ALTHOUGH the vast majority of us have long lived in urban settlements, Wales still has this image of being something of a rural paradise. Yes, we can boast about having more than our fair share of soaring snow-capped mountains, rolling meadows and stream-laced forests.
But even those who live amidst this scenic splendour, often working seven days a week for meagre return, deserve to let their hair down once in a while. For many this means heading off to a festival, a weekend in Cardiff, or an international rugby or football match in far-flung climes flying the flag for Wales.
Others can think of nothing better than a day or two at an agricultural show, of which any self-respecting rural community can boast one. And it’s not always a busman’s holiday, as not everybody who lives in rural splendour works in agriculture by a long chalk.
The mother and father of them all is the absolutely gigantic Royal Welsh Show, held every July at its permanent showground in Llanelwedd, as near to the centre of Wales as they could reasonably make it. It’s Europe’s largest such event by some fair distance, attracting in excess of 200,000 visitors over four hectic days.
Many stay for the whole shebang, lapping up the on-site bars and entertainment facilities, with the youth camp site in particular having something of a hedonistic reputation. Not that the adults will be shy of enjoying themselves. The pubs and restaurants just a few hundred metres away over the River Wye in the otherwise sleepy town of Builth Wells – or Llanfair-ym-Muallt to give it its proper Welsh name – know they can look forward to bulging tills at least once a year.
And you needn’t think there’ll be nothing of interest for you in it if you’re not a fully-fledged member of the stereotypical farming fraternity, resplendent in wellington boots with turned-over tops and chewing on a grass stalk. Rural life is about a myriad interacting facets, including but much more than just farming.
We would certainly be hard pressed to tell the difference between one end of a cow and another, although we’re informed that one end kicks and the other licks. And we’ve certainly whiled away many an hour at this event without straying across too much in the way of animal life. Not that you should make a point of avoiding it. Certainly go early if you’re going just for the day; there’s so much to see you’ll never cram it all into a few rushed hours.
It’s the greatest annual celebration of Welsh rural life in all its aspects. Sure, you’ll see plenty of farm animals should you not dutifully avoid them, including sheep, goats, horses, pigs, cattle, and poultry. The obligatory sheep-shearing competitions, in which professionals and amateurs alike show off how quickly and cleanly they can clip off a struggling ewe’s fleece without drawing blood, can be strangely hypnotic.
But there’s so much more. You’ll learn oodles more about falconry, fishing, bee-keeping, horticulture, gardening, or arts and crafts. You’ll enjoy live music and dancing. Hundreds of trade stands will try to part you from your money with good grace, selling everything from clothes and shoes to the latest in fashion jewellery or leatherwear. Food and drink sellers tempt you with innovative tastes you never knew existed, inside their own massive, dedicated Food Hall and bars, in addition to being liberally peppered throughout the site.
The main ring and its covered grandstand is the centrepiece, surrounded by a myriad exhibition halls and animal sheds, with grandstand seats often being at a premium. It’s where the TV cameras like to concentrate on, although they’ll dash willy-nilly throughout looking for somebody to interview. TV and radio channels will broadcast live throughout most of the day from the Royal Welsh, the place being awash with sufficient celebrities, politicians and assorted big-wigs making sure they’re seen to make it well worth their while.
The ring will host show-jumping and carriage driving, probably a motorcycle stunt or military display team, sometimes mechanical diggers dancing in formation. It’s also where the champion horses and farm animals get to strut their stuff, showing off their newly-garnered rosettes.
However it won’t be the year’s only attraction at the showground by any stretch. Having invested millions in it since it first opened in 1963, the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society who own it need to make it pay its way. It’s an extremely well-used facility. Upwards of 400 different events are hosted here each year, utilising not only its central position and its location right by the A470 north-south trunk road, but also its huge exhibition halls, bars, conference facilities and substantial parking.
Among these events you’ll find dog shows, beekeeping conferences, caravan rallies, equestrian events, car rallying stages, bikers’ get-togethers, antiques fairs, and country fairs.
Particularly popular is the two-day Royal Welsh Winter Fair held towards the end of November. It’s a scaled-down largely indoor version of its summer cousin, with added Christmassy bells and whistles amid a welcoming aroma of mulled wine everywhere. It can attract in the region of 30,000 visitors.
If you can’t make it to Llanelwedd and still fancy a whiff of rural life, there are hundreds of similar events throughout the country, from tiny but friendly little get-togethers to other huge shows that at one time could have given the Royal Welsh a run for its money. Just look out for advertising signs and banners hoisted onto bridges and hedges, often just painted by hand – sometimes seemingly by foot – on a spare piece of cardboard.
Among the bigger venues of such ilk as Llanelwedd are the Anglesey Showground in Mona, where the two-day Anglesey Show every August is just one event in a busy calendar; the United Counties Showground in Carmarthen features an eclectic mix from dairy and truck shows to the Welsh Alpaca Show; and the Monmouthshire Showground on the outskirts of Monmouth town where the Monmouthshire Show held on the first Saturday in July, is the nation’s biggest one-day show.