Last week I made my annual pilgrimage to the New Forest & Hampshire County Show, a three-day celebration of local and countryside related activities. I always attend on the Wednesday, which is traditionally the day that features the New Forest ponies. It’s a great opportunity for me to catch up with people, look over the ponies in the showing classes and watch the elegant turnouts in the Private Driving Classes. I generally spend the whole day at the showground, from early morning until late in the afternoon, and there still doesn’t seem to be enough time to take it all in.
Agricultural improvement and innovation
Over the years the show has grown in size and is now held for three days – Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday – in the last week of July. The show was established just after the First World War, in the early 1920’s, to highlight and nurture agricultural improvement and innovation. This philosophy continues today and the New Forest Agricultural Show Society, which is a registered charity, aims to ‘promote and encourage the development of agriculture, forestry, equestrianism and horticulture and encourage the improvement in the breeding of stock’. Originally it was a small, one-day event held at Bartley Cross. Entrance for the first show was charged at two shillings and four pence, when between 1,000 and 1,500 people attended. There was even an hour’s break in the middle of the day for people to take their lunch!
Since then many changes have occurred and, to me, it seems that the show improves with every year. Nowadays nearly 100,000 people attend the event, which was moved to its current New Park location in the mid-1950s. I spend much of my time at the show talking to the organisations that represent New Forest interests and its flora and fauna. The depth of knowledge and the dedication that is communicated by these people, the majority of whom are volunteers, always impresses me. I also catch up with many of my commoning friends, the Verderers of the New Forest and the Commoners Defence Association, as this is probably one of the only occasions to find them all in the same place at the same time.
In the days before the invention of the mobile phone and electronic mail, these events were a great opportunity for the commoners to get together, exchange information, view the livestock and organise the commercial, practical and social activities of the Forest. Such traditional practices and customs remain an integral and influential part of the New Forest today. Of course many of these traditions have very practical roots. The decision to hold the show during the mid-week dates back to the earliest one-day shows, which were always timed to be on the last Wednesday in July. Why? Because Wednesdays were always ‘early closing’ days and organisers could then expect greater local attendance!