This past July I traveled to England to attend The Game Fair, an annual celebration of country sports that has been taking place for more than 60 years. If you are unfamiliar with the event, I thought that I would relate my experiences in order to whet your appetite to possibly attend next year.
The night before The Game Fair we stayed at The Alcester Inn, in the quaint village of Alcester, about 20 minutes south of Birmingham. The next morning we got an early start, feeling the buzz of anticipation as we drove to Ragley Hall, the stately home in Warwickshire where the Fair was taking place. Even though we arrived early, there were already several hundred cars parked and a crowd marching off to get event tickets and brochures. We soon joined the procession and enjoyed an unobstructed view of the magnificent manor house almost to the entry gates.
Upon passing through the gates, we spotted the venues for some of the events, such as the pond where the fly-casting challenges would take place, the arena where the horses and hounds would gather for the equine events and the fenced field that was reserved for the gundog trials.
As we proceeded, we reflected on the history of the extraordinary event. The inaugural Game Fair took place in 1958, with 8,500 people attending in Stetchworth, Cambridgeshire, and only 30 stands on Gunmakers Row. By July 2019 The Game Fair had grown to be one of the largest outdoor events in the UK. Because of Covid lockdowns, the 2020 Game Fair was canceled and the 2021 event was scaled back; however, the pent-up demand was such that this year’s Fair attracted more than 120,000 visitors during each of its three days!
This past summer the “canvas city” was spread out over more than 450 acres and featured every outdoor event imaginable—from horses performing with fox hounds to shouts of “Tally ho!” to trials of working gundogs, ferret and terrier races, falconry demonstrations, fly-fishing and casting tournaments, wild-game-cooking demonstrations, archery competitions, off-road-driving experiences, and outdoor clothing and equipment displays.
Gunmakers Row has always been an iconic part of The Game Fair. Here you will find many of the world’s finest gunmakers. Traditionally located at the center of the Fair, Gunmakers Row is a mixture of the finest producers of shotguns, rifles, field clothing and shooting equipment. The shotguns on display are of a variety of types and prices, from traditional side-by-sides and over/unders to a smattering of pumps and semi-automatics.
This year we visited British makers Boss & Co., Atkin Grant & Lang (now Francis Lovel & Co.), E.J. Churchill, Charles Lancaster, Longthorne, Holland & Holland, William Powell, Westley Richards, John Rigby, Smith & Torok and T.R. White. Scottish gunmakers McKay Brown and John Dickson were in attendance as well. Also exhibiting were makers well known in the US, including AyA, Beretta, Browning, Kemen, Krieghoff and Perugini & Visini.
Of course, there will always be a rivalry among the top gunmakers, but I believe that this competitiveness has resulted in a number of improvements in metallurgy and build quality. If you want to see the best of the best, Gunmakers Row is the place to visit. But be warned: You could spend the whole day just in this stretch of aisles.
The Game Fair is widely acknowledged to be the ‘best of the best’ of country events.
The shotguns are not just for show either. Throughout the event, the distant sound of gunfire can be heard. This comes from the Shooting Line—the longest in Europe. This year’s Shooting Line, run by E.J. Churchill Gunmakers and Sporting Agency, offered the opportunity for all types of shooting—from competitions to summer shoot-outs to “Have a Go” stands that allowed beginners to learn about gun safety and handling as well as break some targets.
For more-experienced shots there were several clay presentations that imitated wingshooting experiences—both walked up and driven. One of the most popular was The Woodcock Flurry, which featured a 20-bird sequence that was both challenging and lots of fun.
The background pop-pop-pop of the Shooting Line typically continues all day, but by midmorning the events in the main arena are in full flow. This year attendees could watch everything from retrievers working to terriers racing and even gundog parades. The Home International Team Competition—in which retrievers and spaniels go head-to-head in an arena complete with cover crops, jumps and water—was won by Ireland, followed by England, Wales and Scotland. The Euro Challenge, which is a series of tests for retrievers in a simulated shooting environment, was won by Italy, followed by the UK, Netherlands and Belgium.
Part of the charm of The Game Fair is the variety of activities in easy-to-locate venues. For example, the BASC (British Association for Shooting & Conservation) Wild Food Theatre featured experts in the preparation of all types of game—and tastings were encouraged. The Falconry Village showcased the amazing hunting skills of these amazing birds and featured the largest collection of birds of prey in the UK. The Traditional Crafts Village had demonstrations of everything from blacksmithing, beekeeping and net and basket making to willow weaving and even glass blowing. The Fishing Village was one of the most popular spots for aficionados to compete in casting contests, buy new tackle and discuss their passion with various fly-fishing experts. One of the oldest weapons is the bow and arrow, and in the Field Archery area The Stratford Archers shared their skills with any and all who wanted to try this ancient sport.
The Shetland Pony Grand National was, for me, a highlight of the Fair. The very competitive Grand National riders are between 9 and 14 years old and must be less than 5 feet tall. The speed of the ponies and skill of the young “jockeys” as they race over miniature steeplechase fences are something to behold.
The Royal Family, especially Queen Elizabeth, has always had a love of outdoor pursuits and a long relationship with The Game Fair. The Queen attended the inaugural Game Fair, in 1958, and Princess Anne was an honored visitor this year on the first day.
The Game Fair would not happen without the volunteers from many outdoor associations, including the BASC, Country Landowners Association, Country Alliance, Clay Pigeon Shooting Association, Gun Trade Association, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust and The Kennel Club.
Keep in mind that my brief description cannot begin to cover the size and scope of this extraordinary outdoor sporting event. It is widely acknowledged as the “best of the best” of country events—recognized as such by the long list of exhibitors and exceptionally large number of attendees and evidenced by the atmosphere of friendship and bonhomie among those who travel from so many countries to participate. This is a spectacle that should be at the top of the bucket list for every outdoor enthusiast.
Next year’s event will again be held at Ragley Hall from July 28 to 30.