Villagers all set for showtime!

Floral art at Warkworth Show.
Floral art at Warkworth Show.

August sees the local flower shows coming up thick and fast, so do grab the opportunity to visit them and talk to exhibitors who, by and large, are always happy to answer questions relating to their produce.

This Saturday, brings up two exhibitions that keep the tented tradition alive and well. They are Warkworth and Whittingham.

A judge admiring the roses at Warkworth Show.

A judge admiring the roses at Warkworth Show.

Then at the end of this month, on Bank Holiday Monday, all roads lead to Wooler and the Glendale Show, where there are more marquees than you can shake a stick at.

Although only a small percentage of the nation’s gardeners have involvement in such shows, when you’re on the inside it seems everyone is interested. The social element is certainly strong, and that’s not just on show day.

There is a hard-working committee behind every event and it meets almost year-round. This demands commitment but alongside like-minded people, it is rewarding. A thought then, for those who organise our local shows.

It speaks volumes of the deep-seated attraction that these events, once a highlight of the village year, still have public appeal in an age of multi-choices.

Pot leeks at Warkworth Show.

Pot leeks at Warkworth Show.

In the latter part of the 18th century florists of the district were staging an annual auricula show in Alnwick.

On May 1, 1791, this was held in Dalglish’s Long Room, with ‘dinner on the table at exactly one o’clock’ according to the invitation. The wording of yester-year and use of an ‘f’ rather than ‘s’ illuminates the original notice, eg the desire to make the event ‘refpectable as poffible’.

I wonder how many began as the now defunct Alnwick summer show did in 1819, in the back room of a local pub, with a competition for the biggest gooseberries? A complete set of minutes covering the period 1819 to 1835 outline in detail its development into a prestige exhibition.

The first show was held at Mrs Rattrey’s Three Tuns on July 30, 1819, with 18 exhibitors competing in four classes covering red, yellow, green and white gooseberries.

The overall winner, Mr Mabon, received a prize of five shillings, which according to the rules, was the same amount levied as a fine plus one year suspension for anyone caught cheating!

Initial success prompted the committee to include carnations and picotees the following year. Given the human tendency to showcase success, it was not long before a giant cabbage and other vegetables began to turn up unannounced and, by 1835, the organisation had grown into The Alnwick Horticultural Society.

Arguably the ‘golden age’ of local shows came in the second half of the 19th century when private estates had a large gardening staff and there was great kudos in winning.

The September 4, 1860 schedule for Alnwick Horticultural and Botanic Society, is packed with classes, silver cups and what appear today as slightly off-beat prizes – a far cry from humble beginnings under a gooseberry bush!

There would be some grumbles if a schedule demanded 20 pods of peas or broad beans as they did then, rather than the six asked for today. And although there is still occasionally a class for ‘any other fruit,’ you rarely find one for pineapples, peaches, apricots, nectarines and figs, as then.

They, of course, were often the produce of glasshouses benefitting from ducted wall heating.

So what had you to achieve in order to win a silver cup valued at seven guineas in 1860?

Simply tot up most points over three classes in the hollyhock section. These were; best 24 blooms (12 dissimilar), best 12 dissimilar blooms, and the best three spikes. Second and fifth prizes were £2 and 15 shillings respectively.

A special section labelled ‘botany’, which included British ferns displayed in glass cases, and the ubiquitous collections of wild flowers and fruits, also had a class that would cause raised eyebrows today – best collection of dried Poisonous Plants Botanically named.

Apart from the trophies and cash offered as prizes in this schedule, there are some, no doubt valued in 1860, that might cause slight consternation in 2013.

Half a dozen of each, dahlia and hollyhock plants, for the best six dahlia blooms sounds fine, and a Dutch hoe for best cabbage seems acceptable.

If you were the type of person who’d carry a fresh water aquarium to the show, perhaps first prize of a collection of dried botanical specimens might go down well, but I can’t see the winner of best vegetable collection being a happy chap with his reward – a packet of garden seeds!

A prize card won at any show should be a source of celebration, the prize money is a bonus. At Warkworth Show this weekend, the first, second and third prizes for six roses are; £8, £5 and £2. Those for a vase of flowers or mixed herbs are £2, £1 and 50p, relatively small amounts in isolation but with a few successful entries you could have a tidy sum by the day’s end.

Start by taking notice of the first, second and third prizewinning stands in the horticultural and industrial sections at any show, then focus on how they are presented.

If you leave with the feeling ‘I could do as well as that’, it’s time to secure a schedule of classes for the nearest event and give it a try. The novice section is for those who have not won a first prize before but there’s nothing like starting at the deep end!