Ahead of his last show in his role as the EDP’s Mr Farming, Michael Pollitt looks back at the Royal Norfolk Show
PUBLISHED: 16:12 19 June 2014 | UPDATED: 09:27 20 June 2014
EDP agriculture editor Michael Pollitt has been visiting shows for almost six decades up and down the country. Ahead of his last show in his role as the EDP’s Mr Farming, Michael looks back over his 30 years at the Royal Norfolk Show, now one of the most successful traditional two-day events of its kind in the country.
It was a glorious summer’s day in June 1984 when a young farming journalist, then working in Oxfordshire, made his first visit to Norfolk.
It was an opportunity for me to see the best of farming life in what was to become, by chance, my adopted county four months later.
In those days, the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association (RNAA) still adopted the time-hallowed practice of a reduced gate price on the second day. Since the show’s foundation in 1847, it had brought in larger crowds by lowering the entrance price and, over the decades, it was remarkably successful. And particularly when the same strategy was adopted to encourage children to visit.
Having paid my £2.50 entrance - saving 50p on the first day gate charge, it was time to head for the centre of the showground, then dominated by the 50ft high clock tower atop the Jack Read stand.
That concrete structure, which also served as the official Press office, had a commanding view of the two hectare grand ring. Reluctantly donated a catalogue (price £1)by a press steward, it was time to explore the livestock lines and rings and watch the inter-breed judging - still as popular today as it was back then.
While the cattle numbers have always been strong at the Royal Norfolk, the real surprise over the past 20 years has been the staggering increase in sheep numbers.
In 1984, there was a record entry of 220 - up by six on the previous year - but this week, there will be more than 750.
Thirty years ago, the native breeds dominated, with 75 Suffolks and 58 Jacobs; the continentals Charollais and Texel were in the “any other breed” sections.
Did you know?
• Michael visited his first show aged three months – the Royal Show, then taking place on the 1,000-acre Town Moor on the northern edge of Newcastle Upon Tyne in 1956.
• Michael was brought up in the Yorkshire Dales on the family’s 98-acre dairy farm in Nidderdale - next door to an unusual neighbour, the USAF spy station at Menwith Hill.
• Michael’s mother, Judith D’Arcy, was Ireland’s first full-time and female agricultural correspondent when she was appointed by the Irish Times.
• Michael started wearing his distinctive Puffa jackets (in all weathers) when a friend at the Oxfordshire factory got him one cut-price. He also insists the large pockets perfectly accommodate a reporter’s notebook...
It was costly to stage the annual event. The RNAA’s then show director Gavin Alston said an additional £100,000 had been spent in the previous year. After the deluge of the 1985 show, further major investment in more hard roads was required as well as more permanent exhibition buildings.
But agricultural shows, which have survived have always managed -often with some good luck and kind weather - to change and move with the times.
The increasing interest of consumers in food and - crucially - where it has been produced is now probably one of the biggest drivers in show fashion.
Four decades ago Europe had taken the lead in promoting food and drink. It was a feature of the biggest events including Paris and Berlin’s “green week.” While visiting the Paris spring show in the centre of the capital in 1974, it was then attracting about one million visitors - with acres and acres of exhibition halls devoted to wine, ciders and displays of cheeses.
Sadly, it was a lesson largely ignored or overlooked by the show establishment in Britain for a couple of decades. Although the Royal at Stoneleigh, Warwickshire - another on the list of the lost shows (the last one was in 2009) - did make an attempt to promote food from 1985. It was too little and too late.
There have been too many shows which were simply too stuck in the mud to change. Probably one of the biggest high-profile casualties was the end, admittedly predictably of the Royal Smithfield Show, which held sway at London’s Earls Court until 2004. Another major feature, especially of the beef sector, has been the almost total disappearance of the Christmas prime stock shows. It is worth reflecting that the Norwich Christmas Fatstock show a century ago was one of the top three in the country - after London and Birmingham.
And in the past 30 years, another major event of the December calendar has been lost with closure of markets at King’s Lynn and Bury St Edmunds among many. The key to success for the survivors, which includes one of the country’s largest one-day shows at Aylsham on August Bank Holiday, has been the ability to change - and to harness the enthusiasm of a volunteer army of stewards.
At the Royal Norfolk, a corps of about 250 bowler-hatted stewards are responsible for staging the show over the two days next week. It demonstrates the enthusiasm of all sections of the farming community from across all sectors to put on a very special event to celebrate the best of Norfolk’s food, livestock and produce.
And regular attendances across the two days into six figures bear testament to the success of the Royal Norfolk, the county’s very special annual event.
• MICHAEL POLLITT’S OUTSTANDING CONTRIBUTION TO AGRICULTURE
Michael Pollitt has been a familiar figure at the Royal Norfolk Show and around Norfolk agriculture for the last 30 years – and his influence on the sector has been far-reaching.
In 2010, his work was recognised by the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association when he received the Timothy Colman Prize for an outstanding contribution to promoting food, farming and countryside in Norfolk.
One such contribution was his organisation of the Spring Fling, an event aimed at bringing town and country together to promote better understanding of food and farming. The Fling now attracts about 5,000 children and adults to the Norfolk showground in the Easter holidays.
After barely a day off sick in the last 30 years, a three-month period of illness has taken him out of circulation just at the end of his time as the EDP’s agricultural editor.
Now on the mend, he aims to get involved in the voluntary or similar sector, which will complement his current role as secretary and treasurer of Stalham Farmers’ Club – and is very keen to report on his 30th Royal Norfolk Show.
In a special tribute, Sir Timothy Colman, former Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk and former RNAA chairman, said: “The Royal Norfolk Show will never be quite the same without the active and smiling presence of Michael Pollitt, uniformed in his famous Puffa waistcoat. He is respected and his contacts with the industry throughout East Anglia are extensive. People of all ages are indebted to him for his influence and contribution to the interests of both farming and the countryside.”