I’ve been drinking craft cider. Then I started seeing stars and I stumbled across a pink sheep. That’s normal on one day of the year, anyway. It’s what makes the Gillingham and Shaftesbury Show special. You expect the unexpected.
I didn’t need to check the potency of my thimble-sized sample of cider. The colourful Hampshire Down sheep had been dyed as a fundraiser for Cancer Research UK. I wandered away from this crowd-pulling ewe and looked at the different breeds in their pens, awaiting judging. Some were very local, like the Poll Dorsets, while the Texels come from a Dutch island. And although their orange-brown fleece was getting some attention, their more colourful counterpart was attracting the selfies and smart phone pics.
On Wednesday, they reckon that around 25,000 people learned about farming, food, conservation and community activities at the Turnpike Showground. The weather was kind for the visitors as they milled around a record 520 trade stand exhibitors and the crowds enjoyed displays and demonstrations.
There was pretty much something for every interest and taste. Inside the massive food hall marquee, owner of Shaftesbury’s Fleur-de-Lys restaurant, David Griffin Shepherd, was in action demonstrating his culinary skills on stage as a video screen captured close-ups of his cooking.
The outdoor ring activities ranged from terrier racing to polo matches and Shetland pony displays. But for many attendees, the non-agricultural highlight was seeing the Imps Motorcycle Display Team. The red-jacketed children and teenagers rode their bikes in formation, sometimes backwards and even through flaming hoops.
Across the showground, fire was also attracting attention. Rich Chave of Shaftesbury fire station was on duty, encouraging people to sign up as retained firefighters and his team was offering general safety advice. “We are recruiting, if anybody wants to join us,” said Richard. “We’re also talking about being safe in your home. We have information on thatched properties, which is quite relevant to people living in this rural area. Fire safety advisers are happy to pop around your home and look at your thatch properly for you and give you advice on how to stay safe.”
That’s why I love the show. It’s distinctly local. I don’t expect that the London Fire Brigade offer leaflets on protecting thatched properties. Rich said his team was getting a good response. “Everybody likes to look at the fire engine,” he said.
But a smaller fire service vehicle was gaining more than a little attention. A Mini, liveried in fire engine red and custard yellow with the word ‘Fire’ splashed in red across its bonnet really stood out. “We don’t actually drive it to fires,” laughed Rich. “We got it for the Olympics. Weymouth was an Olympic site for sailing. We had a fire station on the Olympic village and had the Mini for that. I’m not sure if we were meant to give it back but we’ve had it ever since!”
Something that makes the show really special is the amount of local food and drink on offer. Show Secretary Sam Braddick had told me that the range of gin, beer and cider has expanded rapidly in recent years. As we are in cider country, I headed to meet one of our area’s newest producers.
Gavin Tait is the founder, planter and cider maker at the Donhead Apple Company, based in Donhead St Mary. Gavin spent the day standing behind a table under a small gazebo offering samples of his handmade cider. “There’s me full-time and there’s Laurence who is part-time,” explained Gavin, pointing to his colleague who waved back in the middle of busily serving samples to showgoers. Many of the tasters ended up thrusting fivers and tenners at him, buying bottles of Gavin’s locally produced cider. You can’t get a better advert than that!
It’s the first time that Gavin has attended the show. It went well. “We’ve had a fantastic reaction. The conversations that we are able to have about the products makes this sort of thing worthwhile. We had one lady here who knew nothing about cider. She wanted to learn. She now knows more about cider and her mind is open to something other than the kind of cider that is acid with a Swedish name,” he joked.
“We have three main varieties,” Gavin continued. “We do a traditional farmhouse cider which is still – we call that Festival. We do Craft, which is a lightly sparkling bottled cider and there’s our English sparkling cider, made with the same method that they use to make Champagne.”
The Donhead Apple Company’s cider is getting noticed within cider circles. “Our English sparkling champagne method cider won a gold medal in the International Cider Challenge last year. We have a two star Great Taste award for our craft cider. Our apple juice has a Great Taste gold star too.”
Gavin says that he’s adhered to high standards in order to gain recognition. “I think you have to focus on quality and don’t think being local is enough for a local pub or farm shop to stock you. Because they want to stock the best products as well.”
Gavin is particular about the apples that he uses. “We are ‘mad keen’ on traditional, tannic cider apples. They are the ones that give you the lovely deep, rich, dry aftertaste. They mature really nicely. These are apples with fantastic names like ‘Slack Ma Girdle’ and ‘Harry Masters Jersey’.”
The story of how Gavin ended up making cider here on the Dorset and Wiltshire border is interesting in itself. It was a road sign that piqued his interest. “I was working in London at the time and not particularly enjoying it. I was desperate to get out at weekends and I used to come down to Dorset and stay in local B&Bs. One day, on the way from Salisbury to Shaftesbury along the A30, I saw the sign saying ‘The Donheads’. I turned off and three hours later I found my way back onto the main road having negotiated all the little rabbit warrens. On my way there I saw a pub, The Forester, and a tumbledown little cottage for sale, which I thought somebody needed to rescue. The rest is history.
“The field was empty. Working in the City at the time I was desperate to do something else. I used to come down to local cider festivals here and loved them and I thought ‘how hard can it be?’ We ordered 500 Apple trees and I discovered how hard it actually was!” Gavin laughed. “They were bush style apple trees, so they were quick to bear fruit but we still had a gap of two or three years where we were twiddling our thumbs. We started buying local apples just to hone the craft a little bit. Last year was the first year it’s been entirely our own production.”
