Game Fair tales
From sparring gamekeepers and heat waves to Army interventions and losing cars, Robin Scott has plenty of tales to tell about Game Fairs from years gone by.
Shooting Gazette’s editor-at-large Robin Scott has been to more Game Fairs than most, so was perfectly placed to dispense some hilarious anecdotes about the event. Expect warring gamekeepers, heat waves, automobile mishaps and much, much more!
Ibet mine wasn’t the only heart that sank when the Country Landowners’ Association (CLA) pulled the plug on the Game Fair back in 2015. Doubtless countless thousands of other fans mourned the loss too. The CLA said it was calling it a day because the event, the world’s biggest fieldsports gathering bar none, was losing money. “How so?” we asked.
Everybody acknowledged and understood why the CLA had gradually whittled the number of venues down to three or four permanent sites to save future set-up costs. It was a prudent move. But what of the not inconsiderable income stumped up by more than 1,000 loyal stand holders, the monies paid by headline sponsors and 100,000 or more people streaming through the gates every year? Someone, somewhere, had clearly got something horribly wrong.
Then, just when it seemed a cherished institution had withered and died at the age of 57, along came a saviour of sorts in the shape of James Gower, an award-winning outsides events organiser with 20-plus years in the business, including the London and Southampton Boat Shows. A fieldsports Hallelujah? Let’s hope so.
James and his company struck a deal with the CLA to keep the event going and his first – at Ragley Hall in 2016 – proved a success with a gate of 107,000. This year, Game Fair Ltd. has chosen the Jacobean house and estate at Hatfield in Hertfordshire as the venue for the event’s 59th birthday. James and his buzzing sales/marketing team are pretty well sure attendance at the bash will easily beat Ragley’s total. Scottish, Welsh, West Country and northern shooters, who are notoriously reluctant to travel, will not relish the Hatfield choice but it is close to big centres of population, and within easy spitting distance of London. North/south/east/west divide aside, the potential is obvious.
What’s abundantly clear, too, is that the Game Fair is winning back support from the UK gun trade. Market leaders who had gradually become disenchanted and disappointed with the direction and attitude of the ‘old’ regime are returning to the fold.
“We took the decision some years ago not to exhibit at the Game Fair again for a number of reasons, cost being one of them,” said Phil Unwin of RUAG Ammotec, major importers for prestige brands including Perazzi, Kahles Optics, Rottweil, V-max ammunition and Bettinsoli. So what changed? “I went along with other doubters from the trade to a presentation given by James Gower and it blew our socks off. He made such a compelling case for exhibiting that I signed up on the spot. And I wasn’t the only one. I came away thinking this was one show I just couldn’t afford to miss,” he said. Just maybe, then, the Game Fair is beginning to rediscover its roots.
A PLACE WHERE MEMORIES ARE MADE
Way back when it was the place for shooters to cast a first eye over new guns, cartridges and accessories before they reached the shops. Browning, AYA, Winchester, Gunmark (GMK as it is today), Eley, Gevelot (now Gamebore) Maionchi, SSM and others led the way. Their stands buzzed with folk, and business.
Every fair in the event’s long history has been special in its own way and everyone who turns up at one goes home with memories that rarely fade. Maybe it was the clay shooting, shopping or gundogs that made a lasting impression. Or the venue itself. I can’t remember the exact year of my first Game Fair but it was Kinmount House,
“Every fair has been special, and everyone who turns up goes home with memories that rarely fade.”
Dumfriesshire sometime in the mid 1970s. It was memorable – and forgettable – in equal measure.
After finishing work early on the Thursday I drove to my late cousin Stephen’s farm near Helmsley and spent a useful hour flighting pigeons at the bottom of the yard while he packed his case and then the car.
Having just split from the prettiest girl in County Durham, a trip away was just what I needed so Steve pointed the car in the direction of the A66 toward Cumbria and off we went.
You might know the road. If so, you will have surely clocked Bowes Moor Hotel sitting on the left, miles from nowhere, midway between Scotch Corner and Penrith. It was getting towards 10pm so we stopped for a pint. And guess who I should bump into before I was halfway down my first glass of Theakstons? Yep. The ex. Turned out there was a dance that night for local farmers and keepers. Cue, exit stage left.
The plan was to find a lay-by or farm gateway close to Kinmount and sleep in the car. Easier said than done. We drove miles trying to find a stopping place, but everywhere had been coned off. Eventually we got lucky and parked up. It was 2am. Sleeping bags out and seats back, we settled down for what was left of the night. And then another car pulled alongside us.
For 10 minutes or so the soft summer night was all peace and quiet until the lady next door starting gasping, wailing and screaming like a banshee. Would she never stop and fall asleep? Well yes, two hours, four minutes and 22 seconds later to be exact. They might’ve been spent but we were shattered…
By 7am we were on site, a pair of bleary-eyed zombies looking for the shower rooms and in desperate need of breakfast. A refreshing wash and full English later perked us up a treat: we both shot a reasonable score in the Game Fair Championship, did some shopping and then I topped our day by winning a tough Press Shoot on the CLA Members’ layout. It was time for home. And no, we didn’t stop for a celebratory pint atop Bowes Moor on the way back.
