A new book about Kilnsey Show goes behind the scenes to celebrate the unsung heroes who have brought the event to life for the past 120 years.
KILNSEY Show in Upper Wharfedale has been welcoming visitors from across the north of England every autumn since 1897. With its famous gravity-defying fell race, thrilling harness racing and pens of sheep and cattle it feels reassuringly unchanging and timeless. Yet beneath this calm exterior the event has weathered significant threats including world wars, foot and mouth, a hurricane and changing rural life.
The bedrock of Kilnsey Show – and the secret of its longevity – has always been the local farming community who come together to organise the event each year. Some families, such as the Carlisles and the Fosters, have been involved since it was established. All are unpaid volunteers who set aside months of time each year to make sure everything runs smoothly.
The impetus for a new book about Kilnsey Show came from another of the old Dales families, the Roberts family, who live and farm at Kilnsey have been closely involved with the show for four generations. Jamie Roberts felt that the time had come to tell the story of this great Dales institution.
“I grew up in the shadow of Kilnsey Crag and the show was as exciting as Christmas for us,” recalls Jamie. “Everyone has a memory or story about Kilnsey Show but very little has been written down. It was clear to me that we needed to capture the show’s rich history now or it would be lost forever.”
Jamie was fortunate to meet local writer Victoria Benn, who also had a strong personal connection to Kilnsey Show. Together they began pulling together the material that would form Studs & Crooks: The hidden history of Kilnsey Show – the title a tongue-in-cheek reference to the studs of the fell runners and the crooks of the farmers who bring their animals to the show each year.
Victoria set about tracking down and interviewing many of the characters who provide the heartbeat of the show - farmers such as Matt Mason of Appletreewick, who was first introduced to the show in early 1960s.
“My earliest memories of the show are of getting involved and helping through the Young Farmers’ Club, who’ve always helped to put the show up,” says Matt who followed in his father’s footsteps to become a sheep steward, and has run the sheep section for the past 15 years. In the hurricane year of 1986, when the showground was evacuated as the river burst its banks and all the sports were cancelled, Matt even ran the Crag Race in his wellies to ensure its proud tradition wasn’t broken. Running must be in Matt’s blood, since his son Ted went on to win the race in 2011.
Current show chairman Robert Lambert farms sheep in the parish of Conistone-with-Kilnsey and his earliest memories of Kilnsey Show are of making sure the animals were in tip top condition for show day. “We had an extremely early start, about 5am, to get the milking done before we’d start on the show preparations: shampoo the cattle, wash them with cold water, wait until it dried, groom them out, back comb them, fluff their tails, and then they were ready to go!”
One thing that Victoria hadn’t expected was how much knowledge her father, former sportsman Roger Ingham, had about the sporting history of the show. Roger has been a mainstay of the show since 1959, organising and more latterly commentating on the sports. One year he proved his dedication to keeping the sports going. “In 1969 I ran in every single event just to help make the numbers up. I ran the 100 yards ? heat and final ? one mile, the 440 yards, and then the crag race ? all straight after each other! Through contesting every race ? including pulling a couple of guys in from the crowd to help make the numbers up ? I probably saved the sports from totally going under that year.”
For Jamie and Victoria, the final piece of the jigsaw was to research the history and origins of the show. It was commonly believed that the show began in 1897, but as the pair searched through old books and Craven Herald archives they made an exciting discovery. “Events such as the crag race and the harness racing were already happening at Kilnsey in the mid 1800s,” says Jamie. “In fact the timing of the show suggests it was originally linked to the saint’s day of Conistone church, meaning it could date back to the time of the monks in the 1300s.”
Creating the book has been a labour of love for Jamie and Victoria. “When we set out on this journey we had no idea whether we’d find enough material for a book,” says Jamie. “We’ve been surprised to unearth a wealth of fantastic memories and stories and some brilliant photos.”
Award-winning photographer Stephen Garnett was also commissioned to capture the modern show in all its glory.
Above all the book is as much about the future of Kilnsey Show as its intriguing past. According to Jamie, “The most important thing is that we celebrate this extraordinary event and those who make it happen, so that a new generation can be inspired to take up the reins and maintain the proud traditions of Kilnsey Show for another 100 years and beyond.”
* Studs & Crooks: The hidden history of Kilnsey Show will be launched at this year’s Kilnsey Show on Tuesday, August 30. The book is published by Tickled Trout Press and is priced at £12.50 plus £2.95 P&P. Copies can be ordered from amazon.co.uk or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org