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Behind the scenes at The Surrey County Show

Phil Kemp meets the show organisers to find out what makes this agricultural event so popular

On the 28th May, Guildford’s Stoke Park hosts the country’s biggest one-day agricultural show welcoming visitors from far and wide – visitors who not only want to enjoy the excitement of watching competitive events and live entertainment, but to also have the chance of getting up close to farm animals and take part in hands-on activities. The show has been run by a dedicated team of enthusiastic volunteers from the Surrey farming community for over 60 years with the aim of bringing the countryside and rural life into the heart of Guildford.

I was invited by the Surrey County Agricultural Society to meet with their chairman Angus Stovold and chief executive Tracey Longhurst, who are both at the heart of the organisation making this annual event the great success that it is.

The estate office of Angus’ farm provided a perfect setting for my glimpse into what happens behind the scenes, with bookshelves laden with the history of the society’s many events, and black and white photos adorning the walls.

“The society’s first show was held at Eashing Farm, Godalming in 1954. Formed by the amalgamation of the Surrey Agricultural Association and the Redhill Agricultural Society, both founded in the 19th century, the thriving society we have today aims to promote agriculture through education and competition,” explained Angus. “And we achieve that through two agricultural shows. One in the spring, and one in the autumn. We also have farming competitions throughout the year.”

Held every year on the spring bank holiday in Stoke Park, a 66-acre site that provides not only ample space to stage an event of this size but also given its proximity to Guildford town centre and a station a few minutes’ walk away, it is an unbeatable location to help the society literally bring farming into the urban community. Or as Angus proudly puts it: “It’s a case of ‘the country goes to town’!”
Tracey is also from the farming community and specialises in rare breeds, working what she cheerfully describes as “a large smallholding or a small farm, depending upon your viewpoint!”. As the society’s chief executive, she manages the team of volunteers and is keen to engage not just with the farming community but also with the public generally. “Volunteering, for example as stewards helping to run the show on the day, provides a great opportunity to gain experience from dealing with show visitors,” said Tracey. “This year we are opening up stewarding and volunteering to the broader public. We’ll provide training and support and they’ll really enjoy the day too. Anyone that wants to get involved can contact us on our website.”

The show this year boasts an exciting display of different activities and entertainment in two arenas and three show rings. Across the showground too are avenues of marquees and demonstration areas with all manner of things to see and do.

“We tweak the programme every year, with the intention of making the show different and bringing a different character to what’s happening.” said Tracey. “We’ve got some exciting surprises this year. The Guildford Fringe Theatre are taking over the bandstand area and are going to be putting on a full day of entertainment with music and theatre. Much of it will be a surprise on the day, and there’s a good chance that members of the public all across the showground may have unexpected encounters. I can’t wait to see what happens!”

Looking through the show’s programme I could see that at the heart of the full day’s events not surprisingly were all things rural and agricultural. Cattle, sheep, pig, goat, donkey and horse competitions. Beekeepers, a milking parlour, coppicing, falconry, duck and ferret racing, showjumping and dog agility. And of course all manner of rural crafts, food tents and exhibitors of every description. But the Agricultural Society doesn’t stop there.
“We also aim to mix interesting and educational elements with those that are pure entertainment,” Tracey enthused.

“This year we’ve got the Bolddog Lings motorbike stunt team to provide the kids with what we call the ‘whizz bang’ element that they so love. We’ve also got a heavy horse village. The heavy horses will be taking part in the grand finale to mark the centenary of World War One. And throughout the day the kids will have an opportunity to get involved with them which will make the finale very special.

“We’ve also got a First World War re-enactment team encamped in the middle of the showground all day. Children can sign up for the King’s Shilling, learn how to march, try out gas masks that were used in the trenches – and of course their parents can take part too!”

From my previous visits to the County Show I’ve tended to dwell, perhaps a little too long, in the food and drink sections. And by the sounds of it I might be spending even more time there this year.

“Of course, what is really big at the show are the superb food and drink stalls. It is understandably a very popular tent,” added Angus, perhaps showing off his mindreading skills to boot. “We have Brian Turner the celebrity chef coming along to do some demonstration slots in the food theatre. He will also be going walkabout to meet people, members of the public. This year we’ve taken the food theatre out of the food hall – which means that there are going to be even more food stalls.”

I had also noted that there are going to be Silent Pool Gin tastings and an Albury Vineyard presentation on English sparkling wine in the food theatre, but I thought it best not to dwell any longer in case my hosts started to get the wrong opinion of me.

“What really excited me is when a teacher from one of the local schools contacted me,” said Tracey. “Elisabeth Gill and a friend of hers are going to be rowing across the Atlantic in December to raise money for the RAF Benevolent Fund, and Eikon – a Surrey charity that provides counselling for schoolchildren. They will be at the show with their boat, the Atlantic Albatross.”

“Ah, and another surprise is the fact we’ve got the Surrey Storms netball team running a celebrity shoot-out,” added Tracey. “It involves a trampoline which the kids will love, and there will be competitions for them to take part in, and with a leaderboard throughout the day. And I’m sure the whole family, rather than just the kids, can take part.” Angus immediately piped up: “I want a go!” To which the retort back from Tracey resulted in a laughing fit between them both.

But of course it would be wrong to ignore the main reason for the show being staged every year. It is to enable the visitors, who are mostly from urban backgrounds, to have the chance to understand what farming contributes to our everyday lives, and also to see first-hand what agriculture is all about.

“We are providing a real showcase to show where our food comes from, with the farmers telling the story,” concluded Tracey. “Providing a milking parlour so kids can see where the milk comes from. Having Merrist Wood smallholders run the petting farms where they will be able to see chicks hatching on the day and get to be hands-on with pygmy goats and sheep – and a host of other things. It really does bring it all to life.”

Phil Kemp is a Godalming-based writer and photographer. www.weyriver.co.uk.

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