Country Matters: The Game Fair's afoot again

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The Independent Online
YOU WANTED to arrive before 8am: that was for sure. By mid-morning two- hour queues of traffic had built up, but at 7.45 cars were flowing through the Oxfordshire lanes, and drifts of early fog made the approach to Cornbury Park, home of the Hon Robin Cayzer, agreeably mysterious. What lovelier introduction could one have to a hunting preserve beloved of Henry I than the sight of a herd of fallow deer, glimpsed through the mist beneath an ancient oak?

Regular as clockwork in its appearance at the end of July, the Game Fair has come round again. Yet this year the Country Landowners' Association has made an important innovation for its mass-gathering of the country sports clans, shifting the three days of the event from Thursday, Friday and Saturday to Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Purists mutter that this will let in hordes of townies - and so it may. Advance sales of tickets were 140 per cent up on the previous best, and it looks as though Cornbury's central location, reinforced by fine weather, may produce a record crowd.

Launched as an experiment by the CLA in 1958, with the aim of encouraging landowners to develop the sporting potential of their estates, the Game Fair has become as firm a fixture of the summer as Henley or Ascot. That first year, at Stetchworth, near Newmarket, it attracted only 8,000 people, but attendances soon climbed into six figures.

A peripatetic event, it moves round the country from one great house to another, and experience has shown again and again that the more glamorous the place, the larger the crowd. Thus the record is held by Chatsworth (the Duke of Devonshire), with 136,000 people in 1987, and the runner-up is Broadlands (Lord Romsey, and before him Lord Mountbatten), with 134,000 in 1984.

The Director of the fair, Lt- Col Robin Rees-Webbe, aims to cover the country as evenly as possible, with a visit to Scotland every fifth year. But, as he admits, 'anywhere north of the border is too far away', both for exhibitors and for spectators. (Last year's event at Longniddry, Lothian, drew only 70,000.) Much the same is true of Wales: the fair at Margam, near Swansea, pulled in only 81,000 - although part of the trouble that year was the stupefying heat, which inhibited many potential customers from starting the long haul down the M4.

With visitors paying pounds 8 in advance or pounds 10 at the gate, this year's takings are high - but so are the expenses. The CLA certainly hopes to make a profit, but does not say how much. Nor does it divulge what it pays a landowner to use his park - although Col Rees-Webbe concedes that 'nobody could afford the disruption to farming and estate work unless he received a reasonable fee'.

In the 36 years of the fair's existence there have been some spectacular meteorological disasters, most notably at Floors Castle, the Duke of Roxburghe's home in the Borders, where catastrophic rain reduced the park to such a quagmire that chest-waders, rather than knee-length gumboots, became the most sensible apparel.

The one compensation for the estate was that the weather washed out the all-but- free fishing which had been promised as a special lure. For a mere pounds 5 (it had been announced), anyone could fish the mighty Tweed, which flows past below the castle - a privilege normally costing hundreds of pounds a week. Providentially, downpours in the hills had turned the river into a torrent the colour of milk chocolate, upon which whole trees and dead sheep were borne past at dizzying speed, so that no fishing of any kind was possible.

All who saw Floors at the end of the fair feared that the turf of the park would never recover. In fact, such was its resilience that after harrowing, rolling and a bit of reseeding, it was fit to graze sheep by the autumn, and cattle by the spring.

No such disaster will overtake Cornbury, where the ground is baked hard by the summer's heat and the grass is the colour of digestive biscuits. This year, as ever, the CLA has used to occasion to make important pronouncements, not least about agricultural tenancy reform - over which it has campaigned for years and which is now to be the subject of a Bill in Parliament. Other leading country organisations also launch initiatives, many emphasising the extent to which field sports benefit conservation.

Yet it is not for such words of wisdom - worthy though they are - that the majority of punters come. They come to shoot clay pigeons, to work their gundogs or observe others working, to compete at fly- fishing, to see shire horses in action, to watch falcons flying, knights jousting, sky- divers plunging, hot-air balloons ascending and gamekeepers receiving long service awards (more than 900 keepers of various vintages were present yesterday).

One noticeable change over the years has been the decline of Gunmakers' Row. Once the lines of tented booths used to stretch for miles. Now they are pitifully short, many firms having gone out of business. The leaders still parade, of course. According to David Winks, Sporting Weapons Director of Holland & Holland, 'we go to fly the flag, to show our wares, and let the world know that Hollands are foremost'.

But such flaunting does not come cheap. With the costs of transport, accommodation, security and insurance of weapons worth at least pounds 500,000, Hollands' bill for appearing at the fair easily exceeds pounds 10,000. Of course, if you insist (as they do) on furnishing your tent with solid inner walls covered in dark- green cloth, you must expect to pay.

The star guest at the fair today will be William Waldegrave, the new Minister for Agriculture. The CLA is hoping to bend his ear about the shaping of policy, here and in Europe - and, in spite of that, I have no doubt he will enjoy his afternoon.

But I strongly advise him not to take any credit cards with him. Plastic money in your pocket has a desperate effect when you enter the lines of tented shops. Even if you do not sign up for a safari in the Altai mountains of Siberia, you may easily fall for an all-terrain bike, a few garden benches or a pair of binoculars carrying a four-figure price.

Your own correspondent, fancying himself impervious, narrowly escaped putting in for a hand-made rifle at a mere pounds 2,500: a half-hour's discussion of trigger-pulls and barrel-lengths with Lew Potter of Evesham almost undid me. And how, with the temperature in the high Seventies, was it that I came away with a brand-new moleskin jacket?

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