5 Rings plus 2 Rings is…… some Rings !

It’s SO difficult to get my head into work mode (even harder to get into a writing frame of mind !) when the whole world is racing against each other.  So far I’ve managed to get up and get out, no morning TV or I would be ever so, ever so late onto site.  At least most of the finals are in the evening although the ‘sit-down’ sports – in which we do quite well ! – are in the daytime. The trick there is to avoid any news media so that it comes as an exciting surprise over dinner.

The swimming and rowing are two of my favourites, maybe because the girls are all SO tall !  Missy Franklin is ahead on points thus far…  I was really hoping to have got a ticket for either of those two sports but no joy.  As for what’s to come, well, who wouldn’t want to be in the Athletic stadium for an Olympic event !?  I will do well to keep my productivity up in the coming couple of weeks.  Not a problem four years ago; the Bejing games were screened early morning and afternoon, with the usual all-evening repeats.  I didn’t need the evening broadcasts, I was able to watch wall-to-wall TV coverage as it happened.  No work was being done that August, instead I was in a thigh to toe plaster cast of my left leg, set in a very awkward full-equinus (toe pointed downwards) position such that my leg led the way in any forward motion, thereby inevitably crashing into doors and walls and anything else.  Can it really be four years ago, how time flies !

What I find quite astonishing is all the people who have arrived to support their teams.  Considering the world is in such economic turmoil and given the obscenely high unemployment and poverty in many so called ‘advanced’ societies, how do so many afford to take such a long vacation AND how did they get (and afford) the tickets ?  The support for the U.S. swimmers is almost as vocal as that for the home team and even smaller nations seem to have dozens if not hundreds of supporters.  It brings a wry smile to my face that all the doom mongers of the media have been given a right good slapping in the face as thousands have turned out to support the road races and the sailing, both free events, hell, even the football has had big crowds and the Millenium stadium was packed for the Team G.B. game against Uruguay.  One thing that sets us apart and therefore makes us good hosts is our ability to lose with dignity.  It means our crowds are not daunted by the possibility of not winning, and in that classically over-worked Olympic slogan, “taking part and doing one’s best” is what it’s all about.  Really ?  What’s with all the hype and craziness when we do win a Gold medal then !?  That we can, at the same time, applaud and appreciate effort, skill and prowess in athletes from other countries is a trait we can all rejoice in.  For my part, I love every bit of it, although I do find the endless rounds of the Gymnastics somewhat tiresome and really just want a result there.  Each to their own I say.  Excitement grows towards the appearance of an insanely fast man and for the next week or so little outside will matter.  Oh, I would so liked to have gone to the Olympic Park…. who knows, there’s time yet !

As the Five Rings flutters over Tower Bridge and mesmerises the Nation, Wales was pre-occupied by a mere Two rings.  The annual trek to the Builth Wells suburb of Llanelwedd took place in sweltering heat last week.  It is something to behold in its own right as the rest of Wales empties (or so it seems to me) and descends on that small rural town with its one river crossing and four main roads bringing folk from the four corners of the Principality.  The great thing for me -and my guests this year – is the wonderful free bus service that is provided to lessen the traffic parking problems.  Not that you would notice as the town, especially the bridge crossing, which becomes single alternate flow, grinds to a congested and therefore polluted morass of people and vehicles for the four days of the show and a few days either side as caravaners and exhibitors jostle to gain access or exit.  I’m sure that, just like the good folk of Wimbledon during the tennis, the residents of Builth decamp to some quiet holiday resort during the week of the Royal Welsh Show.

