The Game Fair – the largest, tweediest, doggiest, most immersive, comprehensive and joyous countryside festival in the world. This year it will be held at Ragley Hall in Warwickshire from Friday 29 to Sunday 31 July. If you have never been before, the three-day event is a British institution and a must-attend diary fixture that brings together not only rural folk but the town too. Dubbed ‘Glastonbury for the green welly brigade’ it provides a unique insight into country life.
First held in 1958, the annual event is not tied to just one location – it has been hosted at 28 different country estates over the years in all four corners of Britain, from Hampshire to County Durham and Powys to Dumfriesshire. No other game fair has been running as long as The Game Fair and none are as large – it spans 450 acres and regularly attracts 120,000 visitors as well as 1,000 exhibitors. The Game Fair is the big one. It is the ultimate meeting of the clans as people travel the length and breadth of Britain for an old fashioned face-to-face get together.
The format has not changed or evolved too much in 64 years. When HM The Queen visited in 1974 with her young family, they were photographed taking part in activities that are still at the core of the event today. The backbone of the jam-packed itinerary is made up of gundog displays, falconry demonstrations, fly tying and casting competitions and clay shooting challenges. The much-loved event is a one-stop-shop for fieldsports, both for seasoned pros wanting to chew the cud with colleagues and rookies looking to have-a-go for the first time. Everyone is welcome. For those grown-up kids that have saved up their disposable income for a show-only bargain, the place is like a candy store selling exclusively discounted fishing rods, shotguns and paraphernalia.
Once known as ‘The CLA Game Fair’ when it was organised by the Country Landowners’ Association, the event’s future was brought into sharp focus in 2015 when the membership organisation announced it was pulling the plug because of financial losses. This was like a shot through the heart for those who had grown up with it. A summer without it would be like a winter without Christmas. Luckily National Game Fair Ltd (a Stable Events company) took on ownership and have injected renewed passion and ideas to make its modern incarnation much more inclusive, whilst still catering for the monied ‘red trouser brigade’.
There is something so wholesome about spending a weekend slowly meandering along Gunmakers’ Row and the Fishing Village diving in-and-out of stands that catch your eye and speaking to everyone from small-scale leather workers and artisan gunmakers to upmarket well-known country outfitters and tailors from St James in London. Be warned though, stand holder hospitality is legendary. The inevitable invitation to come ‘out back’ for refreshments can range from a rejuvenating morning coffee to a ruinous it-is-after-noon-so-why-not something stronger. This carnival attitude often continues late into the evening with pop-up BBQs and parties happening all over site. For this reason, we advise camping otherwise FOMO will rear its head.
To those looking in, it might all seem a little eccentric. The people watching is unrivalled. You’ll spot all walks of life. For many, The Game Fair is seen as a catwalk, a place for peacocking. In fact, everyone makes an effort when it comes to turn out and every type of visitor has a ubiquitous uniform. The on-trend female agri-students will don a very specific look involving drainpipe white jeans, fur-trimmed tweed cape, long suede boots with tassels, topped off with a felt fedora featuring a striking gamebird feather pin. Older generations of farmers, landed gentry and fieldsports-friendly politicians normally opt for exotically-coloured trousers, silk tie with flying game bird motif, tattersall shirt, tweed flat cap and sports jacket. Almost everyone will wear a Schöffel fleece gilet. Then there’s the gamekeepers and ghillies who tend to wear head-to-toe matching estate tweeds or camo. They are easy to spot as even on a stiflingly hot summer’s day they will remain buttoned up. Bone fide country folk may also have their dog(s) with them – which can only be one of two things – a gundog on a slip lead or a terrier on a lead rope. Any other type of dog or lead just does not count.
The outdoor event is always at the mercy of the weather with July often attracting swelteringly high temperatures, violent thunderstorms and/or flash flooding. Remarkably it has been cancelled just twice due to adverse weather – with extreme rainfall in 2007 and 2012. The organisers’ diehard show-must-go-on attitude has prevented any others, bar Covid of course. The old days of mud soup car parks that stranded hundreds of vehicles trying to exit have been replaced by infrastructure investment meaning miles of permanent tarmacked road plus extra temporary trackway so visitors can now leave the site without the aid of a tractor.
More and more well-known celebrities are publicly putting their names to the event. Whereas once-upon-a-time they shied away from anything to do with divisive fieldsports, they now seem proud to stick their heads above the parapet. The TV chef James Martin is once again the face of the on-site restaurant, boyband-star-turned-farmer JB Gill is hosting venison cooking demos and Amanda Owen aka The Yorkshire Shepherdess is appearing throughout the event. Plus heavyweight cabinet politicians are regularly enlisted to speak in the chat show style theatre. As more and more enlightened Brits turn their backs on intensively-farmed meat in favour of ethically hunted, sustainably-sourced wild game meat alternatives, The Game Fair sees visitor numbers continue to soar year-on-year.
The Game Fair has a very clear identity and mission. It is a showcase of fieldsports and country life, designed to educate those that are curious in an open and accessible way. It also provides an opportunity for networking and socialising for those that have already made this lifestyle theirs. Once considered elitist and controversial, The Game Fair has helped make rural pursuits more mainstream. Nothing quite compares to this event. Somehow it survived the pandemic and is still alive and kicking. More than ever it has a carnival feel where everyone is in a relaxed, holiday mood. The vibe is always happy. The Game Fair is a national treasure which everyone should attend at least once.
Advance tickets for one day cost £29 for an adult and £10 for a child (aged 8 to 16). Family tickets are available. On the gate, adult tickets cost £35 and child tickets £10 for one day. Accompanied children aged 8 and under are free. All members of the British Association for Shooting & Conservation are entitled to complimentary entry for all days of the event.