The outgoing secretary of the Gillingham and Shaftesbury Show estimates that Wednesday’s wet weather reduced attendance figures. Alfred attended and spoke with stallholders, who still seemed happy with their level of trade.
Show Secretary Sam Braddick has overseen 24 shows. Standing outside his ‘nerve centre’ portakabin in the rain on Wednesday lunchtime, his prediction for overall numbers seemed as gloomy and the grey skies above the showground.
“It’s about half the usual attendance,” said Sam. “It’s the ice-cream man I feel sorry for because he is not doing too well,” said Sam, although I did find show-goers who refused to let the cloud bursts spoil their enjoyment of a cornet.
And there was a silver lining for some. “The bar is doing alright, because it’s in a tent and they’re all going in,” Sam smiled as he viewed the rain philosophically. “We’ve had five very good years. We’ve got to expect a wet day eventually, so here it is. The families can’t go to the beach today, but we won’t get the grand total.” He estimated attendance as half that of 2018.
Fast forward to Friday. Speaking from his dry office, Sam’s prediction was sunnier. His count wasn’t complete, but he estimates 20,000 attendees, down 5,000 from 2018.
On Wednesday, Emma Trueman and the BV Dairy team were busy at the show. “We’re trying to demonstrate how we use quality Dorset milk to make our products,” she said. Her team was encouraging show-goers to taste kefir. A tray of small plastic shot glass samples filled with the drink was laid out.
“We contract manufacturer for a company called Bio-tiful Dairy and they’ve allowed us to showcase their products. People get an opportunity to taste before they buy it in shops. It’s like drinking yoghurt, a cultured milk drink,” said Emma.
Viewers of ‘Dragons’ Den’ might remember Bio-tiful pitching for cash in 2016. “It uses cultures dating back thousands of years. It has a lot of very healthy qualities, good gut bacteria and helps promote the immune system. It’s high in protein too,” she added. Kefir is trendy. “We’ve had it here for the last three years and this year people are recognising it more.”
The show provides a showcase for one of Shaftesbury’s biggest employers. “It does raise the profile of BV Dairy. Twice today, people have asked me where we are. We are tucked out of the way in Wincombe Lane and not everybody knows.”
This one-day event retains a strong agricultural focus, evident from the show rings and livestock in various tents, such as the poultry marquee. There is a strong commercial focus, too. Deals went on, despite the downpours, and many businesses enjoyed a brisk trade. Top marks went to Timber Windows’ innovative pitch to passers-by. “Free door with every handle,” shouted their salesperson to encourage attention.
Dog-related stands occupied more of the showground this year. New Forest-based Sarah Morris was there with her BlackDog DNA business. “It is the Jeremy Kyle Show for dogs,” she smiled. “I was training to be a dog behaviourist, but I’m also a retired police officer and I did DNA forensics at crime scenes. It was logical to me to put the two together. If you’ve got a mixed breed dog, you don’t know what it is. Do a DNA test and you’ll find out which breeds are in the mix. Then you can tailor training. If you’ve got beagle or border collie, your mixed breed dog will have different needs,” explained Sarah.
Sarah’s business seems unique. “I did research online and found that one of the big veterinary companies in America had mapped the genome of all the registered breeds. It came as a by-line from research into inherited diseases. They ended up with a big database of all pedigrees that could determine breed as well as to see whether they had an inherited illness.”
Sarah was selling her DNA kits at the show. “It’s a little cheek swab test kit, the one that police use when you get arrested, although your dog doesn’t come back with a conviction for burglary! It says which breed and in what proportion. Sometimes a dog has not been well bred and you find out it is a pure breed. Whatever is in the dog will come back,” said Sarah.
Some of the showground was covered by conservation group stands. Dorset Wildlife Trust was keen to encourage people to grow plants rich in pollen. “We’re concerned good pollinators have declined. We’re trying to get people to help those insects by getting ‘Dorset Buzzing Again’,” said Living Landscapes Manager, Nicki Brunt. “It’s not just bees. Moths and beetle are just as important,” she added.
Nicki has noted that Shaftesbury has played its part with bee-friendly planting. “Some communities are switched on. Shaftesbury is one of them. You can do a great deal within gardens to plant things that the bees will love – put seeds down, make it a little bit more natural. Plant poppies, corn marigolds and phacelia.”
Nicki is keen to encourage online support through the Trust website. “People can just give us their email address and then we give them a monthly email with tips on what to do in their gardens,” said Nicci.
As part of the show’s education remit, there was an extended tent space explaining where food and farm produce comes from. Shaftesbury’s Town Clerk, Claire Commons, was sitting in a corner next to a spinning wheel encouraging youngsters to have a go at this ancient craft.
“I’m teaching people to spin,” said Claire. “This one is a Jacobs wool. It’s already been washed and carded. I’m teasing it out, ready for children to learn how to spin. They get to take the piece home. Jacobs is a traditional breed. It’s nice and soft and grippy so it’s an easy one for working with,” said Claire.
She learned how to spin at an early age. “I abandoned it when I was ten and picked it up again about five years ago. It’s a de-stressor. The rhythm of the wheel just takes you away, a bit like music but quiet.”
Another important aspect of the show is exposure for community groups. Kipling Carnival Club members Steve and Matt Appleby were taxiing people around the soggy showground in electric buggies. “It was pretty dire when we got here. You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face for the rain,” said Carnival stalwart Jenny Merefield. “We’ve got people coming to our tent for food and we’ve been very busy. They’re trying to get warm because it’s quite chilly.”
Jenny was hoping to raise £500 through sales of refreshments. “This is an important fundraiser, not only for the Kipling Carnival Club but for the First Shaftesbury Scout Group. We litter pick. We’ve got explorers putting out tables. We do a tombola and quiz, but numbers will be down. But we’re here and what we get today we didn’t have yesterday,” said Jenny.
It was sad that Show Secretary Sam’s final show wasn’t blessed with sunshine, but the committee will find a project to ensure his participation. I asked whether they had identified his future role. “The toilets,” he laughed.
As retirement beckons, Sam is looking forward to more time in bed. “It’s not a lie-in. It’s ‘when am I going to get a good night’s sleep?’ Three times I got out of bed last night (the night before the show) to write things down,” he said.
Even after 24 years in the job, Sam wakes up sporadically the night before the show. “With the weather forecast, I thought ‘have we got that plastic road out in case we need it? Should I make sure we’ve got tractor-driven brushes to clean roads’. It’s automatic, but not after five dry shows. On Sunday morning, I woke at four o’clock and I could hear the wind buffeting my house. I was thinking about those tents. I was up here at a quarter past five on Sunday morning. There were two crews making sure tents were secure. One team of two men worked 36 hours continuously to make sure the tent remained up and serviceable. I was driving to the showground thinking ‘how many tents can we manage without?’ In my mind, they were all blown down, but with the wonderful service they all remained up,” said Sam.
Who knows what weather the 2020 show will see. But as demonstrated this week, with wellies, lollies and determination to have a good time, not even Dorset summer rain will dampen enthusiasm for this annual institution. And long may it continue.