Why we must never take Great Yorkshire Show for granted – David Behrens

IT was on Monday afternoon, when my barber relieved me of what felt like a thatched cottage on my head, that I began to feel normal again. A week longer and I’d have been looking for a sheep shearer, not a hairdresser.

Nigel Pulling, chief executive of the Yorkshire Agricultural Society, at an empty Great Yorkshire Show ground in Harrogate, which had to be cancelled due to the UK's coronavirus pandemic. A 'virtual' event will take palce instead. Photo: James Hardisty.

But the illusion of normality was soon broken. On the way back I walked past Menston station, where it’s usually impossible to park – or, should I say, it used to be – after 7.30am. Around nine spaces in 10 lay empty.

The same is true of the car parks that ring the Great Yorkshire Showground, up the road in Harrogate. The place should be abuzz right now with traders setting out their stalls, groundsmen laying out the lawns and, most of all, stockmen preparing their animals.

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But this year the land will lie fallow. Instead of next week’s event, a “virtual” Great Yorkshire Show will be held online, with filmed contributions from farriers, cheesemakers and a raft of other rural craftspeople. Perhaps sheep shearers.

This year's Great Yokrshire Show, including the cattle parade, has been cancelled due to Covid-19. Photo: James Hardisty.

But it won’t be the same. On a warm day in July there is no better place in England than the equestrian rings, sheep pens and food halls that make up our county’s biggest carnival. For visitors it is a day out like no other, but for those who depend on it to sell, to compete or just to put themselves about, it is nothing short of a way of life.

The show itself will recover. It will return next year, bigger and better, just as it did after foot-and-mouth caused it to be called off in 2001. But for the farmers whose annual showcase it is, the road ahead will be much harder.

It’s not the loss of the event itself but of the market it supports that has most devastated their business. The catering sector – school and canteen meals, restaurants, hotels, pubs – swallows up something like a third of the food produced in England, and its almost complete shutdown may prove to be more than some agricultural businesses can stomach.

Last weekend’s partial reopening has brought a little relief – I can’t tell you how happy I was to see the lights on at my local on Saturday evening – but as we have all learned these last few days, the market is not what it was, and it won’t be for some time. Food producers are by no means the only ones to have suffered but few other industries were as fragile in the first place.

Quite apart from that, many farmers are in the hospitality business themselves, having converted properties into guest accommodation and become reliant on the income they bring. That has gone, too, although we can still hope it is not too late for a summer boom in staycations among families driven stir crazy at home.

And there is a second side to the tragedy, for in giving farmers a platform each summer, the Great Yorkshire Show – and the ecosystem of smaller agricultural events around the county – serves as a bridge between rural and urban communities. Seldom has that been needed more.

The atmosphere of distrust fostered between those two groups has been one of the most unpleasant legacies of the pandemic. It was especially evident during the early weeks of the lockdown when rural rights of way were closed arbitrarily and illegally, and unhelpful signs placed on stiles. Those three words are not mine, by the way: they were used by more than one National Park chief executive to whom I spoke at the time.

Of course, some people had exercised their right to roam further from home than they were supposed to, but that wasn’t always the case. Many had stumbled upon “keep out” signs near their own backyards. A few had found bulls blocking the footpaths.

Yet it was a one-way street, as a correspondent to The Yorkshire Post pointed out: no-one turned away rural residents when they drove to larger towns to do their shopping.

The fact is that country dwellers need townsfolk both as customers and visitors – just as urban families rely on food from the countryside. Happily, that is a belief is embedded deep within the DNA of the Great Yorkshire Show.

I’ve always felt that the phenomenon of farmers taking their beasts to a field and showing them off to others is one that ought by most measures to have died out centuries ago, and it’s a blessing that it not only endures but thrives in our age. The experience of 2001 proved it can survive a fallow year but 2020 has demonstrated that we must never take it for granted – for the show represents not just Yorkshire or even England at its best, but life itself.

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