The CLA Game Fair started little in 1958 at Stetchworth Park and, like Topsy, it growed. Pioneers who were there in the early days among them the shabby- genteel spokesman of these lines recall an overgrown garden fête with trestle tables, ex-army tents and a small car park dominated by Bentleys. People lingered over picnics in the shade of oaks beneath which Good Queen Bess had strolled, their red setters sitting hard by, tongues lolling. It was more social event than commercial opportunity, but if you happened to make an appointment with that nice Mr Purdey for a gun fitting later in the year or the House of Hardy for a casting lesson, what was wrong with that?
Like a benign malaria, the Game Fair got into your system and became a ‘must do’ to be inked onto the calendar in January. Old hands kept coming back, planning holidays round it. This year, it returns to Blenheim, and the visitor is right to feel relieved on safe arrival in the car park. The lanes around the great estates that host the fair were designed more for a horse and carriage than the 138,000 visitors in 55,000 cars who went to Broad-lands in 2006 to what has become the largest country-sports event in the world. There is a gloomy catalogue of the impatient who set off but never arrive, beaten back by gridlock and U-turning for home at lunchtime, incandescent with fury. It’s sensible to arrive early, so let us include you among the wise virgins who paid in the region of an eye-watering £20 (depending on the day) for a one-day ticket, were waved into a parking place and stepped out, eagerly gazing round.
The nose is assailed by the perfume of bruised grass with frying bacon on its breath; from far off comes the rattle of musketry as the clay ground never sleeps. Resplendent in Cotswold stone, the palace glowers down in Baroque disdain, and one wonders how the original occupant might have regarded this mass trespass on his privacy. Visitors less wise than you bring dogs that become dehydrated and irritable as the day advances, but that’s better then leaving them to asphyxiate in a hot car, a fate that befalls one or two every year. You must have good reason to bring poor old Rex unless he’s taking part in a gundog event or is in one of the 11 teams taking part in the Gundog Euro Challenge on Friday; there can be no other justification for having a canine companion on such a gruelling day.
With the eager step of the new arrival, you march towards the tented city, with acres of canvas and fluttering pennants like the camp of Coeur de Lion outside Jerusalem. The vision draws you on with its promise of untold delights, chance meetings, rash purchases, aching feet and a sunburned nose. However, don’t leave your car without making careful note of exactly where it is. There are stories… This is where old hands plan ahead. Wise farmers say: ‘If it looks like staying fine, take a coat; if it looks like rain, please yourself.’ You’ll be away from your car for eight hours, during which the weather can change, but you don’t want to be lumbered with spare kit. On a fair day, the right ensemble might include stout brogues or walking boots, lightweight trousers, a safari jacket with what my father used to call a pakamac rolled up inside, and a hat.
On the Friday, the hat might be a panama and the trousers crushed mulberry, as that’s the usual day for high rollers when serious business is done and, if Royalty drops in, as it often does, that is the day it tends to favour. On Saturday, a cloth cap and cords are acceptable, and, on Sunday, there will be a sprinkling of bare torsos with tattoos and the obligatory plastic pot of lager. A frugal guest, for we live in hard times, might bring from home a packet of sandwiches and a flask as the food-outlet prices make a careful man blink. CLA members in holiday mood might prefer the amazing catering in the members’ enclosure. Take a small shoulder bag for minor purchases, programme, sunglasses and other necessaries. Carry a thumbstick as it takes weight off the feet and you can lean on it when you pause at the main ring. It ought not be a valuable family heirloom, as there’s a real risk that you’ll prop it against a stand and walk off without it. Make no mistake this is a serious show covering more than 500 acres.
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There are 33,000ft of fencing, 20 miles of cables and enough generators to power 1,600 family homes. Visitors will drink almost half a million gallons of water, more than 6,000 bottles of Pimm’s and enough food 450 dressed crabs alone to feed the hosts of Midian. A wise visitor plans carefully how best to spend his time. It’s a mistake to enter at the nearest point and wander aimlessly, lonely as a cloud. No human legs can cover it all in a single day, so prioritise and plan your route. Buy a programme with its map of the site and organise your day. Need to visit Fisherman’s Row? See where it is and plot a course towards it, passing on the way other stands of special interest. At the Game Fair, you’ll meet the best country artists, writers, sculptors, game and clay shots, casting champions, keepers, stalkers and experts in every rural field, so conversations with these giants can account for an hour or so.
