In the U.K., the school year has finally ended, and it’s not only the children who are lining up for prize day. Across the country, from August into early September, growers of fruits, vegetables, and flowers are busy watering, pruning, and praying for the perfect crops to take to the event of the year: the village show.
The scene conjures up an image rather like illustrator Matthew Rice’s Villa Fête tea-towel design for Emma Bridgewater. Imagine a field filled with tents and bunting, populated by dogs with wagging tails, jam jars filled with roses, and tables covered in sponge cakes and scarlet runner beans. It looks idyllic, but make no mistake, this event is fraught with competition and is presided over by a committee of eagle-eyed judges.
“It’s extraordinary,” says Rice. At the age of 12, he won “best decorated egg” in his local show by painting a Maran hen on a brown egg laid by her that morning. His most recent victory was a ribbon for the “strangest-shaped vegetable,” a Tromboncino (or trombone-shaped squash). “I cleaned the board with that one,” he says, bristling with pride. “You feel totally elated—much more so than with anything else going right in one’s life.”
It looks idyllic, but make no mistake—this event is fraught with competition.
He is not alone. “I do love a certificate!” enthuses horticulturalist and amateur gardener Charlie McCormick, a top contender at Dorset’s Melplash Show. Melplash is a step up from the average village-hall affair; it’s a proper agricultural show that draws an enthusiastic crowd from all over the country. “I never won anything at school, so it’s quite amazing seeing my name engraved on a cup,” he says.
The standards are set by the Royal Horticultural Society, whose Horticultural Show Handbook offers something of a bible into the show world. The language is specific, scientific, and gloriously old-fashioned. Zucchinis are to be “young, tender, shapely and uniform,” while sweet cherries must be “large, ripe fruits of brilliant color with unshriveled stalks.” The rules are strict; the threat of disqualification is always looming. Last year, McCormick was stung for putting 9 radishes on his plate, instead of 10.
But, oh, the glory! The prizes usually consist of certificates, antique silverware, and cash. (Around $10, $8, and $5 for first, second, and third prizes—given the 75-cent entry price, it’s not a bad return.)
The most coveted of all is the Royal Horticultural Society’s Banksian Medal, awarded to the entrant who sweeps the board with the most overall points. McCormick won not one but two last year (at Melplash and Dorset County), which means he’s automatically out of the running for the next two years, in order to give someone else a shot.
Where this might be too serious for some, there are other shows that offer a more humorous approach. At the Lambeth Country Show, queues out of the tent await the hotly anticipated Vegetable Sculpture Competition. Here the entries are judged by the public via Instagram using the hashtag #LCSvegetable. Puns abound; there’s Tina Turnip Simply the Cress, a coronation scene complete with the Archbeetroot of Canterbury, and Rih-yam-a, pregnant with her and A$AP Broccoli’s baby.
Joy is very much the spirit of the thing. “It’s a lonesome business growing things that you boil alive!” says Rice. But on that one day each summer, when the entire village comes together, there’s something for everyone. The widower who makes thick-cut marmalade, the child entering his or her first painted eggshell, the teenager baking perfect scones—it’s a timeless and unchanging event. “People have been growing the same varieties for hundreds of years, competing for the very same cup,” says Rice says. “That’s thrilling, isn’t it?”
The show-curious might be inspired by writer and director Emma Freud, whose entry to her local baking stall was like a scene from one of her romantic comedies. “Might’ve made a massive rhubarb cake for our village horticultural show,” she wrote on Instagram, captioning a photo of her three-tiered confection. “Might’ve accidentally got the recipe wrong and created a non edible breezeblock. Might’ve covered it in so much icing and fruit that the judges didn’t notice. Might’ve won my category. Might’ve also nailed best in show. *faints*”
This summer, who knows? The victor just might be you.
Daisy Dawnay is a London-based writer