The Big Question: What is the Royal Show, and why is it coming to an end after 170 years?

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The Independent Online

Why are we asking this now?

Yesterday the gates opened for the 160th, and last time, on the Royal Show. Since the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign, it has been one of the biggest events in the rural calendar, but it no longer attracts the visitors that it used to. It has been losing money for years, lately more than £200,000 a year, and the Royal Agricultural Society of England announced last April that it is not financially viable and cannot continue in its present form.

Where is the show held?

Every Royal Show since 1963 has been at Stoneleigh Park, a 250-acre site near Kenilworth, in Warwickshire, which is one of the country's great outdoor conference venues. One of its many advantages is that it has limitless free parking space, surrounded by meadow by arable fields.

The first show at Stoneleigh lasted four days and attracted 111,916 visitors. In its heyday in the 1980s, the Royal Show could count on 130,000. Last year there were around 100,000.

What kept people away?

This July has been exceptional, as we know, because it barely rained during the Wimbledon fortnight, and the Glastonbury revellers were not knee deep in mud. If only the heavens could be that kind to the Royal Show. Last year, there was rain two mornings out of four. The year before, you may recall, the rainfall in England and Wales from May to July was the highest since 1766. On one day in July, 4.8 inches of rain was recorded in the West Midlands. It rained buckets on the Royal Show, creating so much mud that people had serious trouble getting their cars out of the car park. At the end of the first day, 30 acres of barley were hastily mown down so that the fields could be turned into relief car parks, but despite that the show had to close early – for the first time in its history. Yesterday's show also began with a torrential downpour, though fortunately it is not quite the mudbath that it was in 2007.

What about foot-and-mouth?

The 2001 show was badly hit by the foot and mouth outbreak, which meant the culling of vast numbers of cattle and restrictions on the movements of live animals. Last year, there was the entirely new problem of bluetongue which, though it did not cost the lives of anything as many animals, nonetheless meant strict restrictions on their movement. Instead of there being 1,200 head of cattle and 1,600 sheep on show, as expected, there were 200 cattle and 400 sheep. The organisers reckon that caused them to lose thousands of visitors.

So all down to natural causes?

While the organisers have been blaming disease and the rain, others who speak for farmers say that – to put it bluntly – they have more important things to do with their limited time than take four days out to exhibit their livestock at the Royal Show. It has to compete with an increasing number of smaller technical events which are less fun for the general public, but which make more business sense for the farmers. The Tenants Farmers Association praised the decision to scrap the Royal Show, saying that its unavoidable decline was "reflecting badly" on the reputation of the Royal Agricultural Society.

So is there any point going this year?

Denis Chamberlain, marketing director of the Royal Agricultural Society has promised to "give everyone a great show" in this, the final year. The pre-publicity promised "an action-packed programme in the Grand Ring, cookery and craft demonstrations, countryside pursuits, an extended farmers' market and food halls", plus the presence of 2,000 horses taking part in as many competitive classes as the Horse of the Year Show qualifiers. There is also "a booming smallholder section where visitors will be offered advice and practical demonstrations on beekeeping, milking goats, and even spinning the wool from alpacas – not to mention how to prepare a pig for slaughter or the artificial insemination of goats." And yesterday there was a pageant to celebrate the show's history.

What is the history of the show?

In 1838, the first full year of Queen Victoria's reign, a group of landowners, journalists and others interested in agriculture met to see if they could something about the stagnation that had overtaken English countryside in the previous 20 years. When the Napoleonic war ended at the Battle of Waterloo, in 1815, the labour market was flooded with demobbed soldiers, particularly in southern England. The acute unemployment provoked a reaction against "new-fangled" machines that did jobs previously done by labourers. Hence the Luddite movement in the towns, and the "Captain Swing" riots in the countryside, when farm workers smashed up the new threshing machines. Scientific advancement in agriculture came to a halt, by popular demand. But 20 years on, the land was not producing enough to feed a growing population, and an agricultural society was founded to revive interest in agricultural science. One of its first initiatives, before it was granted a Royal Charter in 1840, was to hold an agricultural show in Oxford in 1839. Since then, it has been held every year except in wartime, or when it was prevented by cattle plague or foot-and-mouth.

What will take the Royal Show's place?

It is unlikely that there will ever be another agricultural show in England on quite the scale of the Royal Show, for the foreseeable future anyway. But the Royal Agricultural society is planning a series of year-round events to replace it, including an annual Festival of the Horse, the first of which is scheduled for July 2010. They are also planning a livestock competition.

Is this the end of agricultural shows?

When the Co-operative Society staged a procession of horse-drawn hearses at the Royal Highland Show, near Edinburgh, just over a week ago, some wags wondered if they were dropping a macabre hint about the future of agricultural shows generally, in these recessionary times. Actually, there are at least two dozen other annual shows every year in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and some are doing recession-buckingly well. The Royal Norfolk Show, held last week, is the country's largest two-day show, and is thinking about going to three days because of the ending of the Royal Show. The Royal Welsh Agricultural Show – a relative newcomer, founded 105 years ago – made a fat profit last year, having attracted 236,000 visitors. It opens on 20 July.

The four-day Royal Highlands Show, held just over a week ago, is even bigger and older than the Royal Show. It had a visit from The Queen to mark its 225th anniversary this week, and you would not know from the numbers pouring through its gates that there is a recession on. On the Saturday alone, there were 51,307. The combination of animals to see, stalls to visit, and events to watch is too much part of the summer calendar to disappear for many years yet.

Has a slice of country life disappeared for ever?


* This show has lasted 170 years, interrupted only by war and cattle plague, until now

* The point of agricultural shows was to promote agriculture. Now they are just a family day out

* It is more worth farmers' while to go to small, specialist events where business is conducted


* Sad though its disappearance is, this is only one show of many

* Attendance at the larger Royal Highlands Show was up 15 per cent this year

* No amount of rain ever stopped the crowds cramming into the Royal Welsh Agricultural Show – but then the Welsh are used to getting soaked