To the fair! To the fair!
It seems an awfully long time since the last drive on that ‘cocks only’ day at the end of January, or since mud bespattered tack was cleaned after the final hunting day of the season. Guns are now safely locked away in their cabinets and hunters are turned out to grass, so what is there for the field sports enthusiast to do during the long, hot days of summer?
Simple! Prepare for next season by poring over the guns and country clothing at a country sports fair.
County agricultural shows have been around for a long while, but the specialist country sports fair is a relatively modern invention. When the Country Landowners Association sponsored the first Game Fair in 1958, they cautiously expected 500 visitors but, by the end of the final afternoon of the two day show, 8,500 had come through the gates and a new institution was born.
The first rival to the CLA event was the Midland Game Fair at Weston Park on the Shropshire/Staffordshire border in 1983. It was quickly recognised that there was a huge appetite for country shows which focussed not on farm machinery and fat cattle but exclusively on field sports, and soon a host of other events joined in. There is now a field sports fair within reach of most people in Britain.
Each combines spectacular demonstrations of sporting excellence and the opportunity to learn more about such things as shooting, fishing, gundogs or falconry, with a range of trade stands offering the wherewithal with which to participate in your chosen sport. And let’s face it, the outdoor shopping mall spread in the parkland below some stately pile is the big attraction for most of us.
Go to your local gunshop and you might find a small selection of shooting gear to choose from. Go to one of the bigger country fairs and there will be dozens of stands offering guns, accessories and equipment, clothing, tuition and shooting holidays, while national associations like BASC and the Countryside Alliance will most likely be there proffering advice and support.
The biggest of them all is still the CLA Game Fair which takes place this year at Belvoir Castle from 20-22 July. Don’t expect to be able to get round the whole event in one day: it’s absolutely huge. But, because it is divided up into themed areas – shooting, fishing, gundogs, gamekeeping and land management, horses, food, gardens and so on – you can at least focus on the activity which you particularly enjoy. For shoppers, the choice is truly fantastic, though the CLA has the reputation of being the priciest event on the country fair circuit.
The Midland Game Fair, still at Weston Park and taking place this year from September 15 - 16 has exactly the opposite reputation. Coming at the back end of the show season, it is the place where you will find real bargains and, with a substantial ‘gunmakers row’ of its own, the degree of choice need not be that much less than that at the CLA.
Regional and local country sports fairs usually offer their own scaled-down versions, but often in a more intimate setting and with shorter queues for the loos and car parks.
So, if you’re considering taking a trip to one of the big game fairs, then how do you make the most of your day? First, get there early. Don’t expect to arrive at the gate at ten o’clock in the morning and breeze in. Seasoned campaigners will aim to be there at seven o’clock before the queues get too long, and you’ll find them enjoying breakfast on site before starting their day. You’ll also find them leafing through the show guide, because if you really want to get good value out of your entrance ticket then it’s best to make a plan. Check out the stands you want to visit, locate them on the site map and economise on the walking.
Lunchtime is best spent sampling the local speciality fare which these days is such a welcome feature at all country shows. Personally, I head straight for one of the many small producers offering fabulous freshly cooked meats which they have usually reared on their own farms. Afterwards there is always delicious farmhouse ice cream, freshly pressed fruit juice or, if you prefer, local ale or wine.
If there is a major purchase that you have in mind – perhaps a new shotgun or rifle – then visit on the opening day, head straight for the gun dealers before doing anything else and peruse them all before making your final choice. At the CLA in particular, there will be lots of other shooting enthusiasts with the same idea in mind, and the best deals will be quickly snapped up.
As for dogs, unless you’re actually taking part in one of the gundog displays or events, then they’re best left at home or, if it’s a two day trip, with a friend or in boarding kennels. Threading your way through thousands of people in the stifling heat on a short lead is not, if you’re a dog, the ideal way of spending a day. Although every responsible event organiser will have water points for dogs, I still see too many clearly uncomfortable, even distressed dogs at hot game fairs.
So this summer, remember that there’s a country sports fair near you. Hop in the car, get over there and soak up the atmosphere. Meet your field sports friends and colleagues in their summer plumage, call in at your field sports association stand to pick the latest news and gossip. And don’t forget your credit card.
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