Cattle on show at the Royal Welsh

The one ring is for the big animals, cattle, and more cattle, and yet more cattle… The Grand Parade at RWAS 2012

The show is such a big event – over 60 thousand visitors a day – that it is impossible to give it due credit here.  Although an Agricultural show primarily, it is such an eclectic mix that there is something for anyone.  There is a massive retail section, rows and rows of stalls selling everything and anything.  I’m always amused to see what the latest fad is amongst the serried ranks of shouting demonstrators, a new knife sharpener, a new pencil sharpener, a new tin opener, car polish, saucepan scourer, vegetable chopper and the one I actually did allow myself to experience, a shoe buffer.  There are dozens of  stalls selling ‘pretend’ country clothing, you know the kind, large checks that are the hall mark of the suited and booted country gent, although it has become universal, unisex even.  I am always terrified to go into the shopping malls, not because I can’t resist all that tat and rubbishy clothes, no, it’s because there are so many people crammed into narrow lines and unbelievably there are pushchairs.  Not only single buggies, but double buggies ! My eye level is around 6ft so those wheeled buggies with their passengers are way below me.  I always end up tripping over the wretched things.  Little Welsh ladies who suddenly stop without brake lights are another huge hazard for me and always has been but the biggest nuisance danger is the dreaded texter.  People, usually older and slower text operators, who are walking along eyes glued to the buttons or screen. I lost count of how many I collided with, it is tiring and annoying, it reminded me why it’s been a few years since I attended.

Ram at the RWAS

Sheep were especially hard hit by the sudden change to extreme heat. Several succumbed as did a couple of pigs

The weather had caused some serious worries to the organisers in the immediate preceding weeks.  The showground itself can be a water trap and the heavy usage that the two main rings get turns them quickly to a ploughed field.  The biggest issue comes with the out-of-town car parks.  The surrounding countryside turns into giant car parks but they are nothing more than pastures and at the end of June they are hay fields.  Before the tens of thousands of vehicles can get onto them that hay needs to be cut and hauled away.  Five weeks of heavy rain meant that crop was still there and flattened and serious thoughts began to be given to cancellation.  Frantic efforts in the week leading up to the show finally saw the car parks ready and then, unbelievably, the sun arrived.  How we go from unseasonal cold and wet to extreme heat always astounds me.  By the time I had a day at the show I was feeling the effects (having worked in an exposed site for three days) and I spent as much time as I could sitting in one or other of the agencies that pervade the show.

Winning vegetable at the RWAS 2012

Surely this has to be Vegetarian pornography, have you ever seen such a display ? I always pay a visit to the ‘Blodau’ tent.  What people are able to do with flowers and gardens astounds me.

One marquee that I always visit, not least because it has the best tea and sandwich bar – as well as an amazing array of home made cakes – run by the Women’s Institute, is the Flower tent, the Blodau .  I am in awe of people who can grow three potatoes the same size, can make carrots grow in a straight line for a yard, can create an artwork out of brightly coloured flowers and make them last for five days !

A winning display in the Flower tent at the 2012 Royal Welsh show.

The Banana display was amazing – do they really grow like that !?

My main activity these days is meeting old friends and catching up with professional colleagues.  The Show is  a market-place in all departments, from livestock to machinery, from tools to stoves and, as I mentioned, hundreds of clothes and shoes and tack (or did I mean tat !)  My market-place is amongst the Conservation elements and the Archaeological fraternity.  I meet and greet and exchange the latest news and find out the gossip.  Hopefully I will re-enter the consciousness of those who might have a use for my skills.  It is usually the case that I get some new work opportunities as a result of meetings at the Show.

For nearly 20 years I was always involved with the Dry Stone Walling displays and stand, representing the Welsh branches of the D.S.W.A. (Dry Stone Walling Association of GB).  I occupied all the officer positions of the committee for too many years and feel happy to have done my bit, and now I get to wander the show and talk when I want !

For too many years I missed so much, especially the vintage section and this year a very special display was presented.  You will know of my interest in old farming ways, especially the ways of the Welsh upland areas.  That means a pastoral agriculture where cattle and sheep rule.  The dominance of sheep came late in historical terms, not until the nineteenth century did the little white nibblers arrive in numbers so large that they changed, forever, the ecology of the Welsh uplands.  Prior to that cattle were the important ‘cash crop’ with the tradition of Droving a dominant facet of Welsh society.  With livestock comes the need to provide winter fodder, for centuries that has meant hay.  More recently the methods of storing summer grass has evolved into large silage clamps and big black-plastic  wrapped bales.  Traditional methods were communal with neighbours coming together to get the harvest in.  Hay was cut by hand and turned by hand, rake and gathered and hauled by horse to the rickyard where house-like structures appeared, the steeply pitched tops being thatched with rush.  The arrival of early tractors changed matters and by the time the ‘Little Grey Fergie’ arrived in the early post-war years, mechanisation was already well established on upland farms.  That evolution from hand harvest to modern electronic mechanised harvesting was the subject of an amazing display which entered the main ring on each evening of the show.

