Deep in the Welsh countryside, a small, community-run fair has been dishing up a bucketload of unapologetic rural tradition for nearly 60 years. Lola Akinmade Åkerström pays a visit—camera firmly in hand.
Over an hour and a half into our estimated 30-minute drive from the pint-sized, literary powerhouse village of Hay-on-Wye, we sit gridlocked on a single lane backcountry road. We are stalled in Brecon Beacons National Park. Behind our minivan is a narrow queue of cars and in front of us, a similar queue of curiously patient drivers.
For the last hour, we have been stopping, reversing, manoeuvring, backing up and inching our way deeper into the remote countryside of South Wales.We finally break through the jam and hurtle onwards only to meet an enormous convoy of motorcyclists head on.
But I don’t mind all that much, because I know we’re almost there.
In 1959, a scathing BBC television documentary about the Llanthony Valley called it ‘The Dying Valley’. Incensed by the narrative of decay the media was projecting about their beloved home, the local farming community banded together to prove that their valley was anything but languishing.
In an act of rebellion against that critical documentary, the community answered by launching the Llanthony Valley and District Show in 1962.
Almost six decades later, the little-known annual show, which is held the first weekend of August, is still going strong—despite having no corporate sponsorship and being powered only by volunteers.
Taking place in the Llanthony Valley and surrounded by the Black Mountains of Monmouthshire, we dip into a wide open plain where white tents are pitched, folding lawn chairs are set, and dozens of people are sprinkled around, staking out prime viewing spots.
Artisans show off their handicrafts and baking. Farmers present their largest crops. There’s a dog show. I feel like I have stumbled into a private Welsh family gathering, where everyone is a winner.
I’m in Wales as part of a summer photography workshop under the tutelage of renowned BBC Human Planet photographer Timothy Allen who also doubled as our chauffeur. Tim wants us to test out some of his award-winning tips for capturing environmental portraits in an unlikely setting: Enter, this remote Welsh rodeo.
From sheep- and cattle-judging, dog races, pony show jumping, horticulture and produce contests and dachshund racing, various county fair themes are all packed into one modest-sized show.
Artisans show off their handicrafts and baking. Farmers present their largest crops. There’s a dog show. I feel like I have stumbled into a private Welsh family gathering where everyone is already a winner and it is enough to just participate.
My thoughts are confirmed. The Llanthony District Garden Club, which invites local gardeners to show off their talents, adds the following disclaimer to their call for participation: “You don’t need to be a good gardener. Quality, quantity and perfection are not necessary!”
That simple phrase perfectly captures the rebellious and inclusive streak of Llanthony’s locals.
As I meander the grounds, tuning my own craft, I see kids throwing bags with pitch forks in the equivalent of Olympic high-jump trails for sacks of hay. Tattooed female riders wrangle their steeds while clenching plastic cups between their teeth and racing at full speed to be the first to place their cups on a pole. And I witness a new spin on the traditional sack race—four people hopping together in a single bag, trying to hop at the same speed in the same direction.
I can’t help but feel like I learned something important at The Llathony Show: The importance of taking back and owning your narrative.
I finally see why Tim has brought us here.
Billed as ‘Britain’s last rodeo’, the time for the anchor event arrives. I ask Tim where the horses are.
“They’re being rounded up,” he tells me as the crowd waits patiently.
“Rounded up?” I’m confused.
“It takes them a while to round up the wild horses from the surrounding mountains,” he explains. In essence, we’re witnessing a real rodeo in its truest form—wild horses fresh from the countryside with no saddles.
The Llanthony Show gathers roaming horses just hours before the show itself day and releases them right back into the mountainous park. Beyond local riders, it also attracts enthusiasts from across the UK. The goal is for each gutsy rider to stay as long as they can on these wild horses.
Naturally, a show like this doesn’t come without its critics. And while the event may have been par for the course back in 1962—you can see how it could trigger animal rights activists in 2019 (no matter how well the horses are treated before, during and after the show).
In fact, the Society for the Welfare of Horses and Ponies has raised valid concerns about the show’s rounding up of wild ponies for entertainment purposes in the past. It’s hard to say how much longer the rodeo will be able to continue in its current form, and the pressure will presumably only continue to mount, but for now, the show goes on.
I hear them before I see them, and I say a quick prayer for the day’s riders (and horses). There are roughly 12-15 of them—a mix of young men and women donning helmets. Beyond that, they’re in jeans, t-shirts, and whatever casual summer wear they’ve seemed appropriate for the rodeo. I may be standing at a distance, but I can still see the terror on their faces.
Suddenly, the gate is unlatched, volunteers dive out of the way for their lives, and the rider is thrown off within seconds.
With each subsequent rider flying spectacularly through the air, the others waiting their turn look less confident with every throw they witness. I cringe when, one by one, they are bucked off horses, daring not to look, lest I witness a spine being broken in real-time. Yet, they press on defiantly.
As we head back towards the village of Hay-on-Wye, the sun dipping below Gospel Pass, I can’t help but feel like I learned something important at the Llathony Show: The importance of taking back and owning your narrative. I imagine the residents of Llanthony Valley flipping the middle finger to anyone who claims their community is dying.
And dare I say it, their beloved rodeo show is the largest and longest-running flipping of a middle finger I’ve ever witnessed.