Keswick May Fair
The Keswick May Fair has been going for over 100 years and in Cumbria it’s probably the most important show for Herdwick Tups (the boys). Their asset value is slightly higher and this is one of those fairs where not only can the farmer talk about that but a trophy is awarded for the overall champion. It’s not like a country fair that’s open to the public, this is only for the farmers and it’s literally just a field full of Herdwick farmers showing off their prize tups.
There’s a lot of prestige involved and for them, as a very small community it’s an important and rare opportunity to get together to socialise and catch up on everything that’s been going on over the past year. There’s a trophy which was originally awarded in 1928 and it was from an agricultural chemists in Penrith called Thomas Edmundson and this fantastic silver cup is awarded each year to the prize champion Herdwick Tup which, course, the suddenly sees its asset value jump in price from a stud point of view.
The May Fair goes back to a shepherds gathering where Herdwicks that were loaned or wintered elsewhere were returned to their original owner – they were bought down off the fells to the fair. In isolated rural farming communities a tup might be loaned to neighbouring Herdwick farmer – they’ll borrow it, for its intended purpose, and then they’ll make sure it’s returned to its rightful owner at the end of the “assignment”.
The Keswick May Fair is a gathering where historically this is what happened. All these remote upland fell farms would have helped each other out, supported each other, loaned tups out and then gathered to return them. Once tupping season is over (October/ November) they can have the rest of the year off (the tups, not the farmers!)
After the show - when they’ve finished the championships and the shows - they all go and sing in the pub, the Twa Dogs inn in Keswick, and that’s something they all still do.
For a lot of isolated rural communities, this is one of those rare social gathering - the thing that glues it together and keeps the identity of the event very much on the radar for all these farmers. There are lots of other prizes too but they tend to be very practical in nature – large bags of feed etc. The Thomas Edmunson Cup, which is very beautiful, is definitely the one to win.
I went to the show to meet with the leaders of the breeders association to talk about handing over the Herdwick brand to them. We designed it for them and this was a nice appropriate meeting to formally organise all of that. We also got an absolutely fantastic thank you from the chairman of the breeders association who said that the actual output of everything that’s been done so far has had a positive impact on all of the Herdwick farmers. He said that they wouldn’t have achieved what they have this year without our involvement which is great news.
He actually asked me to shake his hand and that, in the farming world is a big deal. They’re not an emotional bunch so a farmer asking to shake my hand and saying “thank you very much on behalf of all the farmers” is a real seal of approval and meant a huge amount to us – it was such a nice recognition. And it’s just the beginning of it all really, from an ongoing point of view that sort of responsibility and recognition of the breed type has to be continued because we’ve created all of this off the back of that breed – Herdwicks have been the inspiration for everything - so we’ve got to respect that and honour it going forwards. This is the beginning of the Herdy Fund programme with the breeders and it will just keep going forward now none-stop.
Our involvement in the future will be mostly to do with the marketing and design support. If we were to just hand all the marketing materials over to the farmers and say “over to you now, you’re on your own” they’re not marketers so what are they going to do with it? That’s where we come in.
What we’re going to do is offer that ongoing marketing support so, for example, if they need a certificate designing for someone or they’ve got an event coming up later in the year where they need a little bit of brand awareness and design and marketing support, part of our role will be to just be that design office for the breeders association – we’ll be that creative team that will help keep things pulled together for them. They’re really appreciative of all this support as it will be a big part of promoting themselves when they’re attending shows in Cumbria and catering to different audiences and that brand management will be something that can really exemplify them as an example of a rural farming community that are doing something quite together.
There’s lots of peer groups and other farming groups around the UK which are doing just as good togetherness work as the Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association are but maybe they haven’t got that cross sector support around them. Up here it’s like a family – if one needs help or encouragement, that’s what families are there for and that’s how we see this going forwards. We’re all part of one big family in Cumbria. We’re not joined at the hip, but every now and then we help each other out.
It wasn’t a big presentation, just an informally formal handing over of things and an agreement of how things will work going forwards. We’ve not drawn a line in the sand or anything, it’s there to say that what we’ve done and started together has worked and succeeded and what we’re going to be doing in the future will be to continue to support going forwards – a sort of a gentleman’s agreement between us and the farming community.
We can also use the platforms we have on Facebook and Twitter etc. to tell the Herdwick story to our Herdy fans and customers. They might not buy a copy of Farmer’s Weekly, but we can help to spread the word and help people learn more about this wonderful and unique breed. It’s all part of our background and our continued focus on the importance of ensuring sustainability within rural communities.
So, did you go down the pub and sing afterwards? I didn’t as I had to get back to the office, which is a really a shame, but next time I will be there.