I spend two days every September helping to run Masham Sheep Fair.
It's very much all about the sheep, but it's the people and their generosity that stick in my mind: generosity with money, generosity of spirit, generosity of energy and time.
Over the many years I've been involved in the Sheep Fair I've learnt that often the ones who work the hardest aren't necessarily the youngest or those with most energy, and those who give the most money aren't always the ones who can most afford to give.
Like the majority of events that take place in the Yorkshire Dales, the Sheep Fair is run by volunteers. Some of them have been involved for over 30 years. Every year it's uplifting to experience the way that so many people come together to create and support such an event. Founder Susan Cunliffe-Lister's calm energy always amazes me. You can practically see her ticking off her mental to-do list, moving from one thing to another, quietly pulling the event together, moving the chess pieces until they're all where they need to be. She starts at dawn and works until dusk, and by the time the Sheep Fair actually happens she's already dealt with myriad enquiries and arrangements.
Three generations of the Wilkinson family have been involved in helping to run the Sheep Fair, starting with lovely Ken and then Martin and Fiona, and their two gorgeous children. Martin is usually to be found doing some heavy lifting or coaxing machinery into action, while Fiona's in the counting house sorting out the show's finances.
Ruth Thompson works away behind the scenes dealing with the entries and pile of paperwork. Nick Bowkett, Jeff Loveday, Bob Arnold, David Nesom, Chris Jameson, Arthur Raynor take care of jobs like stewarding the classes, moving hurdles, directing trailers and car parking, or cleaning up after everyone has left. A special mention has to go to our chair Dick Alderson who just keeps smiling and doing, getting on with whatever needs to be done. These are the people behind Masham Sheep Fair - in other villages the names change but the energy and commitment's the same. They're all so generous with their time and energy, despite some struggling with health issues and having helped the Sheep Fair for over 30 years.
So many people play their part. Judges travel hundreds of miles to take part in the show and come to cast their critical eye over the sheep. Ernie commentates through out the show, sharing his knowledge with visitors and enthusing over the sheep classes. Every year local artist Rob Blades creates a new design for our 'limited edition' very popular fundraising tea towels. Talented florists create incredible floral displays in the church. Several sides of Morris dancers come to the show to provide extra entertainment. Bands come to play. Children join in the Bishop Blaize procession. Norman the "Nidderdale caveman" puts on a display outside the school. Photographer, Guy Carpenter sent us images to use for our website and publicity. Many more people bring their wool, fleeces, spinning, crafts and other goods to show or sell. It's impossible to calculate how many hours of different volunteers time go into the preparation and delivery of their part in the Sheep Fair.
The other (essential) generosity comes from the visitors. All proceeds from the Sheep Fair go to local charities such as Yorkshire Air Ambulance, the school and youth groups. We aim to raise up to £10,000 each year - which is an incredible amount when you consider it's made from low cost items such as programme sales and car parking. It takes a lot of visitors to make so much money. Many of them don't really want a programme but willingly buy one or make a donation, just to support the show. They are fulsome with their praise for the event, loyal visitors and energetic supporters, exploring every activity, stall, sheep class and making the whole event feel so worthwhile. Today I talked to some one who visited from India who thought it an odd but wonderful event, two German families who came by accident last year and visited again on purpose this year. So many visitors come every year, faithfully making their way to bet on the sheep races or watch each sheep class.
The farmers who bring their sheep to the show or come to support their showing families are at the centre of the Masham Sheep Fair. There's no such thing as a day off for a farmer so we really appreciate their generosity in giving their time to support the show. It's wonderful to see them greeting each other, friends and competitors from across valleys and counties coming together because of sheep.
When visitors glance at a sheep and marvel at its fleece or smile at a well-endowed tup, they probably don't consider the time it takes to get an animal ready for showing, the effort to bring sheep to Masham, not to mention owners having to spruce up their own appearance ready for the show ring.
One of the most up-lifting things I see each year are the numbers of young handlers who're involved in showing sheep. Some of them enter the young handlers' classes but many join in among their older relatives and competitors. Today I watched a young boy showing in a class among much more experienced adult farmers. He handled his sheep well, but didn't win. He took this disappointment in good spirit but I saw a little later that he was a bit discouraged. His mother comforted him and then other farmers came over to talk to him, to congratulate him on his participation, to commiserate and give him some tips for the future. There was such warmth in their encouragement and it was so good to see the way everyone played their role. Farmers often share a quite particular sense of humour, dry to say the least. The good-hearted joshing about sheep breeds, handling, preparation, wins and losses adds to the atmosphere. It's always good to see the interaction between farmers and earnest visitors, often city-dwellers who delight in realising some farmers actually enjoy answering the questions they weren't sure they dare ask.
Today I've witnessed so many gestures of generosity. One farmer camped in a nearby field so he could be in Masham on time for the show. As he was leaving the show he told me he'd done this and thrust several notes in my hand, a generous donation to the Sheep Fair charities in return for his stay. Instead of charging a fixed fee, stall holders are asked for a donation - they all offered sums far in excess of the minimum suggested.
I could go on and on about the generosity of so many people. This blog just relates to one day at Masham Sheep Fair. Multiply it by the many shows and events that take place around the Yorkshire Dales and it's just incredible to think of all the goodwill, voluntary effort and financial generosity. When other aspects of our economy and politics aren't very cheery, thank goodness for these small rural events.Thanks to all who support them.