The country show’s in town

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From town to country

Cambridge is synonymous with so many wonderful events; some with rich histories such as Strawberry Fair and others more recent, such as the Thirstyfest Biergarten.  Cambridge Town and Country Show feels like it has been around for much longer than the 12 years to date such is its impact.  June 2018 marks their 12th show.  I meet with Emma and Charlie Owen, the team behind Oakleigh Fairs, to talk about their journey from the city to the country and the success and relevance of their business today.

Emma reminds me of where they started. “Back in 2005 we wanted a lifestyle change, and after lots of research we bought Oakleigh Fairs, a successful business We started with seven country shows that took place around the M25 and a few Christmas craft fairs. Scoot forward 14 years and we’ve now got close on 30 regular annual events. We’re now one of the biggest organizers of country fairs and shows through to Christmas Fairs to food festivals in the UK” says Emma.

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They saw in Oakleigh Fairs a business that had lots of potential.  Of course, there is always a risk taking on a new business. However, Charlie, with a background that takes in the Navy, Management Consultant and the legal profession and Emma, with a marketing background, meant they were confident they could make it work. Charlie reminds me of the early days. “When we started we were based in our house on Tenison Avenue in Cambridge. We booted our daughter out of her bedroom to make an office and then we would park our huge lorry on the road, much to the everyone’s horror.  It soon became obvious that we needed more space, so we left Cambridge and moved to Thriplow and carried on from there”.

Cambridge Town and Country Show born

With so many events, I’m curious to hear how Cambridge Town and Country Fair came about. “The big idea was in part down to my dad” reminisces Emma. “I was brought up in Cambridge and lived alongside Midsummer Common.  As a child there was a lovely heavy horse show that used to take place on the Common. Lots of horses and tractors.  I also remember that on Parker’s Piece there was either a Tudor or a Victorian fair at the start of the Cambridge Festival.  I think that has now evolved into the Big Weekend. Nevertheless, we’d been in business for about a year and Dad said to me and Charlie, ‘Why don’t you do one of these things in Cambridge?’.  We thought, why not?”

Charlie continued, “Ems’ dad put us in touch with Alistair Wilson, head of green spaces at Cambridge City Council.” Emma recalls, “He came from a farming background and loved our proposal.  He just said, ‘great idea; where do you want to do it?’”                        

Cambridge has lots of green spaces but managing the pressure on these is important. Midsummer Common takes quite a hit with Strawberry and Midsummer fairs so they settled on Parker’s Piece.  And, in an already busy summer schedule they had to consider the best time to introduce another major event; the weekend after Strawberry Fair was agreed upon.

Fees or free

Oakleigh Fairs’ events usually charge an entrance fee, which is easy with a gated or tented site. This was not an option on Parker’s Piece. Emma explains, “Parker’s Piece is the resident’s village green, so it had to be free.”  Charlie says, “Working without the income from the door was new territory, and risky for us.  Ground rent, advertising, marquees etc, everything comes from our pocket, whereas normally we would recoup some of that in gate money.  But because Cambridge is such an appealing and diverse city we attract lots of good stallholders to make the event a success.”

Luckily, the first Town and Country Show immediately sunk into the local mind set and was a triumph.  Emma explains, “We were new, and we had glorious weather”.  Outdoor events are very risky because so much is dependent on the weather.  Charlie carries on, “We’ve had years when our business has suffered because of poor weather, and that’s all year round.   Harsh winters, rain etc all have a negative effect.  There is a direct correlation between footfall and the weather so we’re both bonded to our weather apps.”

Town and country

Fundamental to the success of The Cambridge Town and Country Show is that it represents the country as well as the and town: “The clue’s in the name” pipes in Emma. “North Cambridge, well north of the A14, is a hugely rural community, which is slightly forgotten about as people think about the wealth that comes from technology, business and the universities, mainly located in the south.  Our show crosses that divide as our goal is to provide a great day out for everyone who comes along.”

Stalls, entertainment and shopping

Any show is only as good as the entertainment and stalls on offer, so Oakleigh put a lot of effort into finding good acts. Emma says, “The stall holders and exhibitors are the backbone of everything we do.  If they don’t think that they’ll make money, then we don’t have a show.  But our Cambridge events are popular because we have a good turnout.  Our traders know that Cambridge people like product and love shopping.”