Horse drawn hay gambo

The horse drawn ‘Gambo’ was a common sight in the Welsh hills, especially Breconshire where this cart originated, it was a thrill to see it being pulled around the Main Ring. (Have I shown you mine …!?)

The first ‘vehicle’ was one of my all time favourites, not least because I have one which I restored some years ago.  The common two wheeled cart of the uplands was a narrow, long bodied vehicle with two chassis rails which extended to form the shafts and four cross-members joined them.  Planks were simply nailed across the gap. It had four corner posts and gates over the wheels to hold the crop.  Every farm would have had one and many I have found rotting in the corner of old barns or left outside to gradually disappear into the soil, only the ironwork remaining to show where they once stood.

The display included tractors from the early twentieth century, the war years and the fifties and sixties.  Each was pulling an item of machinery appropriate for its era and showing too the evolution of harvesting a hay crop.  Swath turners, balers, elevators and the modern silage convoy.  Several friends of mine were driving their prize possessions and the wide smiles they displayed showed their enjoyment and pride at the opportunity of showing off to the thousands of onlookers.

Fordson Major at the Royal Welsh show

My old mate Stan Archer of Llandovery loves nothing better than an excuse to parade on his Fordson Major.

The interest in the history of  farming is wider than those of us ‘nerdy’ types who collect the old items of equipment and then spend small fortunes and hundreds of hours restoring them.  Nostalgia reigns in all manner of places but at the event that celebrates Agriculture, and Welsh agriculture in particular, where hard times are still well remembered, it is particularly poignant.

I watched the parade at ringside talking with a farmer from the hills above my old home village of Llangadog.  We discussed each tractor and each implement and we discussed the economics of the modern era.  The parade ended with a huge computer controlled John Deere with a massive 30 ft / 10 metres cutting width on front mounted mowers, in all the capital cost of that unit topped £300,000.  My fellow watcher and I pondered the viability of farming, especially small scale pastoralism of the Welsh uplands, whilst the cutting and storing of grass reaches such astronomical cost.  If nothing else the parade of the old tractors and implements demonstrated the place agriculture holds in the technological and industrial economy.  However, the over-capitalisation of farming as well as the inexorable rise of land prices, is a dangerous and fragile backdrop in a world staggering from one environmental and monetary crisis to another.

The star attraction was the riding of the Cossacks.  I’m not a horse person as such but even when I did ride I’m sure I stayed in the saddle longer than these guys.  They galloped flat-out the length of the main ring, along the front of the grandstand, but all of them fell off and had to clamber back on, some of them half fell off and hung frighteningly off to the side almost hitting the posts.  Eventually they decided it was safer to stand on the back of the horse, ultimately choosing to all stand on the same horse, clearly room was at a premium forcing them to stand on each others shoulders…. Mad, scary, exhilarating, impressive; the Cossack tricks and horsemanship, learned apparently as part of training for cavalry war, thrilled the crowd each day.  For me, the more leisurely plod of the horse pulling the old gambo brought a much wider grin.

A touch of summer at last, and yes, I did do some walling, or more accurately some brick-laying.  I also led a guided walk through a part of the picturesque Elan valley.  More on those events in the next post, as well as some exciting news on an overdue arrival at my little homestead !

For now, the Five Rings are occupying my mind, my every waking hour actually.  I just love the excitement, the passion, the pathos even.  Swimming and rowing have always been my favourite, cycling is now up there with them and now the track and field events have begun.  The two rings of the Royal Welsh Show entertained and impressed, the London Olympic rings will raise my heart rate for the next week or so.  Do you know, I may even up and go, just to walk in the Olympic  Park will be worth it.  Besides, I have daughters who have already been, now that can’t be right can it !

Bike, Jack and Usane

A little offspring of mine supporting the cycling team as she heads for the Beach Volleyball at Horseguards. Just you wait !!

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