who managed to escape and run around making fools of the humans chasing him. Two beagle packs came on and children were invited into the ring to play with them, parents were reassured the beagles were longing to play with their darlings; we heard someone behind us laugh and comment … and rip them to pieces… but nothing untoward happened.
The highlights for me were the horses. The heavy horses’ musical ride is not seen anywhere else in the whole world, so we were told. Among the giants the Shires are my favourites with their feathered feet and elegant trot. But the best was yet to come, Atkinson Action Horses. If you watch any television dramas featuring horses, you will have seen some of their stars. We ladies love the scenes of our heroes galloping along cliff tops and across fields and these are real flesh and blood horses, not CGI; trained by experts, they enjoy working. The show display was action packed with gymnastics on Cossack saddles, bare back riding, jumping over fire and lying down and playing with their ‘best friends’. There was an hilarious commentary; riding and talking at the same time is very clever… and ladies, these chaps were fit, very fit. The girl riders were also amazingly agile, so I’m sure they had plenty of admirers.
Big and modern though it is, the show is still about animals, country life and competitions.
Do garden centres send you into a frenzy of plant buying or do you go there to have your dinner?
To most people in the the twenty first century nurseries are where hard working parents drop off their children. Once upon a time nurseries grew plants in greenhouses and customers went to buy shrubs in the autumn, root stock wrapped in hessian, and bedding plants in the spring and summer. There was little chance of a cup of tea as you wandered along the rows of roses. The advent of container plants heralded change.
In a previous town our local garden centre had a cafe; a few plastic garden tables in the corner and a kitchen run at weekends by two sixth formers from our son’s class; they cooked excellent breakfasts.
When we moved to our current address the local garden centre was in a different league entirely. It had a restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, teas and every Thursday evening two dinners for the price of one. As our new house was without a cooker or table we soon joined the many locals queuing up at five thirty for the legendary steak pie made from their own cattle.
Since then the restaurant and seating area has grown even bigger; if there was a humanitarian disaster nearby this would be the place to send refugees for operational feeding. They could also camp there, making use of the vast range of garden recliners and hammocks.
Our garden centre sells more than plants and garden gnomes. As well as every gadget ever invented for your garden, water features and an upmarket gift section, you can also buy life size models of every creature from squirrels to gorillas, or perhaps a stone deer. I have yet to see anyone struggling to the till with a resin Great Dane, but presumably someone must buy these very expensive objects.
If all this shopping is too much you can stay in the restaurant and relax. Thursday evenings also brings local entertainment, usually a guitar or keyboard with the sort of music that makes me lose the will to live, but perhaps others enjoy it.
More a way of life than a shop? There are coach trips out to national gardens and coach parties calling. As well as the excitement of Halloween and Christmas displays with live reindeer, summer brings a real treat. This is how it goes. Arrive at dawn on Friday at the end of June, queue up ready for the doors to open at 8am. Then obediently follow the path to the desk where you can buy your special tickets for the New Forest Show, first come first served. The precious ticket allows you entry to the garden centre’s hospitality tent in the members’ arena. Free light refreshments all day, members’ toilets and a great view of the main rings with show jumping and carriage horses.
And what about the plants? I always head to the reduced shelves, that keeps Cyberspouse happy, find bargain plants and rescue them, but I also spend ages choosing more trays from the vast spread of colour and variety.
This week real flower lovers will not be eating steak pie, they will be at the Chelsea Flower Show. I would love to go, but I would hate the crowds and the truth is, only television presenters and the Royal Family are allowed to wander in the wonderful gardens. We can watch every evening on television, but miss the scent of the blooms, so back to the garden centre. Every keen gardener will be feeling creative and dream of their own garden winning a gold medal.
In my short story ‘Recycling’, Amanda DuPres’ love of plants leads to Pierrefonds Close being in lock down. Read it in
Some of the first words I uttered were to ask for a horse. I never did get one, though horses have featured in my life. While other children were reading the Famous Five I was reading pony books, the three Pullein-Thompson sisters wrote about children from a completely different world who all had their own ponies. I knew all the parts of a horse; I could catch, bridle and saddle a lively horse – in my dreams. My favourite gifts were book vouchers with which I bought new volumes of Kit Hunter Show Jumper; my most precious volume was The Observers Book of Horses. My parents knew nothing about horses though they did love watching show jumping on television. In the school playground and in the street we played horses, a skipping rope round the shoulders of whoever was being the horse, while the ‘rider’ galloped behind gripping the rope reins.
Real ponies came into my life in junior school years, my friend and I spent our pocket money on half an hour once a fortnight lessons at the local stables. Bored ponies carrying children were led in single file down old lanes and through new estates by teenage girls. Exploring on our bikes one day we discovered a cheaper ‘riding stables’, an old pig farm and teenage girls with horses. Our mothers were naively unaware of the dangers of riding; we never possessed the proper cloths or riding hats, we went armed only with sugar cubes, most of which we ate ourselves.
One school morning at breakfast, when I was nearly eleven, my mother had a surprise announcement; considering that I was always sent to bed early and lay awake eavesdropping on parental voices from downstairs, it is amazing that I had no inkling my parents were planning on emigrating. When Mum asked me if I would like to go to Australia there could only be one response – ‘If I can have a horse.’
We stayed in the New Forest for our last English holiday; still blissfully unaware of my lack of riding skills, my parents found stables and arranged for me to have an hour’s ride. My eleven year old self was sent off with a young chap, a complete stranger, I clung on for dear life as my pony followed his. I was doing quite well till the end of the ride; my pony’s speed increased and he took a sharp turn down to a stream. I fell off but remounted, the horse repeated his manoeuvre twice; thee falls, hatless, but unharmed.
In Perth, Western Australia my best friend and I used to cycle off to Forestfield, where Perth International Airport now stands. We spent most of the ride urging the hired horses to do more than walk, only for them to gallop out of control when we turned back to the stables. On one memorable occasion we took my younger sister out with us as a birthday treat. She had never ridden a horse before and hers bolted; helpless we watched as she disappeared down a dusty track, fortunately the horse came to a wire fence and halted.
Then my friend and her sister acquired a horse. Their mother, with little equine knowledge, went off to an auction, bought them a stumpy palomino called Sabrina and found a paddock to rent. But it wasn’t quite the stuff of pony books, one pony to share. We all soon realised that looking after Sabrina wasn’t as easy as in the books, we couldn’t even catch her in the paddock, let alone get her saddled up.
For teenage girls and women it is not just the horse they admire. When we watch historical dramas or Olympic Three Day Events , men in riding breeches astride large horses are bound to set hearts aflutter.
When we went to the New Forest Show recently I still got a thrill. Pony club children living my childhood dream and beautiful show jumpers pounding the turf.
In my new novella one side of the love triangle is a fine grey stallion hunter called The Major. Read his story in Ralph, one of two novellas in Someone Somewhere.