Norfolk Show preview: We meet two of the event’s stalwarts

Three weeks ahead of the UK's biggest two-day agricultural show, and the energy is palpable in a monochrome room at the back of the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association offices.

Two excited staffers are gearing up for the annual showpiece, the Royal Norfolk Show, their almost youthful enthusiasm charging the atmosphere.

'Almost' youthful because these two are actually Costessey showground stalwarts, with some 30 years' experience between them and an enviable track record of success.

Sadly, both are retiring this year.

Sarah de Chair, show manager, and John Purling, chief executive of the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association, have decided the time is right (in a non-political, instead true, way) to spend more time with their families.

Both are happily married grandparents with a love of gardening; both are also powerhouses of energy, so does boredom beckon?

'I'm going to take a six-month sabbatical to see how long it takes me to get bored,' says Sarah. 'Hopefully, a long time because I'm going to be able to do things that work wouldn't let me, like the Chelsea Flower Show and Glyndebourne. Also my husband works from home (Wood Dalling), so I've just built a new 'shed' in the garden, which I'm also redesigning.

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'Plus I have four grandchildren – two local and two further away – so I really want to see more of them.'

John, who lives at Witton near Plumstead, is looking forward to becoming a 'house husband', although his definition of the role appears to include a large element of golfing. 'I'd also like to get to know Norwich better,' he adds, 'and to enjoy our six grand-children while I'm still fit and healthy.' A former animal feed sales manager, John arrived at the RNAA in 1994 via the West Country and Papua New Guinea. Sarah had worked in outdoor event management all over the country before in 2000 landing the Norfolk job, a perfect fit for her.

'I've been coming to the Royal Norfolk Show since I was a child, so I'd seen it from the other side of the fence as well.'

Both, in their separate roles, arrived to find the shop window event, the Royal Norfolk Show, in good heart. But neither believed that could continue without enlightened management.

'So often you hear the phrase 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it',' says Sarah. 'I felt that the show wasn't progressing and that we were in danger of losing our farming members.'

John adds: 'What the RNAA (which runs the show) had was one of Norfolk's best kept secrets. Now we get out and share the secret, talking about what we do.

'Norfolk is one of the biggest agricultural counties, the show is the biggest two-day farming event in the UK and it's the biggest consumer event of its kind in East Anglia. So word is getting out!'

Apart from the show and the perennial championing of Norfolk agriculture, the association is also prominent in key county events such as the EDP Norfolk Food Awards and the RNAA new business award with a cash prize to invest in the winning enterprise.

In addition, John is involved in the many trade shows and other events on the showground, while Sarah is in charge of the annual Spring Fling, aimed at educating children about agriculture.

Meanwhile, successive visitor polls put livestock top of the list of show attractions and John and Sarah are united in the need to keep farmers entering their animals in the many species and breed contests.

'People love to see the animals,' says Sarah. 'But in 2001, after the last foot and mouth outbreak, people thought we would never get the numbers back.

'Happily, I can tell you that this year we have record entries of cattle, sheep and horses.'

At the same time, 30pc of visitors are now directly connected with agriculture compared with 70pc 30 years ago. 'That's why we've had to change things,' says John. 'But what we've done is simply acknowledge that, apart from the farming, people also want to network, enjoy the entertainment in the grand ring and see old friends. We want to see happy faces at the end of each day.'

But, just like swans, a lot of paddling has to be done below an apparently serene surface to achieve those smiles. And both Sarah and John have tales of near-misses…

'One of my worst memories,' says Sarah, 'is being approached in my first year by a standholder demanding to know where his marquee was – on the eve of the show. In fact, they hadn't ordered one, but we managed to get one in place and on time.'

John, meanwhile, was left frustrated by the weather. 'It was 1997 and I can remember standing by the grand ring, watching it being ruined by some performing JCB diggers followed by the King's Troop of horsemen,' he recalls. 'We got it back in time, but it was nasty viewing.'

On a more positive note, both retirees can look back with pride on a legacy of capital projects and capital days out for the benefit of many thousands of Norfolk people.

Oh, and 10 grandchildren can look forward to being thoroughly spoiled!