Royal Norfolk Show chairman Sir Nicholas Bacon looks back on 40 years of tradition and evolution
A familiar figurehead of the Royal Norfolk Show is stepping down after more than 40 years’ involvement with the event. Here, Sir Nicholas Bacon looks back on his show memories and explains how it has evolved under his stewardship.
In a rapidly changing world, the Royal Norfolk Show remains a constant in the county’s summer calendar – and Sir Nicholas Bacon has been at the heart of it for more than 40 years.
But as he prepares to step down from an influential role, he says the event must continue to find a balance between evolving to meet the needs of its visitors, and retaining its traditional agricultural appeal.
Sir Nicholas, chairman of show organisers the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association (RNAA), will pass on the baton to Norfolk farm entrepreneur and former investment banker Rob Alston at the group’s AGM next week.
It will end his 11-year tenure as chairman, which followed 30 years as a show steward – so he said this summer’s event will be the first in more than 40 years where he won’t be wearing the distinctive RNAA bowler hat.
When asked about how the show had changed during that time, he said: “Fundamentally it is exactly the same. That may be its strength, or it may be its weakness.
“The strength is that people know what they are going to get. They know what is going to be there for their entertainment, they know what the standard of trade strands is going to be, and I’ve always maintained that fundamentally if people don’t do business there the show is bound to fail.
“If that raison d’être disappears, it won’t work. For example, Aston Martin were there for two years. The first year they didn’t sell a car, but they sold one after the show. They came back the following year and didn’t sell a car, so they didn’t come back again. So the business side is very important.
“We don’t believe in revolution, we believe in evolution. But one has got to make it sufficiently different for people to want to come again, and that is what we have been trying to do.
“For example, we have tried to have an evening’s entertainment on the Wednesday night, to make people stay longer, and so that you have a ticket you can get to come after work until 10pm. With that sort of thing we can try and encourage a different type of person.
“The big change we have seen is social media and the internet and the way people operate today. As I put it, it is the virtual, rather than the real.
“We have got to somehow convince people that the real is far more interesting than the virtual. And whether it is in agriculture or horticulture, people have got to get their hands dirty again, because we have lost that connection with nature and we need to reconnect, and coming to the show we are trying to help that re-connection.
“We had 8,000 kids there last year from schools and that was all part of the whole charitable purpose of the show in order to reconnect.”
Despite its necessary evolution, Sir Nicholas said the show must never ignore its central purpose of showcasing Norfolk’s agriculture and its produce.
“The moment you change that, you are competing in the world of upmarket car boot sales, and is that really what Norfolk wants?” he said.
“If you take out agriculture and all the agricultural trade stands, you just become a glorified fete. At the Royal Norfolk Show everyone knows it is an agricultural show, so you know what to expect and hopefully every now and again there is a surprise when you get there. That is what we try to do.”
Sir Nicholas, who lives on the Raveningham Estate in South Norfolk, said his favourite show memories include appearances from the Household Cavalry and the final performance of the HMS Ganges naval training college in the 1990s, along with the many Royal visits the show has attracted over the years.
“Because we are a Royal county we’ve been very fortunate with the number of members of the Royal family who have come and taken a big interest, because fundamentally they are country people and therefore they are able to converse with farmers exceedingly easily,” he said.
In recent years, he has also led a drive to appoint show presidents from a wider pool of age groups and occupations, including TV Presenter Jake Humphrey, UEA vice chancellor Prof David Richardson and Dean of Norwich the Very Rev Jane Hedges.
And he said one of the key successes of the RNAA during his chairmanship has been the development of the showground arena, the “trading arm” which has boosted the year-round events programme and supports the finances of the show, and its charitable goals.
But despite his experience, he said he is happy to stand aside for his successor.
“I think that when you have done something for 11 years and you leave, you have to leave,” he said. “You mustn’t stand over your successor and say: ‘I wouldn’t have done it this way’. I think that is absolutely fatal. You support and constructively make comments, but once you leave something you cannot go back.”