She says that if she could have created her ideal job, it would be the one she has. Karen Dent meets Northumberland County Show secretary Gaynor Shotton and talks apprenticeships, Canadian religious sects and why the one-day show is 11 months in the planning.
WHEN the gates open for next year’s Northumberland County Show, very few people will realise that the event is the culmination of almost a year’s worth of organisation.
Gaynor Shotton, who now has six shows under her belt, is the first to admit she had little idea what went into the mix when she took on the full- time role of show secretary.
“I had no concept of how much it cost to put on, how many people were involved, anything like that,” she says.
“It blew me away when I opened the books, and having an accountancy head, which is what I mainly trained in, I found it incredibly hard because in accountancy, there’s got to be a profit margin in there somewhere or you should just say, cut your losses.
“But you have to look at it in a different way. To put on something like our cattle section, it’s a £14,000 loss to put it on.
“But what the show is all about having things to show to the general public what agriculture is all about it. That’s what our ethos is.
“I had to learn to have a completely different outlook from my background to not stop them doing everything they do on the show field. It’s really hard.”
Balancing the books is second nature to the 44-year-old mother-of-two. Her 15-year-old son Lewis is now starting to think about options for A-levels and then university, but Shotton is passionate about the apprenticeship route she followed herself.
After initially studying a farm secretary course at Kirkley Hall near Ponteland, Shotton was taken on as an apprentice trainee management accountant at Hexham’s wood and chipboard business Egger, where she’d worked during her holidays.
“They sent me to college, five years, one day a week and they got me all my qualifications. I had a year in each department so I could learn all about management accountancy,” she says.
“If there were more apprenticeship programmes, I just think everyone would be better off.
“I came out, I had all the pieces of paper that ticked all the appropriate boxes but I had masses of experience and especially the fact that they moved me from this department to that department ...
“I think that’s the bit that you learn so much, being there, dealing with people, learning the whole thing. I don’t have anything to do with the company now, I just love the principle of what they actually did for me.”
Although not from a farming background – Shotton was a keen rider as a child and family had horses and a few Suffolk sheep – she has always been interested in agriculture.
And it was her membership of the Young Farmers that took her to Canada for a year, where she was just one of four people chosen nationally for the trip. It also gave her the opportunity to become the first outsider to stay with a Mennonite family, a back-to-basics religious sect.
Shotton recalls: “I stayed in dairy farms – every two weeks I moved to a different dairy farm, and then at the end, I took a few months off and travelled from one side of Canada to the other with a few of the other people.
“I was chosen, the first time ever for someone to go and stay with a Mennonite family. One particular family was just thinking were we going to be staunch Mennonites? Their children weren’t. They’re very similar to Amish – no cars, or very old cars, everything is black, no electricity; the family I stayed with only had horse-drawn carriages.
“They did have some electricity generated by a windmill, I think it was for their refrigerators and I stayed with them for 10 days, and I was the first person ever to have done that. I went on the television over there to talk about it.
“I think the reason why I was chosen is that you can put me in any environment and I would be respectful in that situation and get on with anyone that was there.”
She returned home to take up a temporary job back at Egger, then went back to agriculture by taking a farm business management course at Kirkley Hall. “Whatever I wanted to do was to do with agriculture,” says Shotton.
Born and bred in Hexham – and now living back in the family home after she and husband Mark Scandle bought out her brother and sister – Shotton says networks she’s built up over the years are immensely important when it comes to organising the County Show.
Although her contacts range from people she knew “in the Pony Club when we were 10” to Young Farmers and its follow-on group 27 Up, she didn’t know Mark, who lived just three doors down the street.
“We lived on the same street and I locked myself out of my house, and it was snowing like mad and he was trying to get the snow off his car and I said, ‘Can I use your telephone please, I’ve locked myself out of my house?’ And then he invited me out for a drink.
“I hadn’t met him or seen him even until I locked myself out. He’s very involved in my job as well – it’s not a job it’s a way of life for all of us.
“The poor children, they’re completely and utterly involved in the job as well.
“It’s all-consuming for every single one of my family, and anyone who walks in that door gets a job. My dad is my chief envelope packer and Mark has to take a week off work when it comes to the show.”
The 2012 County Show at Corbridge will be Shotton’s seventh as secretary. Initially, she applied to become joint secretary with Kath Walton, who had held the job for years but had decided to go part time. But then Kath fell ill and died.
“I had no idea what the job consisted of, I was to be involved with her with everything,” says Shotton. “They said will you take the job on as a full-time role and go from there. It was absolutely horrendous for everybody.
“I didn’t know Kath as well as some of the committee members who really felt that they couldn’t go on; there was a lot of people that had been such friends with her that they had to walk away.
“A lot of have come back slowly now, a lot of people were there because they were her friends as much as anything.
“I can totally and utterly see why they would have to walk away.”
Working with a management committee and a president and chairman, who each serve three years in the role, Shotton is currently knee-deep in organisation for next year’s event at the start of June, designing brochures and finalising the trade stand bookings.
“It would have shocked me had I had any concept of how much time it takes me to do,” she says. “I do take August off because the financial year end is August.”
The show is run by the 500-member Tynedale Agricultural Society and rose from the ashes of the old Tyneside Agricultural Show, which started in the 1800s. The current society has been going since 1981 and is producing a DVD of every show since 1948-59.
“They had a 40,000-45,000 average attendance on the same site as we have,” says Shotton. “And we say oh, we’ve got a record breaking crowd at 28,000 – well, we haven’t. But then people only had one day off and there was only one place to go and everything was laid out differently and I don’t think the health and safety was quite as strong ....
“Our committee is a really young committee and that’s one of the best things you can have. We also need the older people who are on our committee because their knowledge is vital.
“The management committee are mainly in their 30s, they are driven and focused. They’re forward thinking. I say, ‘We need to invest in computers’ and they say, ‘Right let’s do it’ ... we need to invest in Facebook and Twitter, right, let’s invest in Facebook and Twitter. Whereas I think if it was a slightly older committee, they would think, well, why would we need to do that?
“We’re really lucky when I look at other shows who’ve had the same chairman for 20 years and won’t make any decisions.”
On show day itself, there are around 250 volunteers helping ensure everything runs as planned.
Shotton says her biggest worry is the return of something like foot-and- mouth, which wiped out shows up and down the country in 2001.
She says: “It came down on February 25. I know what stage I would be at on February 25. The marquees would be booked, you’d still have to pay a percentage of the costs, we still have to pay our rent
“Something like foot-and-mouth is the worst thing that can happen. Our show didn’t go on and we had enough time to cancel. Other shows weren’t so lucky as we were.
“But building ourselves back up, I think it has taken us until now, I mean, we’re massively strong now. But it’s 10 years since it happened.”
In the weeks running up to the show, much of Shotton’s worries are about the weather
“It’s the north of England, it’s May, it’s going to be either windy or wet,” she says. “This last year about five traders couldn’t come because they tried to put their marquees up the day before and their marquees just blew down. Everyone goes, ‘There’s nothing you can do about it, why would you worry about the weather?’
“Other than that, when it comes to show time, my stresses are slightly less than the rest of the time because I always have a ‘somebody’ standing next to me – I always have a president or a vice-president or a chairman – so I can say what should we do? The rest of the year, I have to make the decisions on my own.”
But stresses aside, Shotton says if she could have designed a job for herself, this would be it.
“If I could have had a dream job when I was 17 years old, this would have been my dream job mainly because I’ve always wanted to be an organiser – any kind of event organiser,” she says.
“I still feel when I come to work that it is my dream job because it’s in the two environments that I enjoy working in.”