With the Game Fair 2022 only a few weeks away, Gethin Jones examines the enduring appeal of Europe’s largest outdoor country festival
As the first swallows appear in our skies, our thoughts naturally turn towards summer activities and spending time outdoors. Plans are made, with dates scribbled in the diary for family breaks, fishing trips, visiting friends, a day out to the coast or the annual bonus for those of us who are part of the fieldsports community — going to the Game Fair 2022.
Game Fair 2022 – a great leveller
Community is very much the operative word when it comes to fieldsports and sharing common passions serves to unite us, regardless of wealth, profession, creed or class. This community spirit is something those of us on the inside mostly take for granted and appreciate to a lesser extent than we probably should.
We’re a diverse lot and we go about our sporting activities throughout the year strictly within our peer groups, but when we all gather together, we truly become birds of a feather — and the Game Fair is a great leveller.
Where else in the world can you stand in a field queueing for a morning shower sandwiched between a lord of the realm and a ferreter? Each will have appeared — blinking in the early morning sunshine — from their respective accommodation, be it a classic bell tent worthy of one of Wellington’s more flamboyant generals during the Napoleonic Wars or a horsebox parked at the rear of a trade stand.
Each stands in line, reverentially waiting their turn to conduct morning ablutions before going about their respective Game Fair business for the rest of the day.
Village fetes, country fairs and agricultural shows of all shapes and sizes abound throughout the British Isles and each has its own distinct communities and traditions. They are a great place to meet with friends and catch up on what’s been going on since last year.
Smaller shows around Britain have waxed and waned over the years and many have all but vanished, finished off by the unstoppable march of online trading, an economic game changer of such omnipotence that it has all but done for the British high street. Myriad other events, from town fairs or travelling circuses to the sheepdog trials I recall from my youth in Wales, have struggled to survive the public’s changing tastes and leisure habits.
However, the Game Fair has stood head and shoulders above these smaller gatherings and has endured for more than 60 years as the main event in high summer for everyone involved in fieldsports.
How is it that an event based on an idea dating from the mid-1950s, founded by tweed-clad landowners and gamekeepers, has survived intact to the modern day? And not merely survived, but is clearly flourishing as never before.
In the early days of the Game Fair, when it was beyond anyone’s wildest dreams to purchase any item and have it delivered to your own home the very next day, what magic formula was used to create such a long-lasting and well-loved institution?
James Gower, managing director of National Game Fair Ltd, said: “Game fairs are flourishing because people will always want to meet face to face. People buy from people. The Game Fair is — and will continue to be — about community, experiences and creating memories.
“In recent years, the more serious side to the Game Fair has become increasingly important as a platform for debate on key rural issues and a shop window for the countryside, educating and informing the wider population,” he added.
The Game Fair, or simply ‘the CLA’ as the event was known by aficionados — a reference to the Country Landowners’ Association, which founded the event and ran it up until 2015 — became a byword for the biggest and best countryside fixture of the British summer outdoor events calendar and indeed Europe’s largest outdoor country festival.
Its origins were relatively humble, with the 1958 version established so that landowners and gamekeepers could gather outdoors and, with the cooperation of the Game Conservancy (now the GWCT), to discuss the latest developments in game rearing and how to promote game shooting.
The original Game Fair was held at Stetchworth Park with a budget of only £500, which overran to £800. The 55 exhibitors — minus Fisherman’s Row, which was added in 1959 — were expected to attract only 500 visitors. To everyone’s surprise, 8,500 people came through the gates. The acorn had been planted.
Growing up in Wales as an avid reader of Shooting Times, for me the Game Fair seemed to be a mythical, faraway place where my heroes, the magazine’s regular contributors — Colin Willock, John Humphreys, Arthur Cadman, Fred J Taylor and Gough Thomas — would meet and, in my mind’s eye, recount shooting and fishing adventures, the like of which I could only dream about, leaving me to marvel at photos of these fabled meetings, printed in glorious monochrome, while thumbing through the following week’s Game Fair Special.
Rite of passage
Everyone remembers their first Game Fair like a rite of passage, just as everyone will have fond recollections of Game Fairs long past.
Richard Williams, deerstalker and BASC council member, recalls his first visit to the Game Fair, aged 10, as the occasion where he picked up a 12-bore, joined the clay line and broke his first clay pigeon. “I’ve also still got the bow and arrow that I bought that day, all those years ago,” recalls Richard.
David Beckenham, gundog handler and keen side-by-side Shot, recalls the time a young girl with a doughnut in her hand stood a little too close to his golden retriever, Charlie. When the inevitable happened and Charlie scoffed the doughnut, the day was saved by the girl’s father seeing the funny side and the gallant David buying the youngster a whole bag of doughnuts to make up for her loss.
“Fortunately, with us being at the Game Fair, most people there loved dogs and her father just laughed.”
As a regular Game Fair-goer myself these days, I can think of no better place to meet with old friends and make new ones, as well as snap up a bargain or five. And that, surely, is the other key attraction of the Game Fair.
Not only is it a good place for catching up over a Pimm’s, Game Fairs are inherently transactional. The event generates millions of pounds, not only for those traders taking part, but for the surrounding area where hotels, restaurants, shops and other businesses benefit from the 100,000-plus visitors the event attracts.
Commercially, today’s Game Fair is a far cry from the modest affair of the late 1950s. The modern event has adapted to and embraced today’s commercial climate in Britain as well as the global economy, linking with similar events in Germany, France and even the Middle East.
However, the ongoing popularity of the Game Fair wouldn’t be the same if it had ditched its traditions.
The event is still popular with families looking for a great day out, whatever they’re looking to do, from catching up with friends, buying a gun on Gunmakers’ Row, attending a debate in the Game Fair Theatre, breaking some clays on the Shooting Line, buying country clothing, entering gundogs in competitions or picking up new game recipes from celebrity chefs.
I have to confess that one of my must-see features at any Game Fair is watching my good friend Chris Green’s wildfowling demonstration in the main arena.
The secret of the Game Fair’s enduring success has to be its ability to adapt to new commercial realities while remaining true to its roots and to the fieldsports community that supports it, year in, year out.
James Gower confirmed: “We’ve kept its tradition and all the bits that people love. It’s a social occasion where people come and swap stories: the fish that got away or that amazing day in the field.
“That’s what makes it enduring and that’s what will see it continue for decades to come.”
Game Fair 2022 dates
The Game Fair 2022 is being held from 29 to 31 July at Ragley Hall in Warwickshire. The GWCT Scottish Game Fair will be held at Scone Palace from 1 to 3 July and the first ever GWCT Welsh Game Fair is being held at the Vaynol Estate, Bangor, from 9 to 11 September.