As the Great Yorkshire Show gets underway with no restrictions, show director Charles Mills talks to Bethan Andrews about how far it has come, his favourite memories and what he’s most excited about for 2022
It’s a tall order being at the helm of what is one of the world’s most popular and well-known farming industry shows, but it’s a job that Charles Mills wouldn’t change for the world. Having been made show director of the Great Yorkshire Show (GYS) in 2015, Mills has thrown himself into ensuring it evolves with the times, honours the legacy of its past and weathers the storms of unforeseen circumstances such as Covid-19.
As we sit and chat, with Mills speaking from his 500-acre working farm in Appleton Roebuck and myself wishing I was amidst the greenery and peace of the York countryside, it’s immediately evident how infectious his love for the Yorkshire landscape and rural community is.
“I fell in love with what the GYS stood for and what the Royal Agricultural Society stood for in the fact that it’s a charity and everything it does goes back into the showround or is given away in grants on the education side, which is a huge interest to me,” says Mills. “It was an easy position for me to apply for. I want to try and give something back in life, it’s as simple as that, and I love the job.”
For Mills, taking the role after 30 years of being a council member and chief cattle steward marked the culmination of years discovering how special those involved in the GYS really are. “It’s a true honour and I never thought I’d do anything like it,” he beams. “I’m just an ordinary guy who used to go to the show with my parents in my short corduroy trousers and wellies. I love it and whatever happens in my life from now on, I’ll never regret doing what I’m doing and I’ll certainly miss it when I’m not doing it.”
It’s this very love and passion that has made the GYS what it is today. We’ve all heard of the GYS, but how exactly did it first materialise? It was started in October 1837 by a group of leading agriculturalists and the third Earl of Spencer, who formed the Yorkshire Agricultural Society. It travelled about the county in those days; in fact, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the Harrogate showground was purchased. Mills believes this was one of the best moves they made, as it means the facilities have been built up and the show has evolved to be able to give more money to charity.
One of the most important elements of the GYS is to raise awareness of life in the country. The show has made history and a reputation for showcasing the truly relentless work that many in the rural industries commit to. “It’s one of the most important dates in the farming calendar,” smiles Mills. “Some people even come for their holidays! People come back year on year from the far north of Scotland to the far south of England.”
Speaking of history, this year sees an exciting new progression for the show in the form of cattle breeding. The show is to become part of the Charolais Cattle 10-day World Congress Tour as the breed celebrates 60 years and the Shorthorn Breed Society World Congress Tour as it celebrates 200 years of the breed. This means that the show has been chosen as the only agricultural event in the UK to host the cattle breeders from all over the globe.
“The breed actually originated in Yorkshire,” smiles Mills. “If you go back to my teenage years, a lot of the cattle were bred in Shorthorn before moving away from it, but it’s come back full circle and people are using them again for breeding.”
To pull together such an incredible event takes a lot of hard work – something that those in the rural industries have become very well known for. And Mills himself is testament to this, as he divides his time between working as a farmer at Appleton Roebuck on his arable land and wedding venue business, as well as spending time at the showground pulling together one of the most famous farming shows in the world.
With dedication comes a real tenacity to ensure the GYS grows with the industry and with the people of Yorkshire. “It’s very different now to what it was then and it reflects the way the countryside is – it is different to how it was in the 1950s,” says Mills.
“Farming then was just farming, but now, so many farms, mine included, have diversified and the show has had to. Some of the things we have now you would never have seen before, such as celebrities coming to the show for the new stage. These celebrities, in this new world, have highlighted the industry so it’s nice to have them on a stage and thank them for what they are doing. They are great at spreading the word about what goes on in the countryside.”
It’s an important element of the GYS to raise awareness of life in the countryside, and for the exhibitors of livestock to show what goes into their life. “It’s about communication, full stop,” says Mills. “The industry talks to the public far more than it ever used to, and that’s absolutely grand.” But what hasn’t changed since its humble beginnings? “The art of showing livestock is still a very proud one, it takes a lot of time, and the fundamental rules of showing livestock, the dedication, is still very much exactly the same as it ever was,” explains Mills.
So, what is he most excited about this year? “In the main ring, we are going down the agricultural route instead of the equine theme this year with some international sheepdog trials, which we have never done, but it will be amazing,” Mills says. “Lizzie Jones will do a final performance of the National Anthem, which will be very special with the Queen’s Jubilee.”
Mills tells me how last year, post-pandemic, was one of the biggest high points in his time at the GYS. “Without a doubt, it was wonderful,” he smiles. “We didn’t think we could do the show, but we managed it and the amount of enjoyment that gave to people that came – it really set the tone for what is possible. We got the biggest list you could ever imagine of people saying thank you, and that will live in my heart forever.”
If Mills could sum up what it means to Yorkshire and why it has such a big standing in the county, what would he say? “You’re probably asking the wrong person because I’m biased,” he laughs. “But before I became show director, I don’t think I realised how important it really is to so many people. It’s part of people’s social calendar, and I don’t think anybody should underestimate what it means to the county and beyond. Community is a big element of it, it’s a culmination of hard work, and it’s a big highlight of summer and a time to reflect and enjoy before harvest starts.”
And the proudest element of being a farmer and being involved in rural life for Mills? “Oh, we are a very proud group of people. We can influence the way that the countryside looks, and it looks as it does because people have taken a lot of time and effort to look after the land, make it beautiful and look after the livestock. I’m very proud of that.”