Sarah Todd: A day at the Great Yorkshire Show should still be a family pilgrimage

EARLIER in the year a High Court judge ruled that unless a child is sick, absent because of religious observance or unable to attend because their transport did not arrive, they should be in school.

For farming families like Sarah Todd, the Great Yorkshire Show is an annual pilgrimage - not least for those years when it is graced by the presence of the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh.

Organisers of the Great Yorkshire Show are hoping this new hard line won’t prevent parents from bringing their children along to next week’s three-day Harrogate event.

Over 5,500 children are booked in for organised school trips but there are worries that other parents will leave them at the chalkface for fear of the disapproval of teachers rather than bundling them in the car.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

It’s okay to take them out if the headteacher agrees – but getting the nod can be very hit and miss. Many are worried that if they say ‘yes’ to one request it will open the floodgates to others so have a blanket ban.

It is no exaggeration to say that in my farming family going to the show is, in its own way, a kind of religious observance. It is our annual pilgrimage. The other visitors are like one huge congregation, celebrating all that 
is good about the countryside and 
rural life.

Just like many gypsies believe they are an ethnic minority, there is pause for thought that the farming community is the same. Just as the travellers feel the calling to Cumbria for Appleby Horse Fair, country folk feel they are missing out on their cultural heritage if they don’t get to Harrogate.

This road to Damascus moment came while sorting through around 70 years’ worth of old photographs in the Knaresborough-based head office of the Yorkshire Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs.

The organisation, jointly with the East Riding arm of the young farmers’ movement, has had a stand at the Great Yorkshire Show for as long as anybody can remember.

The pictures, whether from the 1950s or last year, have one thing in common. The young people in them are all smiling – they are Happy (with a deliberate capital H) to be at the Great Yorkshire Show. It is an event that they have obviously been looking forward to for a long time.

Nowadays we seem to have to jump through so many hoops to do anything that’s remotely fun. We find ourselves, coming into Great Yorkshire Show week, having to ramble on about the educational benefit of out-of-school trips.

Yes, there’s loads to learn at the show – its Discovery Zone is beyond amazing – but is it so wrong for children to have a day off school and (shock horror) enjoy themselves?

Scotland doesn’t have the same rules – trusting parents to do right by their own children – and the strongest sanction headteachers have is a stern letter. As a result, its equivalent agricultural showcase, the Royal Highland, is thriving.

Last year our daughter’s headmaster let her have a day off for the Great Yorkshire because, for once, mother was organised and made a good case for the visit because she wanted to find out more educational information from the stands such as the agricultural department at Newcastle University, Harper Adams and Bishop Burton College.

Her brother got the black mark of an ‘unauthorised absence’ because he was just going along to have a nice day out with his family. I couldn’t really pretend, aged 12, that he was going to be spending the day planning his
future career. If the council had followed it up, we could have ended up with a £60 fine, rising to £120 if not paid within 21 days. If fines remain unpaid, the authority can then decide to prosecute.

As years go by, we get – as a nation – more distanced from our agricultural roots. As a young girl, most of my friends had a granddad or uncle or somebody who had a farming connection. Now we are more of a minority and the things we took for granted, like having time off for the agricultural shows, are being taken away from us.

Looking again at the old photographs that will make up a nostalgic display at this year’s Young Farmers’ Club stand, the children and teenagers are involved in all sorts. They are judging cattle and pigs, showing Royal visitors around, demonstrating rural skills like sheep shearing, getting plunged into icy cold water from a ducking stool to raise money for charity. It would be stretching the truth to say every moment was educational.

But they aren’t on mobile phones and are actually speaking to each other. Even at school these days, they seem to spend all their time staring at screens and punching away at keyboards. A day away, or even two or three, can’t be a bad thing.

We have friends who will be at the show exhibiting cattle and other livestock, as well as riding ponies. Plenty of them will be saying their child is ill rather than having to go through the formalities of getting permission. Such a shame to have to lie about something as fantastic as competing at the greatest show in the country.

Here’s hoping new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove, accepts his invitation to visit the Great Yorkshire Show. One thing’s for sure, the show and its long-standing supporters, like the members of the Young Farmers’ Club, will be around long after he’s forgotten.

Sarah Todd is a former editor of Yorkshire Life magazine. She is a farmer’s daughter, mother and journalist specialising in country life.