Article - local agricultural shows

Late August and early September seem to be the parts of the year when our local agricultural shows - at Melplash and Dorchester - take place. The Bath and West Show, of course, is by August a distant memory; but the Bath and West is a different scale of thing, regional rather than local in character.

Even the Dorchester Show is now so large and impressive that it has almost broken the bounds of the local and moved into the regional category.

But the Melplash show remains resolutely a West Dorset affair. I have been going to it every year (with one exception) for the last 22 years - and, although there have been many innovations during that time, I can testify that the essential character of the show has been remarkably and reassuringly constant. It brings together essential elements of the rural economy that have characterised West Dorset for rather more than 1000 years - the farming of farms, the rearing of animals, the riding of horses, the making of food, the gardening of gardens and the many manufacturing and service industries that underpin (and at the same time profit from) these activities.

In the 21st Century, a large part of our local economy depends on tourism, leisure, the public services and modern (often high tech) manufacturing.

But, as one looks round the Melplash show one is reminded just how much the look and feel of West Dorset (and, indeed, the superstructure of these more modern activities) is built on the base of the rural pursuits that have been present here for many centuries.

And one cannot fail to see how connected it all is instead of being just a set of individuals, each doing their own thing, it is a set of interlocking and overlapping communities which constitutes not just a hugely significant part of the rural economy but also a readily identifiable rural society.

Long may that last.

There have, of course, been profound - and mostly welcome - changes in the structure of that society over the 1000 years or so since the Norman Conquest but the striking thing, of which one is reminded as one goes round the show, is the degree of continuity rather than the degree of disruption and change.

One can see this also in the two great Ecclesiastical establishments of the north and west of West Dorset: Sherborne Abbey and Forde Abbey.

900 years ago, these two Abbeys were beginning to acquire the dominant position which they came to occupy in the rural economy and rural society of what are now the northern and southern parts of western West Dorset. Their long and steady ascent came to an abrupt halt with the dissolution of the monasteries in the first half of the 16th Century (probably the biggest social revolution in British history).

But here we are, almost 600 years later, only to find Sherborne culturally and aesthetically dominated by its Abbey church (which can trace its origins back as far as the Saxon cathedral of the 8th Century), and with Forde (amidst what is surely the most beautiful garden in England) occupying a central place not only in the agriculture of the far west of Dorset but in its burgeoning tourist industry.

England was not built in a day.