Gavin has been delighted by the local reaction to his cider. “It’s been fantastic. We have had amazing support locally from the Donheads and we’re very fortunate that shops and pubs are really supporting us. They take everything we produce. We are still minuscule in cider terms – 7,000 litres each year. That compares with 2 or 3 million litres for some of the big brands.”
One of the organisations that work with many local artisan and craft businesses is the Cranborne Chase Area Of Outstanding Natural Beauty. There are forty AONBs in Britain. Their purpose is to conserve, preserve and promote our most beautiful landscapes. Their designation is one step away from National Park status.
Our local AONB begins just one mile outside Shaftesbury and takes in 380 square miles of beautiful countryside. “From Blandford to Salisbury and up to the north and into Wiltshire,” explained Lesley Meaker. Lesley is a trustee of the Cranborne Chase Landscapes Trust, the charitable wing of the AONB. She explained that when you lookout towards Win Green from Shaftesbury, we can see the AONB. It’s that close. “So if you’re looking out of the window and seeing the beautiful downland that is all around you, that’s all part of the AONB,” said Lesley.
“One of the big things people are interested in is our Dark Skies project,” Lesley told me. The AONB is one of the best places for star gazing in Britain. 52% of the Cranborne Chase is in the darkest category in terms of light pollution measurement and the AONB team hopes to achieve International Dark Sky Reserve status – an accolade that would flag up how great our area is for astronomy.
“A lot of people recognise the dark skies around here and the amazing views that you get of the Milky Way and planets,” said Lesley. You might be surprised, considering were less than 2½ hours drive from London. “We’re already pretty dark here in certain places. We have a map where you can see patches that are really good to go to for astronomy,” said Lesley.
She unfolded here map and started pointed out good places to view the night sky near Shaftesbury. Lesley recommended Fontmell Down. “It’s about three miles south of Shaftesbury. There’s a great car park by the airfield. If you park there at night you just have to step out of your car and you can enjoy the night sky. Going across towards Salisbury along the A30 is considered one of the darkest areas in the Chase. We don’t have lots of big towns in the AONB although places like Shaftesbury do create a glow in the night sky,” Lesley added.
The AONB has produced a leaflet advising locals on how to reduce this light pollution. “You might be able to buy new lights that face downwards, rather than shining up into the air. There is also new technology like LEDs. You could turn your lights off and save yourself electricity,” she added.
The AONB is interested in preserving the landscape. Another Dorset organisation, which most Shaftesbury locals have experience of, was at the show in order to encourage sustainable living. Dan Williams is Waste Promotions Assistant with the Dorset Waste Partnership, the people who empty our bins and provide curbside recycling in Shaftesbury. His team was offering smoothies, but you had to expend some pedal power for your free drink. They’d connected an exercise bike to a blender!
“If you have any fruit that’s nearly going off, that you might not want to eat, putting it in a smoothie can be a really good option. Even if the fruit is a little bit off, you can put it in a cake and it still tastes really good. We’re trying to get people to cook using leftover food,” said Dan.
Sam Braddick has been Show Secretary for 23 years. He’s the man who organises this event for the show committee. Sam says the show remains true to its agricultural roots with its dozens of livestock classes and competitions. But the show also has an educational role to play.
“In the farm, food and fun tent there is an animal jigsaw where you can lift off parts of the animal and find out what meat joint it is. We found a local artist who painted cartoon character animals, which are as near the real thing as you can get.”
There is often a disconnect between consumers and the farming industry and this is one way in which the Gillingham and Shaftesbury Show bridges that gap. “We are there to educate and show off the latest farming practices. Everybody wants to know where food is coming from. This is the best way we can show them.”
In many ways the show has retained the objectives of its founding fathers, as Sam explained. “We believe that back in 1830, a group of farmers got together in the pub after market. There was probably a challenge laid down, such as ‘my bull is better than your bull’ and that’s how we believe the Agricultural Society started.
“At first they used the market in Gillingham to hold events but they had numerous different sites over the years. The most important thing has been the animals. From judging cattle, it went on to the performance of heavy horses – who could plough the most in the day or plough the straightest line. We don’t do that now because our field is sacred to us. We’ve had the show field for 26 years and we work hard to keep it nice,” Sam said.
Sam and his committee members often visit neighbouring shows to check out the competition and pinch ideas. He revealed that he’s been on spy duty at other events frequently this year. I didn’t notice any undercover agents from rival shows on Wednesday. Then again, with so many judges on the showground, people taking notes and clutching clipboards, it would easily blend in.
Whether the show has grown using original or borrowed ideas, the approach of Sam’s team appears to be working. When I called into his Gillingham town centre office a few days before Wednesday’s event, show tickets were being sold to people all over the South and Westcountry.
“This morning we have sold tickets to people as far away as Dursley in Gloucestershire and down on the Isle of Wight. I’m not sure what we’re doing right. I wish I knew. But there’s something that we are doing right,” Sam smiled.
And if the huge range of exhibitors draws in the crowds, the good news is that the Gillingham and Shaftesbury Show will continue to work for local producers like Gavin, too. “Oh we’re definitely coming again,” he told me.