TO characterise the Great Yorkshire Show as simply the best the county has to offer would be a mistake. It’s so much more than that. It is all of England at its finest.
On a sunny day in July, there is no better place to be. Even on a lousy one like last Tuesday, I wouldn’t swap it.
It’s the animals that are the main attraction. The young handlers’ competition, in which pre-school children lead pigs around a judging ring, is a reality TV show all by itself. If anyone from Channel Four is reading, I’m claiming the format rights.
Even some of the humans are entertaining. One attendee this year chartered an aircraft to fly a banner overhead with a marriage proposal. I hope he finds other ways to communicate with his new wife once they settle down; “Take the bins out” in sky letters 10 feet high might not go down quite so well.
For me, the show’s defining statement is the parade of hounds in the main arena on the final day.
Whatever your view of foxhunting, the centuries-old sight of the riders in their hunting jackets and caps, beagles at their feet, is going to raise the hairs on your neck. If not, put Elgar on in the background and try again.
On Thursday, the crowd roared as the horses and hounds raced past. They didn’t have to cheer, but they did. I don’t think everyone in the grandstand was pro-blood sports; I think, like me, they were just stirred.
More than 133,000 people came through the gates this year. Some came to shop, some to watch, to eat or admire. A crowd of 133,000 is bigger than the one at the Cup Final.
It brought Harrogate literally to a standstill.
On the Wednesday alone, 20,000 cars converged on the showground. The Sainsbury’s next door has to close for the duration because no-one would be able to get in or out.
So it’s is hardly a niche event, yet it struggles to get on the radar of the national media.
The BBC covers it on local radio, but when it broadcast a solitary episode of The One Show from Harrogate a few years ago, it managed only to patronise.
This year, the organisers had set up an international registration desk with a welcome poster in French (“Bonjour”, it said), Italian (“Ciao”) and Yorkshire (“’Ey Up”). I’m glad it’s attracting guests from abroad because its domestic audience, though deep, is not broad. Virtually every one of those 133,000 people was white.
I don’t know why our minority communities do not embrace events like this, or if it matters. It’s a fact of life that while Britain is multi-racial, it isn’t integrated. The crowd included many pre-school children – not all of them in the pig rings – and an expected 5,500 on organised trips. But not many that I saw were of an impressionable secondary school age.
Much has been made of the importance of educating young people about the countryside, and the new Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, will have been in an invidious position when he visited on Wednesday. It was he who, when he ran education, told schools to clamp down on letting parents take their kids out for the day.
His mantra now that he is in charge of farming is that there is no better educational experience than a day learning about rural life, and that parents and teachers should “take advantage of the flexibility that exists within the curriculum” to learn out of doors.
Flexibility? It will be news to most parents, and probably a few teachers, that the bolted-down curriculum he bequeathed is pliant enough to allow even a loo break when nature calls, let alone an entire day off.
A system that was designed to stop families taking off for Center Parcs or southern Asia when prices are cheaper and the climate more agreeable, has become a lock-in for everyone.
Why not put Mr Gove to the test: ask if you can take your children or grandchildren to the Driffield Show this Wednesday, or to Nidderdale in September, and see if your school’s interpretation of flexibility matches his.
Suburbanites like myself, who cling to aspirational labels like “semi-rural”, are secretly a little humbled by the farming community, because we know that if we had to work half as hard as they do, we’d be dead in two years.
They showed, once again, that they deserve the support of us all.