England: Jolly good show for country set

By Pamela Wade

Get out the tweeds and Wellingtons and join Pamela Wade at Blenheim Palace.

The Game Fair wouldn't be complete without hounds. Photo / Supplied
The Game Fair wouldn't be complete without hounds. Photo / Supplied

I'm surrounded by men in camouflage gear, carrying guns. Others have big dogs straining at the leash. And then there are the blokes with fishing rods.

It's high summer in England's Cotswolds, and from every direction people are pouring into the grounds of Blenheim Palace, that sumptuous stately home just outside Woodstock, for the annual Game Fair. This has nothing to do with balls, dice or videos and everything to do with country sports: it's the go-to event for the huntin', shootin', fishin' crowd.

It's also a prime opportunity for the observation of a side of English life that's rarely seen by tourists, where the Hooray Henries parade in their favourite tweeds and Barbour jackets, and their female equivalents disport themselves in - well, tweeds and Barbour jackets.

A uniform is a uniform, after all, and the properly turned-out participant in country sports, as well as those who merely watch, has a strictly-observed choice of clothes, from head (flat cap or trilby, brown, quail feather optional) to foot (green Hunter-made Wellingtons or knee-length leather riding boots).

Thick tweed and oilskin coats are de rigueur.

An essential part of the outfit is a dog - but Chihuahuas need not apply. The only acceptable breeds are working dogs; or, more accurately, "working" dogs, as few of the Labradors, spaniels, pointers or terriers happily sniffing each other as their owners look the other way would ever have seen so much as a dead pigeon, let alone a specially bred and raised, shotgun-blasted pheasant. It's hard not to think that there are bonus points awarded for the more unusual breeds, such as Portuguese water dogs and Tibetan mastiffs - and I definitely give extra credit to the man with an eager Irish wolfhound in each hand towing him through the crowds, as it's clearly impossible for him to have a drink.

Drink, and food, are an important part of the Game Fair experience, and lines of caravans and marquees offer everything from cider and hot pork rolls complete with crackling to champagne and seafood; and there are tent versions of the Great British Pub.

Possibly even more popular, though, is the shopping, not only for the latest development in fishing rod or gun rack, but also for clothes - tweed and Wellington boots featuring strongly, naturally, but also more frivolous items - and accessories, gardening equipment, art and crafts. The latter is designed to appeal to country types, and includes life-size horses beautifully made from driftwood or horseshoes, paintings of rural scenes, hand-carved foxes.

None of these things are cheap: it's flatteringly, though wrongly, assumed that the clientele are out for the day from their estates. In fact, country pursuits are as avidly followed by shift-workers and office staff as by the landed gentry, and they are all cheerfully rubbing elbows around the grounds at the various demonstrations and competitions. At the fly-fishing challenge it's a woman who's leading the field; tucked away to the side is an archery demonstration, with model deer in various poses passively awaiting the arrow, although it's the rearing bear that has so far attracted most attention, and is now looking more like a hedgehog.

Away beyond the trees it sounds like the Somme as the clay target shooters shatter the (eco-friendly) discs whizzing through the air. There's a man flying a hawk under the beady gaze of a range of tethered owls and eagles; and in a large tent are rather more sharp-toothed ferrets than I would normally choose to approach. This is definitely the preserve of the oh-arr punters - no country squires appear to be involved in the gripping sport of ferret-racing.

Of course, there are horses demonstrating Western riding and other more esoteric equestrian apps, but there's no competition here: it's all about showing off, piquing interest, encouraging participation.

Quite where the camels I pass fit into the scheme I never discover; but the enthusiastic lady from the National Hedge-Laying Society is keen to educate me in the finer points of the art, and the Countryside Alliance man in checked shirt and brogues would love to have my support. There's a brass band marching, and a pack of foxhounds waiting to parade in the main arena with the red-jacketed huntsman and whippers-in on horseback.

I can hear the grind of Land Rovers on the 4x4 track, excitement bubbling up from the Gundog Scurry, Scramble and Pick Up, and far less barking overall than I would have expected.

But it's the Game Fair: everyone here knows how to behave, whether they have two legs or four. And - who knows? - anyone who doesn't might get shot.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific operates two flights a day from Auckland to London, via Hong Kong. Trains run regularly from London Paddington to Oxford and London Marylebone to Bicester and Birmingham.

Further information: Next year's Game Fair runs from 19-21 July at Ragley Hall, Warwickshire.

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