Photos of previous CLA Game Fairs with anecdotes from some of the fair's biggest names

Memories of previous CLA Game Fairs

Dr Mike Swan, head of education at the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), has been attending the Game Fair for as long as he can recollect. As a boy, he loved watching the various falconry or retriever demonstrations. “It was all a bit more makeshift back then,” he said. “The health and safety department was not as rigorous as it is today. It was how the countryside should be — they weren’t afraid to dig a big pit instead of all those Portaloos.”

In 1975, at the age of 20, Mike watched as his father received the Stanley Duncan Award for Conservation from BASC’s John Anderton. “I still have the black-and-white photo with a fresh-faced John Swift looking on.”

By 1982, he was involved with the Game Conservancy Trust, which hosted one of the largest stands at the fair. “It was a bit Wild West then, pretty basic at the back, but we put on a good show. I especially used to enjoy constructing the stand before the public arrived, because it could be a lot of fun. I tried to make sure we were fully set up before the bosses turned up, so if they wanted to change anything, they’d have to do it themselves. One year, at Margam Park in South Wales, we were spinning for bass off Worm’s Head by the time they arrived, so they had no choice.”

Gallery: The CLA Game Fair through the years

Sporting tailor Charles Gale targets the Game Fair as an opportunity for valuable public relations, especially the Blenheim event, which is in the middle of his catchment area. “For me, the Game Fair has never been about making a large number of sales, but rather letting people put a face to the name,” he said. “The whole event has become so much slicker in the past decade, which is a tribute to the CLA as it must be such a difficult event to organise. It has perhaps become more of an international event than people realise and I have certainly done well out of the sporting tourists, especially the Americans, who want to know how to dress correctly as an English country gentleman. Sadly, we are looking at a shortage of traditional tailoring skills in this country and it is, frankly, heartbreaking to see companies sending orders off to the East, when we have the know-how and the best Scottish tweed in this country.”

Down the years, Charles has rarely been able to stray far from his tent, even during the quieter times of day. “The stand will fill up quickly if there is a cloud burst and people need refuge,” he said. “And if there’s a pretty lady in a skirt who wants her inside thigh measured, then people appear from nowhere.”

Peter Martineau, sales manager for BSA, has been visiting the Game Fair since the 1960s, when he was in his early teens. “The memories are a little hazy from so long ago, but they are predominately happy ones,” he said. “I remember the shows being a bit more intimate and modest than they are now, though at the time as a small boy they seemed vast and cosmopolitan. I was mad keen on anything to do with shooting or fishing, so would charge about trying to soak up as much as I could. One year as a teenager, I was fortunate enough to corner the great angler Barry Welham on his stand and I must have asked him every question I could think of before he managed to detach himself.”

Peter is confident of another strong showing at the fair, following a buoyant year in both the domestic and export market. “Despite the credit crunch, our order books are bursting at the moment across the range of products,” he said. “In this country, perhaps the best development has been the 2006 Violent Crime Reduction Act, which demands that airguns be sold from registered vendors. It means we have the right people selling the guns, who advise their clients on how best to use them. I say hooray for the Act!”

Terry Fricker was involved in the shooting tuition stands at the Game Fair pretty much from the start, launching his Shooting Clinic, which has instructed more than 140,000 clients down the years. “In the beginning, it was all about gameshooting and there would be none of the clayshooting disciplines that predominate today. The traps were set up with pheasant shooting or pigeon shooting in mind. One year, we even set up a grouse butt, where gentlemen could practise double-gunning with pairs provided by Holland & Holland, Purdey and William Evans. There was no competition as such, just a bit of fun. Once at Woburn, where I was working at the time as sporting manager, we set up a high tower along a pigeon flight. A friend and I were shooting horizontal pigeon 80ft high in the days running up to the fair, so there were some perks to the job.”

Terry laments the commercialisation of the Game Fair, which he believes has lost some of the social side of the experience. “In the earlier years it was purely a get-together for the hunting, fishing and shooting community. You couldn’t walk anywhere without bumping into someone you knew,” he said, “but nowadays you get far more pseudo-countrymen. The old fairs used to have a lot more local flavour, depending on where they were in the UK and it was a great adventure going to all the different destinations.”

Floors Castle is famous for its mud, which Terry remembers being like “four inches of oxtail soup. I can still see four pretty girls in tweed skirts, walking along with mud over their wellies, grinning like it was an everyday scene,” he said.

Brian Mitchell, headkeeper of the Castle Hill estate in Devon and founding member of the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation (NGO), has seen a vast improvement in the keepers’ lot since he first went to the Game Fair at the age of 18.

“When I first went, the fairs were very different to what they are now,” he explained. “Every toff in the country would be there and, as a keeper, you would be there with your boss, so it was quite a formal occasion for us. A few of the lads used to have a couple of pints and unwind in the Gamekeepers’ Tent. I suppose the NGO’s tent has taken over from that, but without the same number of drinks.”

In the 10 years since the NGO first set up shop at the Game Fair, Brian has noticed huge changes. “It is so much more professional than it was at the beginning,” he enthused. “It is no secret that the CLA is delighted to help out the major organisations and it has given us vital exposure over the years. In the early days, we were gaining 100 new members every day. For gamekeepers, there is no other shop window like it. When we arrived, we had a 10x10ft tent, which we used to sleep in at night, but now we have an extensive exhibit. I know that the fair has become increasingly commercial down the years, but for anyone who is interested in country sports, I can’t understand why they wouldn’t want to be there.”