Farming Insight: The day I cancelled the Suffolk Show, by David Nunn

This year’s Suffolk Show was one of two halves. Day one was a shining success. On day two, gale force winds forced the Show’s closure for the first time in its 181 year history. Here, Honorary Show Director David Nunn relives the nightmare day when he had to decide the Show could not go on.

2012 was going to be our greatest ever Show.

With the buzz of other national events happening this year, The Olympics and the Jubilee celebrations, there was definitely something in the air which was reflected in the Show’s content. There’s always an excitement on the first morning of the Show and this year was no exception.

I arrived on site at 5am on Thursday June 7 and watched everything unfold as it should. I feel my work is done by the start of day one and look forward to enjoying the whole event. All the plans and preparation now come to fruition and it is a wonderful feeling as Show Director to see everything slot into place and our tradestands and visitors looking happy and enjoying the event that has been a year in the making. And they definitely were that morning.

At 2pm the rain started. Most of the voluntary body of 350 stewards are farmers or work in an outdoors capacity in some way so a bit of rain doesn’t bother us. But slowly we started to encounter unusual situations. I could hear conversations between the senior stewards on the hand held radios which concerned me. Suddenly I realised that both I and the site had become incredibly busy and found myself involved with these problems and realised our plans for dealing with unusual weather conditions were now being put into action. I noticed the Trinity Park estate staff had swapped their suits for “work clothes” getting to grips with the adversities they had noticed; everyone was busy and not relaxing in their roles as usual.

At 4.30pm an email arrived from Suffolk Coastal District Council to the chief executive Christopher Bushby advising of a weather warning. Within half an hour I called together the senior steward for tradestands, Bill Baker, and Health and Safety, Mike Warner, to discuss the weather and our plans. At that stage we agreed to communicate the weather warning to all tradestand holders. Stewards visited every stand and advised them to batten down the hatches as there was the possibility of strong winds the next day and ensured that everything on site was secure.

That night I didn’t sleep at all well. I was concerned things had not gone as they should that day and my mind was filled with all that could potentially go wrong.

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Next morning when I arrived on site at 5am the winds were far stronger than the night before. The impact of the wind became clear when I turned on the radio and heard stewards were struggling with the strong winds. Contractors had been called in to place extra fixings in the main marquees and by 6.30am we were satisfied that the showground was safe. In the next half hour the picture was to entirely change.

At 7am Bill, Mike, Chris and I met to discuss a Met Office forecast which had just arrived from Wattisham air base. The information was chilling, advising that the current wind speeds would double quickly with a potential for gale force 9 by 11am right across the showground.

We knew then that we had to make a decision before 40,000 people came onto the site when the gates opened at 7.30am. It was a hard one to take, but to my mind the safety of people coming into the show ground was the critical issue. The Show could not go-ahead.

We would never, ever have forgiven ourselves if being in possession of that knowledge, we allowed people on site and a child was killed by a falling gazebo or flag pole. It is not what I wanted to do but we had to do it. Suddenly my role had changed.

What happened next in those sad moments was living witness of why the Suffolk Agricultural Association is such a fantastic organisation. With the same passion that the stewards do anything for the Show they swung into action. We had to get the message out immediately. All senior stewards were briefed and responsible for their own areas – gates, livestock, tradestands, catering, press. Our senior press steward contacted BBC Radio Suffolk and very soon the message had permeated the airwaves both locally and nationally. The police erected ‘Show Cancelled’ road signs, vehicles with loud hailers communicated the message on site and mine was the difficult task of telling the staff in the office, who had worked tirelessly for the last year, putting in long, long days to ensure the high standard and smooth running of the show. This was probably the worst moment for me. I didn’t want to let them down. We all work together as a family, fully committed, dedicated; it is so much more than just a job to us all.

But they were marvellous, dealing with inquiries from the public, posting notices on Facebook and Tweeting to get the message out. By mid-afternoon the ticket refund policy, which had never before been tested, was in place. Everyone pulled out all the stops and our previously unused cancellation policy hidden among the pages of the Stewards’ Notes was in action.

As the enormity of the cancellation began to sink in, it was apparent the entire site needed to be closed down and all vehicles moved away to protect individuals on site.

Suddenly I became the focus of national press briefings which we held at the gate. I remember as Mark Murphy from BBC radio Suffolk came towards me questioning the decision to cancel, a gazebo literally took off and landed on another marquee. I didn’t need to answer…Subsequent media coverage concurred it was the only decision.

It was only when I arrived home and sat on the sofa with a cup of tea, Henry our terrier for company, to be interviewed on air by Foz (Radio Suffolk presenter Stephen Foster) that suddenly all the emotion and the enormity of the whole day hit me. All those people who had bought tickets, prepared animals, driven miles to show, worked all year to prepare products to sell, the loss to their businesses kept passing through my mind. But it was the moment the Met Office email arrived that I knew. I have gone through it all in my head so many times. As a Show committee we always agreed, only the wind would prevent us putting on the Show. We can cope with rain, most of us farmers are adapting daily to cope with whatever elements come our way, but the wind brings different dangers.

In the subsequent hours, days and weeks, people have confirmed to me that I made the right decision to close the Show on the grounds of safety to human and animal life. As an association we have had so much support from tradestand holders and sponsors as well as livestock and equine exhibitors who agreed that we had made the correct decision. Many kindly also remarked that they had had a wonderful first day. Subsequently many have refused the association’s offer of a 30 per cent refund, which is very humbling, but also shows us how much they appreciate that we go the extra mile.

Facing a �1/2million loss, we decided that financially, mentally, physically and emotionally we must draw a line under this year and get planning to make 2013 even better. May 29 and 30 will be the last of my three years as Show director and I for one am determined it will be fantastic.