If you have a love of the countryside, or are one of the huntin' shootin' and fishin' fraternity, then the CLA Game Fair is the place for you. This year it was held at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, a smashing country pad and well worth a visit in its own right.
The Fair is probably the most prestigious showcase in the country, if not the whole of Europe, for all things country living/sport related. It has more stalls, demonstrations, lectures, displays, discussions and activities related to country living and country sports than you can shake a riding crop at. It they don't sell it, talk about it, show it or discuss it, you can probably get along pretty well without it. I really enjoy going, not least because I get to try out the latest and often the most expensive fishing rods on the market and bag some tuition for free, but also because I get to wrap my sticky mitts around a few choice shotguns and create a bit of smoke and noise in the testing area. Think of it as catharsis with safety issues (a woman on the edge of reason, loaded gun - need I illuminate further?)
Luckily, I managed to avoid spending too much money in FIsherman's Village but I spent quite a lot of time browsing the 250 stalls on Gunmaker's row, paying particular attention to the Purdy stand (they make rather expensive shotguns, but not quite as fancy as Holland and Holland, my next port of call) and was almost orgasmic when I realised I was surrounded by about 2 MILLION pounds worth of firearm, on display, in a tent, in a field. Staggering. I also got to fill myself with some great food and drink (I found a rather potent brand of ginger beer) and spend more time than was decent around the Continental Chocolatiere. I signed up to ride in a Range Rover being put through its paces at the Land Rover 4x4 experience and took my first twang at field archery, missing the target by a country mile.
There was also the opportunity to:
- check out falconry, working ferret, gundog, working dog and working horse displays,
- attend debates and question and answer sessions with the experts in various angling fields (John Bailey, where were you?)
- see demonstrations by masters of their craft (Hywel Morgan and Michael Evans)
- see demonstrations of some of the biggest land management machines I have ever seen, try archery and air rifle shooting
- marvel in awe at some chap weilding a chainsaw to remove all the bits of tree trunk that weren't squirrel. What an artist.
- cast a gimlet eye over some supercars on display. The new Jag was nice and the Maserati and the Aston Martin, but the new Range Rover Evoque, pfft, I wouldn't have one given. The least said about that the better.
And on and on it went. Every minute of all three days was packed.
The fair is also great for a spot of shopping for those foldirols that are rather difficult to find in the supermarket - bison burgers, bellybutton lint removers and sequinned horseshoes (I'm jesting about the bellybutton lint remover).
So, now, if this all sounds like your cup of tea you are seriously considering taking the plunge and attending a Fair, the one next year is at Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire (that's pronounced 'beever' for any of our colonial cousins reading http://www.gamefair.co.uk) there are a few things you need to consider well in advance.
Number one. Decide where you want to stay. It's only for 3 days, but you will be hot, tired and hungry by the end of each one. Hotels and guest houses will fill up quickly, and they will be expensive. It's the peak of the tourist season - book early to avoid disappointment. Bear in mind if you stay off site, the roads round about will be gridlocked and queues to get in and out each day will be HOURS long. I kid you not. Unless you are actually lucky enough to be one of them, you will develop a severe envy of those who get to fly in by VIP helicopter.
An alternative, if you are up to it is to pitch your tent or caravan on the camp site. If you fancy this option, you might want to prick up your ears, because there were major problems at this year's fair. Not only were there insufficient toilets to cater for the nearly 3000 people on the site, a good portion of them didn't work, hot water was a luxury only exceptionally early risers could benefit from, and if you were unlucky enough to get a pitch at the bowel end of the camp, you had a nearly quarter mile trek to have a pee. Frankly, if it were me, I'd risk going behind a bush. That aside, the facilities were nice and clean and there was always plenty of paper. If you think, I'll wait and go when I get to the Fair proper, dont! The queues for the loos were at least a hundred long all the live long day. Even my usual trick of barging my way into the Gents rather than wait was thwarted by a tabarded steward whose job it was to keep order. Luckily there were plenty of bushes. Enough about that.
The point I really have to get off my chest, and I would imagine everyone who stayed on the campsite will too, is the distance the camp site was from the Fair - a full 2.5 MILES!! Yes, you read that right. Thank goodness for the frequest bus service they laid on otherwise there would have been serious wearing out of shoe leather. Which brings me onto my next point.
Number two. Before you consider attending a Fair make sure you are at least reasonably steady on your pins. You will do a LOT of walking. Mobility scooters are available for the less able, but with the density of the crowds, they are very very difficult to maneouvre safely and chances are your battery will have gone flat before the end of the day.
Decent shoes are ESSENTIAL. I stress again, decent, comfortable shoes. Forget fashion, comfort and hard wearing are your key words.
Next, if you are stopping for the whole 3 days, make sure you exchange your tickets for a rather snazzy wristband. It will save a whole heap of queuing at the entrance and you can come and go as many times as you like throughout the three days without incurring any extra charges.
Next, make sure your wallet is well loaded because food and drink is EXPENSIVE. The most basic burger on a bap, no extras, will cost you a fiver and a small bottle of coke, two pounds. Coffee and tea can be found at reasonable cost if you hunt it out and I was lucky to be able to get a freebie because I was a Disco driver - thank you Land Rover Hospitality. You have to shop carefully or go hungry. Tip of the day: Seek out the Original Welsh Oggie Company stall. One giant oggie feeds three people comfortably for a fiver. Tip number two: if you want to stock up for the next day's packed lunch, hover around the stalls towards closing time, they are very keen to get rid of their stock and you can pick stuff up for half price.
And it isn't only drink and food that will drain your finances, there are literally hundreds of venues desperate to relieve you of your cash be it in the form of a piece of clothing or footwear, a new piece of sporting equipment, or that extra little something you didn't know you needed like a summer house cum sauna, or a holiday, or a boat...or a tractor!!
So despite my gripes and grumbles would I recommend the Fair to anyone who hasn't been before. Absolutely YES!! All in all, the Fair is a great place to have fun with your chosen sport(s), meet people, learn something new, buy something special and try that exotic duckbilled platypus fricasee that you can't get in Sainsbury's and wash it down with a tall, cool Pimms. All joking aside, if you prepare yourself for the miles of walking, keep an eye on the weather, wear the right shoes and clothing and have sufficient funds to feed and water yourself, you will have a FANTASTIC time and wonder why you never did this before.
What was the highlight of the weekend. I can tell you that for free. It had nothing to do with hunting, shooting or fishing. It was hearing a familiar drone in the sky and looking up to see a Lancaster bomber doing a flypast and then seeing everyone around me come to a dead halt, their eyes to the sky, struck dumb with awe and respect for this magnificent machine. Not long after, we were treated to a flyby by a WWII Spitfire. Marvellous.
A final note. Whilst at the Fair, it was a great privilege to spend some time with the guys from http://www.fishingforheroes.com/ a fantastic charity that specialises in the support and treatment of military veterans and serving personel who are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD), Combat Fatigue or other mental and emotional problems relating to active service. Find them here on Facebook and give them your support.
If you do decide you would like to attend the Fair next year, why not consider offering voluntary services. Staff are always needed for stewarding, car park duties, helping out on stalls, in boats, on the lake etc. As a reward for your generosity of time, free admission is given for the day you volunteer, plus vouchers against food from certain concessionaries. Win win all round.
See you next year!