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Tricia Fry can be relied upon to enter her roses in this year’s Whitchurch, Morcombelake and Ryall Flower and Dog Show. “I have a cascade of Constance Spry at the end of my garden,” she says, “and by the time the show comes we’re almost into autumn, so I pick every rose I can.” In 2012, which was the show’s centenary, her roses won the trophy. “Ah,” she says modestly, “that was for old times’ sake.”
Last year had one of the wettest summers on record, and on the morning of the show west Dorset was dripping under a dark-grey sky. Since breakfast, a steady stream of cars had been making their way along the single-track lane to the Whitchurch village hall, people taking it in turns to pull in and make a dash for the marquee, clutching their entries in baskets, cake tins and Tupperware. Twenty yards down the lane a small hand-painted sign read “Dog Show” and pointed through an open gate into Mr Wallace’s field, which had been roped off as a car park. By 10.30 the last of the entrants had been and gone, the show’s secretary was checking the forms and the judges had assembled inside the marquee.
Here a series of trestle tables, each covered with white paper, was set out: fruit, vegetables and other produce around the edge, flowers in the middle. Each category was identified by a number in a wooden stand on the table. Every entry had a card laid face down to maintain anonymity during the judging. Because of the weather it had been a poor growing season and the volume of entries was low: some of the fresh-produce categories had only two or three entries, and even then they seemed to be struggling to make up the numbers. “Normally these tables would be groaning,” said Michael West, one of the stewards.
In the furthest corner a judge was bent over one of the tables. “I’m trying to get my head around the eggs,” said Peter Yeates, a tall man with beady eyes and a weathered smile. “It’s quite challenging because there are ‘Brown Eggs’ and then ‘Coloured Eggs’. You’ve got five pale ones there and a brown one that doesn’t match. And these two lots are definitely brown so they’re not strictly ‘as schedule’.” A harsher judge would write NAS (Not As Schedule) on the entrant’s card, but in Yeates’s view, “We’re trying not to do that because it makes people unhappy and it puts them off next time.”
Judging, in the words of the official Royal Horticultural Society guidelines, is the “exercise of deciding degrees of merit within agreed parameters”. Joy Everington judges the flowers. “Roses have been my passion since I met my husband in the Ministry of Education in 1952.” There were 17 flower categories scheduled for the show, ranging from “Gladioli” to “A Tub of Flowers, Any Size”. Schedule No. 2, which Tricia Fry won, was “Rose – A Bowl or Vase of Roses, Any Varieties”. Of 20 possible points, eight are for the condition of the flowers, 12 for the arrangement. “When you’re judging for a higher category of show, then you expect people to have put paper bags over the roses a few days before to keep the weather off them,” she says. “This is the whole thing about flower shows in villages – you can only put in what you’ve got on the day.”
Jennifer Horsington and Sue Clarke are the “home produce” judges. Jennifer has been a judge for the last four years. Sue is new. “This is my first time … scary.” They set about their judging with authority and aplomb. There is much speculation as to whether a Victoria sponge was made with three eggs rather than the two as per schedule. “Perhaps they were duck eggs?” suggests Jennifer, generously, but their suspicions rule it out of the running. Standards are high. An entrant’s rock cakes are dismissed because they look like biscuits. A cake is exposed for having a crinkly bottom, and others with uncooked bottoms are marked down. A meringue with a leaky bottom is given short shrift. The pickles and chutneys are even more problematic. “Look at that,” said Sue. “See the hair?” “Yes,” said Jennifer. “She must have a cat in her kitchen.” Worse was to come. As Jennifer loosened the lid of a jar of chutney, a fly flew out. “I don’t fancy tasting it. And there’s fluff on the jar! Sometimes you just look and think ‘no’.”
The most competitive category was “Men Only – Jam Swiss Roll”, which attracted a record 16 entries. “That one looks like it would be good with custard,” suggested Michael the steward, helpfully. Jennifer adopted a sterner approach: “I think that’s a no, don’t you?” she said, slicing into a hapless entry. “Wow, that is so solid!” In the end, the men’s first prize also won the “Best Overall Swiss Roll” and when the winner, Richard Legg, a beefy young farmer, collected his prize later in the day, he responded to the marquee’s roar of approval with a thumbs-up and matching grin.
Right on cue, as the dog show was about to start, it began bucketing down. The judge, Katherine Townsend, and the stewards were huddled under a small awning, trying to keep their clipboards dry. The wet dogs and owners assembled in a long row. Wiping their faces, the owners smiled at their families and friends, and then tried to present a more considered countenance to the judge. While they stood dripping in their waterproof jackets and hoods, the dogs stuck their tongues out and panted. To the strains of the Durnovaria Silver Band playing “Chariots of Fire”, they set off on a circuit of the enclosure in a slow gaggle before coming to attention, like a platoon in wellington boots.
To judge each category, Katherine first stood back from the row of contestants, stared at the dogs intensely, and then called a few over, one at a time, observing how each dog moved, before inspecting it expertly. Then there would be a pause while she deliberated, which sent a shuffle of anticipation along the ranks. Briskly, she would announce the winner and, to the cheers of family and friends, present the owner with a red rosette. The dogs, meanwhile, seemed more concerned with the lingering smell of burgers being grilled.
By late afternoon, as the show was coming to an end, the rain began to ease off. Pete Ray, the former chairman, made a speech in the marquee. “Who would believe that this show has been going more or less for 100 years? It’s my privilege to have been chairman for 15 years. I thought that was a long time, but 100 years – it makes you reflect on all the other people.” There was a massive round of applause and everyone cheered.
This year, everybody is hoping for better weather. Earlier this summer I went back to Whitchurch to take portraits of the winning dogs, because last year’s rain had made it impossible. Whitchurch is in the heart of Dorset’s Marshwood Vale, an area of small farms and traditional country ways. This is gun-dog territory. Charlie, the prizewinning senior, lives at the Five Bells. He’s a handsome old boy, with a dodgy hip, so his hunting days are behind him. But Henry the springer spaniel, who won “Best in Show”, comes from a prizewinning local breeder, the owner’s uncle. He looked in great shape for this year’s show.
Additional reporting by Pauline Stasiak
The 101st Whitchurch, Morcombelake and Ryall Flower and Dog Show will be held at Whitchurch Village Hall on August 26, 2pm-5pm
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