It’s one of those idyllic summer days that reminds you why, sometimes, there isn’t a better place in the world to be than England. Of course it isn’t always like this. So far this summer the weather gods have thrown everything at us – we’ve had record- breaking heatwaves, flash floods and thunderstorms and pretty much everything else in between.
Today, though, there’s not a cloud in the sky and just the softest of cool breezes to prevent the heat becoming stifling. And there’s the added bonus of standing in the grounds of Castle Howard, one of the nation’s greatest country houses and a sublime example of English Baroque architecture, bathed in sunshine.
I’ve come to meet the stars of TV’s Countryfile – Matt Baker, Anita Rani and John Craven et al – who are back here this weekend for Countryfile Live, linked to the BBC’s flagship rural affairs programme.
It’s the first time this four-day show, which started on Thursday and finishes tomorrow, has left the confines of Blenheim Palace (a sister event was held in Oxfordshire earlier this month) where it has enjoyed a successful run since starting in 2016.
Baker has been part of the Countryfile team for just over a decade and says the live show is a celebration of our countryside, farming, produce and wildlife. “Country fairs and shows have always been a really big part of my childhood. They’re a celebration of summer from an agricultural perspective and for me it was always a no-brainer that we would do some sort of country show and make it as countrywide as possible.”
The success of the shows at Blenheim prompted the search for a replica event somewhere in the North, and Yorkshire, and Castle Howard in particular, seemed the ideal choice. “For a show like this we need to have the on the water experience and there’s a farmyard here as well which gives people the opportunity to get up close and personal with farm animals. It just seemed like a perfect place,” adds Baker.
“This is the biggest outdoor celebration they’ve had. I was speaking to a guy earlier and he said they’d had 10,000 people in for a prom, but nothing like this.”
Baker, who has family in Yorkshire, is delighted the show has come here. “I love Yorkshire and I love the people. They’re the most welcoming people around and they come a close second to Durham,” he says, laughing.
“It’s a very rural county and I think a lot of people look to Yorkshire as what is classically agricultural Britain and I think that’s why it was always a strong contender to have Countryfile Live here.”
Countryfile first aired on the BBC in 1988, and since moving to a prime-time Sunday evening slot has become essential watching for many people, regularly pulling in six million viewers each week.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the presence of John Craven who has been part of the team from the beginning. He feels the live show has a broad appeal. “People living in rural communities can come here and find lots of interesting things happening and people from towns and cities can come and see what the countryside has to offer.”
Craven, who was raised in Leeds, believes there is a greater understanding these days of the issues and challenges that rural communities face. “We reflect that on the programme -things like isolation and the fact that a lot of shops and pubs have gone. It’s not all roses around the door and we don’t give that false impression,” he says.
“I was on the show during the foot-and-mouth crisis which was disastrous for the countryside and you realised what an impact it had on rural income, because it wasn’t just farmers who were affected, it was B&Bs and other businesses, and what we learned then was how dependent the rural economy is on tourism. Thankfully it’s all picked up again now that ‘staycation’ is the big thing.”
He has seen the TV programme go from being very much aimed at farming communities to one that’s developed a much broader appeal. “It’s a family show that people do actually make a point of watching,” he says. “People come up to us and say how much they enjoy Countryfile. In all my years doing the show, I’ve never heard anything negative about it. They invite us into their homes on a Sunday evening so we’re now inviting them to come and join us here.”
Craven isn’t the only Countryfile presenter with close personal ties to Yorkshire. Anita Rani was born in Bradford and is a relative newcomer, having joined the show four years ago.
She says it was her father’s enthusiasm for the great outdoors that fired her passion for it. “We were the one Asian family in the countryside,” she jokes. “My dad would take us to Ilkley Moor, Baildon, Haworth and up to Malham. Every weekend we were bundled into the car and taken out. We were enthusiastic daytrippers and it means I now love being outdoors – I’m very comfortable in a field, put it that way.”
She says the TV programme shows what’s going on in modern rural Britain. “You can never predict what’s going to do well, but perhaps it taps into something innate within us – we’re all from a field somewhere at some point. It’s one of those programmes where you can sit watch it with every generation of your family and hopefully it’s entertaining as well as educational,” she says.
“It connects us to the countryside and perhaps makes people think ‘actually we’re not that different’, because there’s so much that connects people living in towns and cities with what’s going on in the countryside. For instance, if we do a food story then it can help people understand where their meat or produce comes from, or why something costs as much as it does, If they can see how much effort the farmer is putting in then that helps connect us – and I think it’s important.”
It is also important to get younger generations interested in the environment, though Rani believes they already are. “I think younger people are connected to environmental issues and if anything it’s younger people who are teaching us more about what we should be doing because they’re going to inherit the planet from us.”
If the message from the TV programme is about appreciating and nurturing the countryside that is on our doorstep, having Countryfile Live at Castle Howard is a way of celebrating this and putting the region in the spotlight.
“Yorkshire is the largest county in Britain and it’s got so much to offer. What we’re doing is celebrating what Yorkshire has to offer, so there’s lots of local businesses and local produce and local talent,” says Rani.
“There’s lots of great things happening in Yorkshire and this is just another one. This isn’t just a country fair for people who live in rural communities, this is for everybody and we want people who might not necessarily go to a country fair to come to this one, because this is for them.”
BBC Countryfile Live continues today and tomorrow at Castle Howard, near Malton. www.countryfilelive.com/castle-howard