Suffolk Agricultural Association president John Wall looks back to the agony of cancelling the Suffolk Show in 2001

Suffolk Agricultural Association president John Wall at his farm in Framlingham.

Suffolk Agricultural Association president John Wall at his farm in Framlingham. - Credit: Archant

Framlingham farmer John Wall this year succeeded East Anglian Daily Times editor Terry Hunt as president of the Suffolk Agricultural Association.

Suffolk Agricultural Association president John Wall at his farm in Framlingham.

Suffolk Agricultural Association president John Wall at his farm in Framlingham. - Credit: Archant

He spoke to Sarah Chambersabout his own time as Suffolk Show director, the agony of having to cancel the event in 2001, and his many years supporting the organisation.

If you’re a Suffolk farmer, birthday presents don’t come much bigger or better than being asked to represent the organisation behind the county show.

Earlier this year, Framlingham farmer John Wall was over the moon when he was voted in as president of the Suffolk Agricultural Association on his 70th birthday, succeeding East Anglian Daily Times editor Terry Hunt. The Earl of Iveagh, who lives at the Elveden Estate in Suffolk, was named president-elect.

John, of Hill Farm, was show director when the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak caused the cancellation of the event, and was in charge for the subsequent three events - so he has certainly earned his stripes.

It was a harrowing time, he recalls, and one that lives with him.

Back in 2001, John, a tenant farmer who started out with just a small parcel of land and worked his way up from small beginnings to farm 1600 acres of combinable crops, recalled how he had to cancel the show due to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

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It was an event he describes as “the saddest day of my life in relation to the show”.

He and David Nunn, who was the show director in 2012 when the showground faced dangerously high winds, have been the only two directors to cancel the event in peacetime.

Suffolk Agricultural Association president John Wall at his farm in Framlingham.

Suffolk Agricultural Association president John Wall at his farm in Framlingham. - Credit: Archant

“David Nunn was very unfortunate through that terrible weather and cancelled that second day. People don’t realise it takes a year to plan and £1.5million to put on – it can be very character-building,” he says.

“The sole reason for cancelling the show was to protect this county from foot-and-mouth and when there was an outbreak in the Colchester area which was only 20 miles as the crow flies we had no option but to cancel.

“I do remember we had a show committee meeting in the morning and when we went into that show committee meeting, I had been brought up to speed by our senior veterinary officer. I remember it well, saying: ‘It’s just been confirmed yesterday that there has been an outbreak of foot-and-mouth just outside Colchester’ and he was advising us we should cancel the show so it reduced numbers and the spread of the disease.

“I then had to discuss that with the show committee and it was agreed unanimously we had to cancel the show. I had to tell the council meeting in the afternoon. Bear in mind some marquees had already gone up.”

He then had to face the 70-odd farmers who attended the council meeting and tell them the bad news.

“It was a bitter blow,” he admits, although there was no choice. The cost was about half a million pounds, but luckily they had very good support from their contractors who were very supportive.

“I went on holiday for two or three weeks with some friends and I rang the showground on the first morning when the show would have been and said: ‘What’s the weather like?’ and they said it was a beautiful, sunny day, which made it even worse. It was a bitter pill to swallow.”

However, he went on to direct three successful shows in subsequent years.

Suffolk Agricultural Association president John Wall at his farm in Framlingham.

Suffolk Agricultural Association president John Wall at his farm in Framlingham. - Credit: Archant

“I had six lovely show days, so maybe that was payback,” he says.

The cancellation also led to the launch of the highly successful School Farm and Country Fair and a host of improvements to the show itself.

“From that cancellation year we didn’t waste time. We moved the showground eastwards, developed the conservation area, realigned the flower show area, we put new entrances in the Bucklesham area so it allowed us to spread our wings and make it the showground we are very proud of today. Successive show directors have all put their stamp on something,” says John.

By a coincidence, the first show he attended was back in 1961, and the late Earl of Iveagh, father of the present one, was president of the SAA.

Back then, he was a 15-year-old showing cattle and only starting stewarding in 1977/8 after he and wife Sue got married and moved to Framlingham to start farming on their own. In his early years, he recalled many happy, relaxing days at the show when he would meet up with friends in the stockmen’s canteen to have a few beers and moved on by a mysterious process to tea and cakes in the flower show marquee at the end of the day.

During his many years of involvement with the SAA, John says he built up “a great rapport” with those involved in the show, from the stewards to the staff at the SAA office, and greatly enjoys the company of the “wonderful people” he has met through his involvement.

“Without getting too sentimental about it it has been very close to my heart,” he says.

His reaction when he discovered his name had been put forward for president was one of surprise and delight.

Suffolk Show Honorary Director Bill Baker.

Suffolk Show Honorary Director Bill Baker.

