The Gillingham and Shaftesbury show takes place this week, on Wednesday 15th August. If you’ve driven between the two towns over the last few days, you’ll have seen the white marquees going up in the Turnpike showground fields on the Motcombe side of the road.
“The highlight is when the tents start to go up. The buzz is there then,” Show Secretary Sam Braddick told me. When I called into his first floor office in Gillingham Town Centre on Thursday afternoon, the space was filled with of piles of papers, tickets, rosettes and fliers. It was also a surprisingly calm and orderly space, considering this is the nerve centre for one of the largest one-day agricultural shows in the south.
“There will be between 20,000 and 25,000 people on the field, on the day. I’m not sure how we would cope if we had too many more. We’d probably run out of car parking space or toilets,” said Sam.
There was definitely a sense that everything was under control, which isn’t surprising. Sam has been in his show-organising role for 22 years. “The first year would have been total panic. I’d wake up in the middle of the night thinking, ‘Have I spoken to the doctor?’ and ‘Are St John coming?’ Now it is not so bad because there’s an order to deal with these things and you hope that most of it will happen on the day.”
And Sam knows what to do because the Gillingham and Shaftesbury Show is, arguably, in his blood. “I’ve been involved since I was about six – since I was big enough to carry the bucket of nails. I would go with my uncle. In those days all of the rings and the cattle penning was with wooden stakes and wooden rails. Now it’s metal frames and it’s relatively easy. I joined the committee. I was responsible for the trade stand layout, so I was in the right place at the right time when the Major, who did it before, retired. I was lucky enough to be appointed to the job. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” said Sam.
Sam presides over an event that is a long established North Dorset tradition, as he explained. “We believe that in 1830 a group of farmers got together, probably in the pub after the market. There was possibly a challenge laid down such as ‘my bull is better than your bull’ and that’s how we believe the agricultural society started. At first they used the market in Gillingham to hold events and they had numerous different sites over the years. The most important thing has been the animals. From judging cattle it went on to the performance of heavy horses – who could plough the most in a day or the straightest line. We don’t do that now because our field is sacred to us. We’ve had the show field for 26 years and we work hard to keep it in good condition, so we don’t want to start ploughing on the day,” Sam laughed.
If you have not attended the show, you might be surprised at its size and you’ll be impressed by the range of retailers, events and activities. This year promises the largest number of trade stalls to date, from motorbike dealers to clothing stores. The show does remain true to its agricultural roots, though. “It’s a traditional show and it features agriculture very heavily with cattle, sheep and poultry on show. We have a lot of farm machinery stands and businesses but there is plenty for the general public. You can buy anything from a cream cake to a motorcar. There are 400 different exhibitors showing their wares. The whole thing has bloomed gently as we’ve gone along,” said Sam.
Many people have moved into the Shaftesbury area during the last decade and not every resident has countryside connections. Sam thinks that the show can help people understand farming practices. “I think we’re very lucky around here because people can see the grass, fields and cattle. Obviously, there are places where they are so far into an inner city that they don’t get that privilege very often. It’s really quite good that the local producers around here are happy to come along and help us tell the story.”
But there can still be a disconnect between producers and consumers. This year, the Gillingham and Shaftesbury Show will try to bridge that knowledge gap with a new education area. “In the Farm, Food and Fun tent there is an animal jigsaw where you can lift off parts of the animal and find out what meat joint it is. We found a local artist who painted cartoon character animals, which were as near the real thing as you can get. I haven’t seen the finished job yet but what I have seen looks quite amazing,” Sam enthused.
“Everybody wants to know where produce is coming from. This is the best way we can show them. There’s a cow. There’s the milk, cream, butter, meat and it all starts off with grass in the field. We then go through to the finished product and what’s happened to the wool or the grains.”
Sam says visitors are often fascinated by a display that explains how rapeseed is used to make oil. “It’s a very tiny, very black seed. If you put it through a press it comes out as the golden oil that you will use in your kitchen. Just to see people’s faces when you turn the handle and out comes the golden oil is really quite interesting.”
Some of the entertainment on the show day will be provided by the Imps Motorcycle Display Team and there’ll be ferret and terrier racing and bird of prey displays. Sam revealed that his team does ‘spy’ on other shows and adopt their better ideas. “We go around and see what the others are doing. I know that there are some coming to us because they like to see what we are doing – to see if they can do similar.
“Three years ago we were lucky enough to find a young man from Shaftesbury who made remote-controlled tractors. His name is Shane Reed. He buys toy tractors and he makes them steer, drive and pick things up and put them down. Ours was the first show that he came to and he has been to lots of other shows since, because people have seen him at our show. It’s finding what interests the public. And the only way you can do that is to see it somewhere else. We try to do a similar job, but to do it better.”
Food is always a big part of the day and the Food Hall tent is big in both size and variety of stallholders. “There are fifty different traders in there. We try to control what they’re doing. We don’t want a whole string of pie men, or people selling wine. We have a farmers’ market and a food hall and between the two of them they cover most of the produce you want. There’s so much more demand for locally produced or ‘handcrafted’ food. Originally it was perhaps only the cheese industry that did that. But now just about everything that is coming to the show is handmade somewhere along the line.”
Unlike many other agricultural shows the Gillingham and Shaftesbury remains a one-day event. “It’s often said that ‘I’ve been to another show and I got around it in one day but we can’t get around Gillingham and Shaftesbury show in one day’. The difference is you don’t know anybody at the other show,” said Sam. “At Gillingham and Shaftesbury Show, everybody knows somebody else and you don’t go very far before you stop and have a chat.”
There have been discussions about extending the event over two days but Sam says that idea has been rejected for a number of reasons. “To go on to two days would mean a weekend. At the weekend there is always something else on. We did try a Saturday show once, many years ago. It was a flop because many of the traders did not want to come and the horse exhibitors were somewhere else. There are about 250 people that come and help us with stewarding. Without being rude, a lot of them are of pensionable age. One day is easy. If we had a two-day event, we would have to spend the first evening tidying the site. We happily do that on the Thursday. If you came to the show in 2012 when it rained, the car park was an absolute quagmire. What would we have done with the cars on the second day? One day works really well for us and we are happy with it,” Sam explained.
So what does any first-time attendee coming from Shaftesbury need to know about the Gillingham and Shaftesbury show arrangements on the day? “It’s easy to get to. We have got a free car park. There are buses running from Shaftesbury town centre from 9am and they should run at around every 20 minutes or so through the day. You can come down when you like and go back when you like. Tickets are available from the Tourist Information Centre in Shaftesbury. If you buy them in advance, they are £13 each or £16 on the day. Children are £3 in advance or £4 on the day.”
Sam doesn’t have statistics that reveal how many thousands of pounds his show brings into the North Dorset economy. But there are many visitors who travel here just for the show. “This morning we have sold tickets to people as far away as Dursley in Gloucestershire and down on the Isle of Wight. I’m not sure what we’re doing right. I wish I knew. But there’s something that we are doing right,” Sam smiled.
You can get more show information at GillShaftShow.co.uk.