There is a welcome return after many years’ absence of pugs and drummers, the old names for rabbits and ferrets; new this year is the House of Shooting, a rural diversification exhibition and a full programme in the Game Fair Theatre. Your favourite magazines are represented, and there will never be a better chance to tell an editor or contributor what a wonderful job he is doing or even offer the odd suggestion. Country Life will be at the fair on stand W2098, next door to Tottering-by-Gently, and readers are assured a warm welcome. The oft-voiced criticism of the modern Game Fair is that it has become too large and commercial, but try to see that as part of the charm. True, the fair is now an enormous souk where you can buy a stalking rifle, a salmon rod, a day’s shooting, a float, membership of the National Gamekeepers Organisation, a trout fly, a bridle, a week’s shooting in Africa or a machine to split logs. Some shoppers believe things are priced up for the fair, others hold the opposite view: there is evidence to support both, but everything a sportsman might need is there at the drop of your plastic. Beware impulse buys and don’t do your shopping too early in the day. It’s painful to see an innocent in a temperature of 30˚C in the shade plodding he knows not where at 11am carrying a rotating pigeon decoy plus battery, six shooting books, a pair of wellies in a box, six free magazines, a bottle of sloe gin, a dog bed, a new waterproof coat and a fishing rod. Save the heavy shopping until the end or leave it at the stand for collection later, in which case remember you must retrace your steps.
Years ago, I found myself walking half a mile to the car park on the hottest day of the year carrying a walnut tree in a pot of earth, a Simon Gudgeon bronze grouse on a real granite rock, several books, a salmon spinning rod, four pots of honey and a bag of sundries. I was 5lb lighter and suffering severe palpitations when I reached base. There is generous hospitality on hand despite a new mood of abstemiousness, and kindly stallholders might offer a nip to keep your spirits up. This needs careful watching, and I speak from experience. People spotting can be fun as some very important personages and colourful characters are on display, and the observer will note how humankind loves to carve out little terri-tories. Fill a park with people, and 10 of them will erect a white fence around 20 square yards, put a uniformed bouncer on the gate, don blazers, find a bottle of Pimm’s and speak in loud voices as ordinary mortals shuffle past, excluded from this Olympian gathering.
Wise men smile at such folie de grandeur, but the Game Fair is a good place to see human nature in all its guises. For all its sprawling enormity, the Game Fair is a special event in a special place to which most of the people you know and love will come if you wait long enough. In this centenary plus one year of the Country Land and Business Association which hosts it, you would be unwise to miss it, but, like the Boy Scout, ‘Be Prepared’. The 2008 CLA Game Fair is at Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, Oxfordshire, from July 25–27 (0844 8480990; www.gamefair.co.uk) Illustrations: Rupert Besley.
The lanes surrounding the estate were originally designed for a horse and carriage (or perhaps two). Make sure you’re up with the lark to ensure you don’t spend the day admiring the number plate of the person in front of you
There were 55,000 cars parked at the 2006 fair. Do not, under any circumstances, stroll away from your car without making scientific notes on its exact location
Also, with that in mind, get a programme, study the map of the site, and work out your route for the day. Don’t forget, it’s a 500-acre site with more than 33,000ft of fencing, so, no matter how determined you are, you will never cover it all
Leave Rover at home, unless he’s going to be participating in a gundog event. It will be too much for his little legs, and you shouldn’t even think of leaving a dog in the car
More survival tactics for the perfect day
Predictable but necessary: consider the weather before you set out. Linen and white shoes may look pretty, but you’ll be away for your car for almost 10 hours, which is no fun if torrential rain blows in on a gale in the second hour…
…although you must wear the appropriate attire. On Saturday, The Duke of Edinburgh will be there, so everyone will try to look their best, but on Sunday, you may even start to spot some chest hair on full display
If paying £10 for a tuna sandwich horrifies you, you should consider bringing your own food. However, CLA members can relax, as they will be able to enjoy all the catering of the members’ enclosure
Generally, there is good hospitality on display so, if you’re weary, some kind stallholders may offer you a chair and, possibly, even a little drink or two to help raise your spirits
Remember to carry a small bag for those minor purchases…
…but don’t for goodness sake buy that huge salmon, crate of shotgun cartridges and fishing rod within the first five minutes, or you’ll be stuck lugging them about for the rest of the day