“I was hugely honoured. It got out, and a lot of my contemporaries were so pleased. I have felt quite humbled by it. You never think it’s going to happen to you. I certainly wasn’t expecting it and I really am over the moon. It’s a great year and a fillip for my family as well. They know I have been present about the show for years and I have put a lot into it for years. It’s a great team effort,” he says.

In the run-up to this year’s event, he is as enthusiastic as ever, and has been down to the Suffolk showground to see how everything is progressing.

“This is the exciting time I have always enjoyed for the Suffolk Show,” he says. “The marquees are now starting to be put up and there’s a buzz about the place like the house martins in the garden now. It’s show time. I have always enjoyed the build-up to the show and very much looking forward to it.

“When I was show director and we lost that year and we started in 2002 my deputy Peter Over and I had both been keen on sports so we started the sports village which I’m very much looking forward to see it this year because there is so much activity now. When we started it was quite static.”

Since his term of president began, John has been taking over where last year’s office-holder, Terry Hunt, left off, in continuing the Tractors in Schools initiative which began last year with the ultimate aim of trying to get 100 tractors into different Suffolk schools.

“We increased it a little bit this year and hopefully future presidents will aim for that magical number. I think we had 78, which is still a fantastic achievement.

I attended the first one at Robert Hitcham primary in Framlingham. It was fascinating to see children’s faces and for that age asking some quite serious questions which almost to put me on the back foot, “ he said.

“Tuckwells brought in the tractor and I was the local farmer that presented the case to the children talking about the tractor, its cost, how much fuel it used, we explained the workings of the tractor and on top of that we explained to the children exactly what we are producing in this county and where it goes to.”

Suffolk is a wonderful county, says John, from Newmarket and its horse racing in the west, to Felixstowe and Lowestoft in the east and a big swathe of farming land in between.

The farmer, who has three daughters, Amy, 34, a teacher, who is getting married in July, Sarah, 30, a physiotherapist who is married to farmer Will Edwards, and Hannah, 32, who is a keen horsewoman and PA to David Redvers, of Tweenhills Farm & Stud, racing and bloodstock manager for Qatar Racing, Qatar Bloodstock and Pearl Bloodstock, remains committed to seeing it thrive.

He has a number of family connections to the equestrian world - his late father, Ron, trained point-to-pointers and National Hunt horses, and his brother, Chris, trains at Newmarket in flat racing.

He also owns a horse, Kilcooley, who was bred in Ireland and bought as a four-year-old. Kilcooley has won seven races, including at Haydock Park in a handicap race and at Fontwell Park in a grade two race.

Since moving to Framlingham in 1975 from Horkesley, near Colchester, he has increased the acreage he farms, on a tenanted and contract basis, from 109 acres to 1600 acres, growing crops such as wheat, barley, sugar beet and oilseed rape.

Present show director Bill Baker is ‘a tower of strength’

Bill Baker, the farmer organising this year’s Suffolk Show has been praised by his former mentor as “a tower of strength” during his three-year tenure.

Suffolk Agricultural Association president John Wall praised the current show director, who is about to stage his final show.

During his own period helping to run the show, and then as show director from 2001, Mr Wall became a mentor to Bill, then a young Drinkstone farmer who was just beginning to move to the fore within the SAA.

“Bill Baker being his third and last show has been a tower of strength and a wonderful man to work with,” he said.

“When I became deputy director to Mike Hollingsworth in 1998, sadly, through retirement, we lost a lot of senior stewards who had been there for a long time but it did allow us to bring in some new blood and I continued that when I became show director and Bill Baker was one of those I brought in.”

Bill has been at the helm during a period of flux at the top of the association, with three different chief executives at the helm over the three years. Christopher Bushby decided to stand down after two decades and was succeeded by Nicola Bateman, who subsequently left to be replaced this year by Phillip Ainsworth.

“I don’t think I could run it now,” admitted Mr Wall. “Every dog has his day. Bill has seen us through this tricky period. I was so pleased for everybody that we had a very successful show last year.”

He recalled how he felt when he finally reach the end of his tenure.

“At the end of it you are absolutely shattered. I know how Bill is going to feel at 6.30 when we say goodbye to Bill on the Thursday of the show.

“It’s the president’s pleasure to thank Bill and his team for putting on the show and to say goodbye to him this year which will be a sad occasion for me. I know it will be for him, but he can leave us as show director knowing that he gave it his best shot and what a wonderful shot. He has been a fantastic show director. Now we look forward to our first female show director (Bee Kemball).”

This year’s Suffolk Show takes place on Wednesday, June 1, and Thursday, June 2, at Trinity Park near Ipswich. Tickets are now on sale and visitors can save up to £6 by booking in advance – visit their website or call the ticket hotline on 01473 707117.

See more Suffolk Show news here

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