John Craven’s Last Word – On the end of an era, getting back on your bike and the darker side of rural life

Countryfile presenter John Craven gives his own take on the rural events of the last month

Gloucestershire floods

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The show must go on?
So, after 160 years, the Royal Show will face the final curtain next month. I’ve been going there, on and off, for many years and I must admit that in recent times it’s been a case of more off than on. The show, once one of the world’s greatest agricultural events, seemed to have lost its pulling power.
 “It isn’t what it used to be,” were the words I heard on many lips around Stoneleigh Park in Warwickshire during my last visit. Blame for its demise has been put on everything from bad weather to animal diseases.
Traditionally, the Royal was the pre-eminent gathering for farmers, focussing on pedigree livestock – the very best that British breeders could display. Maybe it became too big, too diverse or strayed too far from its roots. Certainly, competition from other country spectaculars like the Game Fair didn’t help.
In future, the Royal Agricultural Society of England will be going back to basics with shows that “extract the best and most appropriate elements of the Royal”. So, with the demise of Britain’s most famous show, does the future look gloomy for all the rest? “Certainly not,” says Dr Jane Guise, chief executive of another big hitter, the Royal Bath & West Show. She tells
me: “I was disappointed by the negative comments about summer shows that followed the sad announcement from the Royal. We are doing just fine.”
Her confidence is reflected in the £120m regeneration scheme recently announced at its Somerset showground that will make it, among other things, the first in the UK to be self-sufficient in energy. Other big shows say they are buoyant despite the recession and smaller, one-day events should survive because their infrastructure costs are so much lower. But a big slice of our agricultural history comes to an end on 7-10 July at Stoneleigh Park. Let’s hope the sun shines and crowds turn up in record numbers to give it a right royal send-off.

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On your bike
In my early teens I had a Saturday job as a butcher’s boy delivering orders to the good folk of Headingley, Leeds, on a bike (the rival butcher was the author Alan Bennett’s father, though I don’t think Alan did any deliveries!).
It was a heavy black bike with no gears and a huge basket loaded with everything from Sunday roasts to sausages. I did as much pushing as pedalling up the local hills. Looking back it couldn’t have been more environmentally friendly – not that we had such concerns in those days!
But it’s good to see bike deliveries making a comeback and being hailed as an eco solution. Waitrose wants to boost online sales without adding to its number of vans, so as an experiment the company is biking groceries to customers within 15 miles of their store in Poole, Dorset. Instead of heavy baskets, the bikes now tow trailers carrying chilled containers and they even have electric motors so there’s no problem with hills. That’s progress!

The darker side of the rural idyll
Jamie Oliver can rustle up a decent meal but his recent campaign on behalf of the pig industry seems to have had an unexpected side effect – a boom in the more sinister type of rustling. Jamie’s revelations led to a surge in demand for high-welfare British pork, resulting in shortage and a 50 percent price rise. Cue the rustlers. Around 500 piglets worth £20,000 were snatched from a Midlands farm in a well-organised raid; other cases have been reported and I’m sure there’ll be more – and not just pigs.
Sadly, this type of crime thrives in times like these, when livestock prices are high and money is short. I know a Cumbrian sheep farmer who lives in fear of rustlers. He’s been a victim several times; he tells me he knows who they are but dare not name them because he lives alone in a remote valley and knows there would be reprisals. It is a murky aspect of rural life.

                                                                            Leisurely lunch

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On a Countryfile shoot, we rarely get time for a proper lunch, but recently I was filming with some French research scientists so we had to write off a couple of hours. I asked them whether restaurants and cafés in France were suffering during the recession. “Never,” was the firm reply. “It may be forcing us to lose our love affair with the car, but nothing will ever end our love affair with food – lunch is a most important part of the day.”
The next day, as I was grabbing a quick sandwich, I thought that the French often have the right priorities. Incidentally, one of the scientists was named Bonmatin. I felt rather strange saying: “Good morning, Dr Goodmorning!”

THIS ARTICLE WAS TAKEN FROM ISSUE 22 OF COUNTRYFILE MAGAZINE. TO NEVER MISS A COPY, SUBSCRIBE NOW!


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