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The roots of a jolly good show

Don’t get confused, “Royal” in the line above refers the Royal Show, not a member of the royal family. In fact, HRH The Duke of Edinburgh will be the subject of my next article in Shooting Times and he is very much alive.

Farming and countryside issues have never been so important to the country as whole. Land is our most valuable asset and it is disappearing through political idiocy, with not enough money and effort being spent on sea defences and thousands of fertile acres disappearing under bricks and concrete. At a time when the clever Dicks who run Britain complain of booming Third World populations, they have allowed England to become the fourth most densely populated country in the world. Consequently, Britain’s lack of food security is a real physical, social, economic and political issue. Our damaged and dying wildlife populations should be just as important, so should our long-suffering rural communities (as opposed to rural commuting and second-home communities).

Food and farming should be of major importance to everybody in the country, they should depend on it and one day, in the not too distant future, they will have to.

With countryside issues being so important, how come the Royal Show managed to foul up? It is the familiar story that it is the old agricultural establishment that has fouled up. In much the same way as the old hunting, shooting and fishing establishment almost brought fieldsports to their knees — to be rescued at the last gasp by Robin Hanbury-Tenison and Richard Burge — so farming and the countryside wants leadership now instead of the vacuum that exists throughout much of it (Peter Kendall, president of the National Farmers’ Union being one notable exception — did I really write that?).

After my experiences at The CLA Game Fair debate regarding the BBC, that same vacuum appears to be sucking reality out of the Countryside Alliance as well. It was a very strange “debate”. I found that I was the only member of the panel who believes that the BBC is devious and has lost the countryside plot. The rest, including the chairman, seemed to be BBC apologists, afraid to stand up and be counted and who preferred to call a spade “an implement or tool used to undertake a variety of tasks in the garden or on the farm”. No wonder there was no vote at the end of the debate, turning it into a non-debate. Lord Mancroft (deputy chairman of the Countryside Alliance) chaired the debate and the BBC apologists were Simon Hart, the Countryside Alliance’s chief executive, “Cheeky Boy” Lembit Öpik MP (famous for allegedly putting a council tax fine for nonpayment and two party wigs on his Parliamentary expenses) and Michael Clayton, former editor of Horse and Hound, who spent his time confirming the anaemic views of the other three. Where was the former editor of The Daily Telegraph, Charles Moore, who has publicly announced that he is not going to pay his television licence fee? Where was Sir Ian Botham, mightily wound up by a new BBC series on rivers? Where was Cross-by-name-and-cross-by-nature farmer William Cross of Rutland? He was in the audience, but he should have been on the panel to even things up. A large section of the audience was disgruntled by the non-debate. Typical of the comments were: “Pathetic! They have all become part of the London establishment.”

Keeping agricultural roots

Away from the Royal Show and The CLA Game Fair, I have been lucky to see the real, living countryside in various parts of Britain during this gradually fading summer of country shows. I have been to several brilliant and booming shows and still have my local agricultural show to go to on the last Saturday in September. The Gransden Show, in the village of Great Gransden, in Cambridgeshire, is a show that, until a few years ago, seemed to be on its last legs. But it has picked itself up and is now booming again. It has managed this by emphasising its traditional farming roots. The important word here is “roots”. Roots are large and small, and spread wide and deep, connecting many parts for the common good. The Royal forgot this when it became separated from rural culture, food, people and wildlife. This year, if you had wanted to learn about Argentinean or Nigerian food, there were food marquees devoted to those cuisines at Stoneleigh. The only thing of real interest to me, apart from the large percentage of those attending who were wearing suits, was the tug of war. The countryside and fieldsports areas were almost non-existent compared with 10 years ago. No wonder attendance has dropped over the years. This year, 114,000 attended for its last rites. Last year, it was 99,600.

By comparison, the other shows that I have attended were completely different. It was astonishing. The Suffolk, the Royal Cornwall, the Peterborough Festival of Hunting and The CLA Game Fair were all heaving with people. So too, as I understand it, were the Royal Norfolk, the Royal Welsh, and the Royal Highland. So, farming establishment, look at yourselves and look at the Royal Show. Perhaps you should get out more, instead of watching Countryfile.

A Cornish sensation

The Royal Cornwall was fantastic and it must be my favourite show. The accents, the people and the general buzz of the place reflected a proper living and working countryside. Cornwall, by having a genuinely rural base, illustrates one of the Royal Show’s problems. Perhaps years ago it should have reverted to being a mobile show, moving from place to place each year — away from the suburban and industrial Midlands to real countryside. A disgruntled stallholder at the Royal Show summed up his grievances when he said, “The Royal has got away from its roots. It has become a glorified car-boot sale with a few add-on farm animals.”

The Royal Cornwall, on the other hand, is still mainly about food and farming. It is as simple as that, and the Cornish Rattler cider in my cupboard and the Cornish blue cheese in my fridge confirm the success of that combination. There were pasties galore, though I was not impressed by the politically correct “gingerbread persons”.

There was entertainment too, but the Human Cannonball and the Kangaroo Kid were exactly that, entertainment, and very good. The parade of livestock was absolutely fantastic and as for the hounds, what a spectacle! There were eight packs of hounds in the ring at once, 160 hounds and 25 riders as one. It was fantastic and made the solitary pack at the Royal Show seem very lightweight. How long it took the huntsmen to sort out their hounds is anybody’s guess, but it was tremendous.

The military band was also excellent and at the same time amusing. Marching men with shiny shoes parading where 160 hounds had been relieving themselves was hilarious, pure Monty Python. Bandsmen left the arena shaking and kicking their feet. It was very funny for onlookers, but not so amusing for those who had been blowing trumpets or beating the drum.

Alongside the farming and the entertainment, the fieldsports section was good with BASC, the Countryside Alliance, the Cornwall Wildfowlers Association and the Muzzle Loaders Association. The Salmon & Trout Association was present with an encouraging tale of restoring salmon to the rivers Camel and Fowey. Anybody wanting to mix a holiday with surely one of the best agricultural shows in Britain must visit Cornwall in June. In 2010, it will be held from 10 to 12 June at the Wadebridge Showground. This year it enjoyed the third highest attendance ever — 125,243 people over the three days, which was almost as much as Glastonbury.

Another show I enjoyed was the Cambridgeshire County Show. Years ago the old Cambridgeshire Show, run by the county’s farming establishment, died the death. It was resurrected by the Young Farmers with real farming at its heart and that too is making a comeback.

One of my favourite shows is the comparatively new Festival of Hunting at the Peterborough Showground. I know there are no guns and fishing rods there, but it has a tremendous feel to it and a wonderful cross section of country people from those with cut-glass accents to others who put three “R”s in the word “scrumpy”. Finally, The CLA Game Fair, apart from the ridiculous non-debate on the BBC, was as enjoyable as ever. One of the things I like about the fair is the fact that dogs are allowed in. Dogs at the Royal Show? “Dog and stick” farmers are obviously not welcome. The Game Fair simply oozes countryside and the main problem is that there are too many people to see and too many tales to tell, making the days far too short.

Some time ago a friend asked me what a rather pompous member of the Royal Agricultural Society of England thought of me. My reply was simple: “I think he sees me as a peasant who has climbed above his true station in life.” The reply was amusing: “Robin, he sees everybody as a peasant who has climbed above their true station in life.” I think that sums things up. The Royal Cornwall and the Game Fair welcome and appreciate peasants (except in the Game Fair Theatre), whereas the organisers of the Royal Show appear to have forgotten why they are in business.