George from Clitheroe

I grew up in what was at that time a small village close to the meeting of the three county borders of Cheshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire. Although effectively a suburb of Manchester, Poynton had more in common with a rural and working-class way of life than it did the emerging aspirational middle classes of the mid 70s. At that time, there was still an active farming community and the historic influences of small scale coal extraction were still easy to find. People lived in the ‘coal miners’ cottages’ because they had been coal miners rather than because they were highly desirable properties full of charm and character. The associated farming pursuits of wearing flat caps, carrying a large stick and drinking mild or bitter in the local pub were still evident in everyday life and you didn’t have to walk very far before you had to take care to avoid stepping in cow dung. Urban life may have only a commuter’s drive north but Poynton’s identity was still very much rooted in the soil.  

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As a child I would walk from our front door, out through the modern built semi’s of the 1970s aspirational middle classes and up into the local woodlands and green fields neatly bordered by wild hedgerows. Copses made fabulous dens and whispered adventure, open fields swirled with long grass and crawled with busy insects as well as small boys. My childhood memories are a bit of mixed bag (a bag I still carry with me today), but my happiest memories are of being out in the small foot hills of the Peak District, playing wide games and having adventures. Proper and unashamedly, boy’s own stuff.

Associated with this cultural heritage, Poynton always had a great summer fete on the August Bank Holiday weekend. Every year the large field in the village next to Poynton Pool is taken over by braying farm yard animals and an array of chugging steam powered machines. The behemoths would rumble in belching black smoke and fizzing with steam, the smell of burnt coal mixed with hot water vapour mixing with fragrant dew laden grass.

The smaller steam powered generators are simply wondrous machines; they would rattle and pop and chug in a rhythmic almost alliterative sort of way, their fly wheels spinning with dizzying motion and connecting belts flapping and whirling. The noise was calming, almost hypnotic.

Chug, chug, chug chug, POP, chug, chug, chug, POP, chug, chug, BANG, chug, chug, chug….

The animals, hemmed in by five bar fences and studied by knowing farmer’s eyes would bray, whinny, moo or bleat. The farmers would stand like silent monoliths, studying the animals with critical eyes. There is a particular stance that must be adopted when undertaken such scrutiny; both elbows must be equally placed on the top bar of the fence but with one shoulder slightly dropped. One hobnailed shoed foot must be placed on the second rung up from the ground, the other should be at 45 degrees on the ground. Rough hands can be clasped in a number of ways, but a pipe must be in one of them and the obligatory flat cap should be pulled down just enough to shade the eyes and hide them from meeting the stare of anyone else. Conversation is kept to a minimum; an occasional approving grunt as a particularly fine sow or a well-set bull is paraded by is permissible, possible a few stunted words with some semblance of a sentence. But under no circumstances should any emotion be shown let alone expressed verbally.

Poynton Show is an institution; a past, present and future; the beating heart in the year of a village’s cultural heritage and I love it for all the reminisces and clichéd nostalgia of halcyon childhood days growing up in a semi-rural community that it represents.

I haven’t been in perhaps ten years but infrequent attendance is now part of its charm. It is what allows my attendance to feel so nostalgic. It means that when I bump into people that I perhaps only vaguely knew at school, perhaps didn’t even like at that time, in that single moment the serendipity of the meeting creates a shared sense of empathy. It’s like we were always friends and the literal time and distance and coolness between us over ruled by the shared space of the show. 

Above all else though, the event is still an agricultural show and a competition among those who still keep and farm animals. The judging is taken very seriously and the position of judge is highly regarded as one of status and importance. To give the show more credibility and avoid the inevitable nepotism of judging within a still relatively small community, the judges are mostly recruited from other communities. Artisanal farming and food production might be big business these days but the real earthly connection with hard way of life taken through inheritance or necessity is disappearing. The recruitment of judges who have a keen eye and innate understanding of the animals they are evaluating is harder and the net needs to be cast wider.

Clitheroe is located north of Manchester, in proper Lancashire. George was a judge, recruited from Clitheroe to the show because of his knowledge and expertise on farmyard animals. Even among the characters and stalwarts of Poynton Show he had clear and commanding presence. Who could not fail to notice the fabulous combination of beige moleskin jacket and matching Stetson and polka dot tie. You can’t see his cowboy boots in this frame unfortunately, but it’s not a massive leap of imagination to picture them. He’s an obvious character to photograph and I’m sure that with such a strong personal expression in style and dress, he’d be completely up for having his picture taken.

I am here with my two boys and my parents for some reminiscences and entertainment. I’m not really here to shoot portraits and Poynton Show is about as far removed from the metropolitan locations I usually work around, where unusual creative and artistic endeavours are not just tolerated but actively encouraged. I may be home home, but I suddenly feel like a stranger and rather than approach George, I spend a few moments looking gormlessly at the animals while fielding my own two critters, trying to prevent them from grabbing handfuls of prize billy goat fur and getting head butted in the process. Eventually I decide I cannot let him pass and put my boys in my mum’s care and take a moment to say hello.

‘Alreet, ‘ow do?’, George talks in classic ‘Lanky Twang’ and memories of Lancashire Hotpot and Eccles Cake supers at my dad’s cousin’s house under the looming presence of Saddleworth Moor come flooding back. I compliment him on his sartorial elegance and ask if he wouldn’t mind being photographed. As I suspected, he’s very willing and immediately pulls himself fractionally higher. The light is quite strong however so I walk him over to an area of shade cast by the row of large equestrian lorries big enough for a rodeo. I’d like to compose to include one of these trucks but it doesn’t quite work; I need his character to fill the frame so I step a little closer and the sun is momentarily obscured by cloud softening the light just as I take the picture.

George from Clitheroe goes back to judging the animals, I go back to herding my own flock and the show goes on.