Charlie describes the challenges they face dealing with a shrinking entertainment industry. “We’ve noticed that it is increasingly difficult to find good acts.  It’s a tough industry to make a living and finding ones that provide good value is not easy.”

Fewer competitors suggests it should be easier to get good stall holders. Emma explains, “One significant change we’ve noticed is that we now have more weekend warriors because traders have to take on full time jobs to supplement their incomes.  Cambridge fortunately attracts enough stall holders to fill three large marquees, two craft and the other food.  The marquees create a real buzz with customers and stall holders engrossed in conversation.  And they help massively given the uncertainties of British weather.”

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Backbone in tradition

The Cambridge Town and Country Show brings the steam engines and the vintage vehicles, “beautifully coordinated by a chap who is a steamer”, says Emma.  “One of my favourite things is watching the steam engines chug down Mill Road and come onto site.  The steam community is an important part of the show that always draws lots of attention.  It brings together not just the bloke in blue overall but the children, mum and granny, who might well be driving the huge great engine.  They are all eager to share their skills, knowledge and experience with anybody and everybody.”

For the show to remain fresh the agenda must accommodate new exciting acts. Charlie says, “Some of the best include the bessom broom-makers, the historical re-enactors and pole lathing.  These people are so knowledgeable, we feel that we must take some responsibility to keep this stuff alive, to give people a taste of living history.  So, it’s a real diverse mix that’s appeals to the enthusiastic Cambridge audience.”

Emma tells me that this year they will bring back the heavy horses and the Savage Bike Skills Team who went down a storm in the past.  Determined to keep the show varied they do something a bit different to appeal to the melting pot where everyone comes together for a good family day out.

Family entertainment & educating

To guarantee top quality entertainment Oakleigh Fairs took over running some of the displays themselves.  The business base moved to the Essex/Suffolk border, where they have the land to develop their own animal displays.  I am told by Emma, “We now have a very good selection of our own entertainment, including our own bird of prey unit.  When we display them at shows we always invite children in to fly them, but we also have a static unit, so people can come and learn and interact with them and see them up close.  Our petting corner is popular; children love to bottle feed the goats. And, they can have a run with the terriers.  The whole ethos is that visitors go home feeling like it’s their show.”

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Charlie tells me how the business is definitely a family thing, “You’ll see our two girls helping the birds of prey, or with the goats and ponies. We all love it.” I have known the Owens for over 20 years and have seen their daughters progress from assisting with the animals to even taking over some of the display commentary.  Tilly controls the birds of prey in the ring and narrates at the same time entertaining huge audience. Isabella takes on the pony display and helps with the goats.  They are both impressive.

Oakleigh Fairs go much further to take the countryside into the towns and cities and specifically to children.  This is important to Emma, “We really want to share our passion for the countryside and it’s sad to know that there are children in cities who might never have met a sheep or a goat or an owl.  So, we take our animal units into schools and other educational settings during the week.”  Charlie continues, “We’ll explain to the children how developing barns into houses takes away barn owl nesting sites, and cutting down hedges results in road deaths where the owls no longer get diverted over the tops of cars.  We want to make children think about consequence on wildlife and the environment.”

Green living 

To give back to the environment is vital to Emma and Charlie.  So, one of the things they have been able to do at home is divide some of their land and develop it into small warm paddocks which they rotate with some years fallow so they don’t overburden the worm population.   Charlies says, “We also got a grant from The Woodland Trust, so all of the hedging is made up of native plants to provide habitat for the birds and insects.”

An old jacket

As our interview ends I ask them of the many events they manage if they have a favourite.  They both agree that it’s Cambridge.  Emma says, “It feels like a homecoming.  We’re right next door to the nursery I went to, and our girls as well, and we always catch up with so many people we know.”

Charlie concludes, “Cambridge comes with specific challenges, like having to build the event while the public walk through it. But now it’s like putting on an old jacket. It’s a lovely place to hold an event. Especially when the sun shines.”

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Dawn Giesler is the founder of scuseme, a recommendation service that provides an essential and honest resource to help your family run smoothly. Dawn has lived in Cambridge for over 20 years and offers advice based on her own experiences. Contact Dawn if you want to have a question about our services or visit scuseme for more information.