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 - - Welcome - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: DAR­REN CRUSH

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.

SCHOOL­BOY ER­RORS

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...”

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