Behind the scenes at the Great Yorkshire Show

It was Victorian pomp which put the ‘great’ into the Great Yorkshire Show, a decision taken just a few years after it was established in 1838.

Whether that decision was justified, or a clever marketing ploy, will doubtless remain lost in the annals of history.

Either way, it was masterstroke from those responsible, because the name stuck, and the show went on to become one of the country’s best known and most enduring events of its kind.

Those early Yorkshire Shows were set up to bring farmers and rural communities together, to both share innovations and meet socially.

Those objectives hold good today, and the show has developed into a bastion of North Yorkshire, showcasing the county, its produce, communities and characters in a unique event that is a lynchpin of the summer calendar.

A horse jumper

It is expected that 140,000 people will pass through the gates of the Harrogate showground next month, with numbers capped at 35,000 a day over the four days, a rule introduced during Covid-19 restrictions and kept because of the beneficial effect for the visitor.

The show is staged by the Yorkshire Agricultural Society (YAS), which works throughout the year for the benefit of farmers, the agricultural industry and rural communities.

While the show may be the high point of the year for the YAS, its chief executive, Allister Nixon, is clear that, without the commitment of the wider North Yorkshire community, it simply could not happen.

The society relies on a small army of volunteers, totalling around 400, who give their time to ensure the shows operate smoothly and successfully.

“Without their time and good-will, we could not put the show on,” he said.

“It is deep within the Yorkshire community to support this and make it a success. It is not just a small executive team making it happen, it demonstrates the real sense of ownership that people have for this show.

“These volunteers feel, and rightly so, that the show is theirs, as much as anyone else’s.”

Those from farming and rural communities are also heavily invested in the show, which goes far beyond the high-profile events and competitions that take place in the arena.

A sheep

The show might well provide a social break for many, in a notoriously labour-intensive sector, but it is also a forum, where those involved in the industry have the opportunity to exchange views with the likes of the Government ministers or learn more about the organisations there to support them and their communities.

Those are attributes that may go unnoticed by many visitors, amid the bustle of the arena, trade stands and other shows, but they are of enormous value to a section of society that faces its own unique combination of pressures.

“One of the society’s objectives is to support and promote agriculture,” said Allister.

“The show is a celebration, but it also promotes food, farming and rural life to the general public.”

That promotion cuts across all age groups, with the show operating a ‘discovery zone’, aimed at capturing the attention of younger visitors to fire their interest in the world of agriculture.

Such work dovetails with other activities by the YAS, aimed at promoting the prospect of careers in the sector to children and young people, so those visiting the discovery zone may well find themselves back at the showground during their education, to learn more about the opportunities which exist as they start to make career choices.

That makes the show part of a jigsaw of work by the society to help to ensure the farming industry, and its rural communities, continue to thrive.

Council leader, Cllr Carl Les, said: “The show is a highlight of Yorkshire’s events calendar, attracting visitors from across the nation and bringing together a range of people – and, of course, animals.

“It is hugely important for showcasing the farming industry and those who bask in country life. Rural communities in North Yorkshire and beyond value the event as a chance not only to show off their stock and produce, but to venture off their land and socialise. We look forward to another successful show next month.”

The stature of the show is illustrated by the breadth of those who visit to exhibit their livestock or produce.

“We have entrants from Dundee to Dorset,” said Allister.

The show now hosts the national championships for three breeds of cattle, and such is the prestige of the show that there is a waiting list for exhibitors wanting to attend.

However, the show is also organised with an eye firmly on modern society, with an innovation zone to spotlight the latest technology available in the sector, a fashion show and – as of last year – a ‘chat show’ type format, featuring celebrity guests.

The format proved so successful last year that the audience was left with standing room only for some sessions.

The Great Yorkshire Show draws farmers from across the nation, and for many is the highlight of the show circuit. For the full four days, the showground is abuzz with a mix of multi-generational farmers and aspiring first-timers.

Some of the most popular classes are livestock, which includes traditional to rare breeds, with cattle and sheep classes featuring every day.

A horse and carriage

Mike Powley is a third-generation farmer, running a beef and arable enterprise at Oak House Farm in Green Hammerton. His grandfather took over a 130-acre farm in 1932, before purchasing it soon after World War II. The farm has since expanded to 350-acres at the hands of Mike, heading the family partnership.

Their herd is pedigree South Devon crossed with a Limousin, and this year they will be calving 120 suckler cows. The farm is Asda’s training and education facility for beef in the UK.

Mike started showing at the Great Yorkshire Show for his friend, David Irvine, who travels from Dumfries in Scotland every year. In recent years, Mr Powley decided to show some of their treasured cattle with his 23-year-old daughter, Rosie.

“I have really enjoyed showing Mr Irvine’s stock over the years, so eventually I thought I would take some of my own,” said Mike.

“It’s always a great experience and something I’ve done with Rosie. Her university friends were also keen to get involved as it’s a far cry from city life.

“It’s an incredibly competitive and prestigious show, rightly known as one of the best in the country. It is rising in popularity and has had great success running over four days.

“We won reserve champion last year, so we want to repeat this achievement or even strive to do better. We look forward to the grand parade for cattle in the main ring, as it gives us an opportunity to show off our stock to a large audience.”

The farming lifestyle is synonymous with long hours and hard labour, with most days consisting of more contact with animals than humans. Mike believes the social side of the show circuit is why it attracts so many entrants.

Mike added: “Country shows allow farmers from far and wide to come together and enjoy the camaraderie of the event. For many it’s a chance to see people they haven’t seen since the previous year.

“I’m sure I speak for many farmers when I say I’m really looking forward to next month’s show!”

Christine Talbot has been involved with the show for many years, first as a presenter with ITV Yorkshire, when she would either present news live from the showground or appear on its stand to meet visitors.

A child a cow

More recently, she has presented fashion shows and last year led a new fixture, the Great Yorkshire Show stage, using a ‘chat show’ format with guests from the farming and agricultural sectors.

“I get there early, and even at that time there is such a happy atmosphere. It celebrates everything about Yorkshire, from the aspect of agriculture and farming.

“I think it is the thing which celebrates Yorkshire completely and brings Yorkshire together.

“It is like a magnet to people. It is very uplifting, a chance to get people together and to see everything that is great about Yorkshire.

“There is nothing quite like it, it is where you can really find out about the region,” she said.

Find out more about the Great Yorkshire Show.