Established in 1981, the Chatsworth Country Fair has long been a favourite for many visitors. In the year that would have marked the 39th edition, we’re taking a look back at how it has grown into the event that so many of us know and love today.

The fair was originally organised by Andrew Cuthbert MBE, at the request of the 11th Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. Its aim was to bring together all the very best that rural Britain had to offer, while celebrating and making the most of the Chatsworth Park. In the event programme of the first fair in 1981 the 11th Duke wrote, ‘One of the great joys of Chatsworth is its park and I and my family welcome most warmly all those who choose to visit it’.

The number of visitors to the first fair in 1981 was around 50,000. There were approximately 20 food stands, with the most popular snack sold being ice cream, and 160 trade stands, including Brocklehursts of Bakewell - one of a handful of traders believed to have attended every single fair! We now welcome around 70,000 visitors, 100 food stands and 350 trade stands every year.

The hot air balloon launch has been a firm favourite since 1981
The hot air balloon launch has been a firm favourite since 1981

Much of the entertainment has remained similar to that of when the fair began. The Guards Free Fall Parachute Display Team opened the fair in 1981, made up of one person each from the Household Cavalry, Grenadier, Coldstream and Scots Guards. Grand Ring displays included the still familiar vintage car parade and mass hot air balloon launch. One of Duchess Deborah’s favourite grand ring events was the Terrier Racing, into which she would always enter her whippet, Nobby. Andrew Cuthbert recalls; ‘Nobby was generally more interested in any bitches in the race, than on winning for his mistress. I can hear Debo’s laughter now’.

The vintage car parade in the Grand Ring
The vintage car parade in the Grand Ring

Organising the country fair wasn’t always without its challenges – Andrew Cuthbert would arrive on site a fortnight ahead of the event to mark out the ground with white pegs, and on one occasion he remembers: ‘sheep are very curious; I put one end of my measuring tape down and walked away 300 feet or so in a straight line. As soon as I had turned my back, a curious old sheep picked up the tape and chewed it in half. Over the following 20 years or so I always had to remember to adjust my tape by the missing three inches which the sheep had eaten’.

Fortunately, help was on hand in later tasks – ‘At 6am I started to string off the park on the road edge from the bridge to the turn down to the cricket field. As I reached the house car park area I became aware that I was being observed by a lady and her dog. “Give me some of those stakes and I will put them ahead of your stringing. How far apart do you want them?” Duchess Deborah said’.

It wasn’t just Duchess Deborah who was on hand to help. The Red Socks are a team of volunteers that play a vital role in the running of the fair. In 1981 there were 15 Red Socks but there are now 60. They not only make the show tick but also take a share of the proceeds for the Red Sock Trust, which in turn they pass on to many deserving charities.

The Red Socks are easy to spot around the showground!
The Red Socks are easy to spot around the showground!

The 11th Duke also made use of the fair to support local charities. Andrew Cuthbert recalls: ‘I remember at an angling fair he agreed that we should sponsor a “wheely boat” from the proceeds, a wheely boat being a mini version of a beach landing craft which allows wheel chair users to enjoy fishing on the water. We planned a little ceremony on the river for the Duke to “name this boat”, which involved him donning rubber boots and standing in the water alongside the boat. Luckily a Red Sock was on hand to hold on to the Duke when the boat moved in the water and there was very nearly a ‘ducal disaster’. I am sure my heart stopped beating for a few seconds.’

Over the years the country fair has grown in size, yet its aim to provide an enjoyable family day out within the Chatsworth Park remains the same. Although we’re disappointed to not be able to welcome people to the fair this year, we hope you’ll join us in 2021 to celebrate the very best that rural Britain has to offer.

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