I attended a couple more Game Fairs after that but it wasn’t until I joined Angling Times that the July gathering became an annual treat. The first was Stowe School between Northampton and Oxford. Nothing noteworthy to report from on that occasion… except the journey home.
Let’s just say I had spent the day socialising a little too freely, but my teetotal secretary was the driver home. Three miles into the journey our company pool car – an Austin Maxi as I recall - boiled dry right alongside two motorbike cops, directing traffic. Somehow I found a couple of discarded plastic coffee cups in the roadside verge, and I also discovered a stone water trough up a steep hillside, three fields away.
The next half hour was spent clambered back and forth over vicious barbed wire fences replenishing the dry radiator only to fail at the final fence. I fell face down, dangling by the crutch of my pants from the top strand.
My secretary tried, but failed, to free me. So she marched down the road and enlisted the help of the coppers. One lifted me by the shoulders while the other fiddled about in my nether regions until the last barb finally parted company with the fabric, crown jewels still intact.
OH, AND THE WEATHER…
Game Fairs, generally speaking, take place in fine weather. But not so when tents were pitched on the Roxburghe Estate near Kelso.
The rain came down in biblical amounts, the River Tweed burst its banks and the entire showground turned into a welly-deep mud bath. Army frogmen were deployed to push trees and other debris away from the supports of a temporary Bailey bridge; someone slipped while crossing it and lost his shotgun in the swirling torrent and a young boy taking casting lessons in Fisherman’s Row, however improbable, caught a salmon in the raging waters. Terriers and toy dogs on leads kept sinking from sight in the gloop whenever their owners stopped to look at the stands. Green wellies flew off the shelves. So too did umbrellas.
A bit of rain, of course, never dampens the spirit of fair-goers but you can get too much of the stuff, as we all discovered more recently at Belvoir Castle and Harewood House. Both had to be cancelled.
On the other hand, we’ve had some scorchers too over the years and none hotter than Margam Park in South Wales. The thermometer broke the 100˚C barrier on all three days; people and dogs passed out in the heat, exposed skin was burnt to a crisp, and the only thing to sell like hotcakes were ice creams, bottled water and beer. Motorists sweltered in queues on the M4, only to give up exhausted and turn for home. Trade stands became saunas so instead of buying, people took to the shade of giant oak and ash trees, and rested. With so little to do, staff from the magazine ‘commandeered’ their own tree and whiled away the time playing spoof – the loser buying the next round of iced cold lager. And, rather unusually for me, I managed to stay on the winning side for the entire duration of the fair. Unexpected, often amusing, things happen when so many people from different walks of life come together at gatherings like these. One afternoon at Cornbury Park a pitbull-cross latched onto the throat of an unsuspecting cocker spaniel outside the stand and wouldn’t let go. We feared the worst. Nothing, but nothing, loosened its grip. Then out from the crowd strode a tattooed likely lad. Without a word he calmly produced a cigarette lighter, flicked it open and held the flame under the brute’s chin. It let go in an instant.
At Broadlands I was enjoying a lunchtime libation with a fairly elderly gentleman – a gamekeeper as it turned out – sitting at the next table. Another gamekeeper in tweeds hove into sight whereupon my neighbour suddenly launched straight at him. Fists flew back and forth, each gamekeeper ended up bloodied yet, just as soon as it had started, the fight finished. Both shook hands, bought a pint apiece, then sat together and chatted. Clearly some old score had been settled. But just what? Sadly, we will never know.
So what’s to be learnt from almost half a lifetime’s gallivanting between Game Fairs? First, go prepared. Wear quality leather walking shoes and always eat a hearty breakfast before starting on the amber nectar. Second, if there for the duration and planning on downing a few sherbets, leave your vehicle overnight and bum a lift back to the digs. Martin Puddifer, now
Shooting Gazette’s deputy editor, got the second rule right on the Friday of his first ever Game Fair visit at Broadlands. But he totally loused up on the third: always remember where you left the damned car! Turns out the poor guy spent his Saturday morning searching every car park before he eventually found it. ( Dep Ed. I’m never going to live this down, am I, Robin?)
Yes, the Game Fair – because it no longer travels the country – has changed considerably over the years, but the old gal is thankfully still with us. In fact she actually might be getting better. So if you do decide to pay her a visit this summer, just remember to keep an eye peeled for fighting dogs, sparring gamekeepers…and a lost-looking Welshman named Martin. If you should bump into him, buy the guy a pint, then point him in the direction of home.
“The fair has changed considerably over the years, but the old gal is still with us. If fact, she’s getting better...”