Country diary: the unbroken blue sky ushers in a day full of promise
St John’s Chapel, County Durham: The Weardale agricultural show returns after a Covid-enforced break
Days like this, with unbroken blue sky and not even the faintest whisper of wind, are rare on Chapel Fell. It is so quiet: the only sounds we can hear are trickling spring water and our own laboured breath, after the uphill hike along Harthope burn.
Summer is almost over, yet down in the valley there is no hint of autumn. Meadows surrounding farmsteads in the upper dale have regained their lush green grass after haymaking, and cattle are grazing on the aftermath.
But the colours of autumn have arrived in this high sheep pasture where we stand on the edge of open moorland. Thistle seed heads have burst in the warmth of the early morning sun, waiting for a breeze to carry the candyfloss of thistledown aloft. They stand among a haze of tall, sun-bleached grasses, along with spires of ripe, dark umber dock seeds. With every footstep, scores of gangly legged craneflies rise up around our dew-soaked boots.
We are halfway down the stony track to Daddry Shield before we hear the first sounds of human activity: music. The Floral Dance, played by the Stanhope Silver Band, drifts up the fellside. This morning is the opening of the 151st annual Weardale agricultural show and the organisers must be offering up a prayer of thanksgiving for such perfect weather, especially after last year’s Covid-enforced cancellation.
Through a gap in the trees, we look down on the showground and its marquees behind St John the Baptist church. The car parks are filling up fast. Showjumpers are exercising their horses. There are penned sheep, a line of tethered cattle, vintage tractors and a flock of Indian runner ducks under the gaze of a pair of border collies.
There will be prizes for baking, art, garden produce, handicraft and horticulture, quoits, pets, bale stacking, drystone walling and chainsaw carving, ending with tug-of-war and cross-country running competitions. Families from some remoter farms, who may not have met for a year or more, will share tales in the refreshment tent of the highs and lows of hill farming. A day full of promise, a highlight of the year in the dale.