Melplash: a ‘specially special’ show
Joël Lacey talks to the new President and the new Chairman of the Melplash Show to find out what makes this agricultural show near Bridport unique. Pictures by Florence Morris/picturedbyfloss.com
Published in August ’12
Each year, on the last Thursday before the August Bank Holiday, in a tract of land between the River Brit and West Bay road just south of Bridport, the town and the country come together to celebrate the best of West Dorset at the annual Melplash Show.
It is almost 165 years since the inaugural Melplash Agricultural Society ploughing match was held. That competition, in October 1847, came a year after two farmers had staked £5 (about £3000 in today’s wages) to see who was the better ploughman; their bet coincided with the celebrations of the inauguration of the newly created parish church. At the subsequent feast, which was held in the Melplash Inn (now the Half Moon), the assembled farmers and landowners agreed to form the Melplash Agricultural Society in October 1846.
Competition is just as keen these days at the show with the huge variety of produce, stock and equine competition classes, although thankfully the stakes for entering are much more affordable. Dan Newman of Chantmarle Farm is the new Chairman of the Agricultural Society and is keen to keep the strong sense of tradition and pride in the farming community which the Melplash Show highlights each year. ‘I’m incredibly honoured to be Chairman. I just want to make sure that the Melplash show is here for another 165 years. There are a phenomenal number of people who give up their time, their money and their expertise to ensure that the show succeeds. There is a board of directors and as its Chairman I’m just part of a bigger team. We’re so lucky that there is such a wealth of experience on the board – farmers, solicitors, surveyors, businesspeople – that there’s always someone who knows the answer to any question. I feel that I just gently steer the tiller while others do the work.’
One area where Dan is keen to use his chairmanship to drive things forward is by ensuring that the show is relevant and accessible to youngsters. To help local youngsters pursue a career in agricultural and related studies the society awards annual bursaries. George Rendell, a director of the Agricultural Society and former Chairman, was instrumental in introducing the scheme. He sees encouraging youngsters into agriculture as a major responsibility: ‘The bursaries are offered as an incentive and to add a little impetus to students who might otherwise not elect to follow a path into this very competitive and financially challenging world. We hope to help them go on to lead fulfilling careers and ultimately contribute to the local economy.’
The idea of encouraging other youngsters who may not be wholly familiar with farming and country pursuits is one of the motivating factors behind the show’s admissions policy which allows children in free if accompanied by a paying adult (under-fives also enter free). Dan Newman explains that, while ‘part of what we do is to balance the books, we are always very conscious that we need to try to keep the ticket prices as low as we can. Farming is in a good place at the moment and we want as many people to come as possible to see the fun in agriculture’
Dan is also keen to capitalise on this positive public perception of agriculture by promoting the high standards of welfare in British farming compared to other nations. ‘I’m a beef and sheep farmer running about 1500 acres and I want people to know how well we in Dorset look after our animals and how good our meat is. The Melplash Show is a great place to see happy animals and fine meat.’
This is a sentiment strongly echoed by this year’s President, Lady Sandwich. Having run a mixed estate at Mapperton with her husband for the last thirty years, Caroline Sandwich defines her job as helping to ‘flag up the importance and vitality of the agricultural community in the area. The Melplash Show is one of the great traditional agricultural shows; it is a highlight for Bridport and West Dorset, and for many people it is the best day out of the year.’
In terms of her own role, she states that ‘the President has all the fun, but none of the responsibility. On the day of the show I will arrive at about 8.30, visit all the stalls and exhibitors and enjoy looking at everything they have to offer. ‘What is such fun is the wonderful variety of stock and animals; there are sheep, heavy horses, cattle, pigs and goats. There is wonderful food in the food hall: sausages, cider, cheese, chops, pies,… people have a really, really good time’
‘All the president has to worry about,’ says Caroline Sandwich, ‘is the weather, but if you live in West Dorset you just have to forget about it. If it is wet then all the marquees get more attention and people eat more of the delicious food.’ She also enjoys the one-day nature of the show: ‘There’s something wonderful about a one-day show. People talk about things being special, but the Melplash Show is specially special. It truly represents life in West Dorset, is a great boost to those living in the area and a very important day for the local farming community; it gives them a chance to show off their animals, which are always so beautifully turned out. At the end of the day everyone retires home exhausted, yet happy.’
As part of her tenure, Caroline Sandwich is very keen to create a new award to recognise the best food in the food hall. The award will, rather deliciously, be known as the ‘Sandwich Plate’ and will be judged by George Streatfeild, last year’s President and the man responsible for the food hall.
As well as the hundreds of trade stands which have, by design, a rather sharper agricultural and country focus than is the case at some of the more commercial country shows, there are entertainments for young and old: show-jumping, floral and handicraft marquees, a motorcycle-stunt show, Professor Crump and Sheridan the sheepdog, beekeeping demonstrations, a cookery theatre, farm machinery, enormous vegetables and a display of agricultural and heavy horses in action.
Although this is a one-day show, there is a year-long effort which goes into it and there are four competitions associated with the show. There is a farm of the year competition wherein judges assess the management and cultivation of the farm, as well as management of the livestock. All farms are also judged for their conservation and environmental practice and management. For cultivation of a different kind, the Melplash Agricultural Society also awards a prize for the best garden in the area (it is open to all residents within a twelve-mile radius of Melplash Village Church). Gardens and allotments of any size can be entered and there are prizes for the best large, medium and small, as well as an overall winner. The third competition is the flocks’ competition, which rewards local farmers for their shepherding skills and flock management including handling, flock conformity, the quality and condition of the sheep, how they are performing and the number of lambs produced per head. Finally, and in a nod to the origins of the Melplash Agricultural Society, there is the annual hedge-laying and ploughing match, which is held in September.
This tradition and community base of the show are exemplified by the fact that Dan Newman is the third member of his family to have been Chairman of the Society. His father and his uncle have been chairman in, respectively, the 1980s and 1990s. Whilst undoubtedly proud of his family’s connection, he states his role is to serve the society, the wider farming community and the land itself. As he puts it: ‘the land was here before me and it will be here after me; I’m just here to look after it and the animals on it. It is the wonderful charm and tradition of the Melplash Show that makes it so special and I am determined that this never changes.’
The Melplash Show is on Thursday 23 August and tickets bought in advance are £10 per adult which admits one child for free, £4 per additional child; tickets on the day are £12 per adult which admits one child for free, £5 per additional child. For details visit the show’s website at www.melplashshow.co.uk or contact the show office at 23, South Street, Bridport, DT6 3NT, tel: 01308 423337. There is free parking at the showground and the organisers will also be operating a free bus service covering Lyme Regis, Charmouth and Bridport areas.