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CATHERINE GEE ON COUNTRY LIVING

Catherine Gee knows more than most about the attraction of a rustic way of life. The curator of the Country Living Fairs explains how she caught the countryside bug

I can’t really remember a time when the Country Living Fair wasn’t held at the Business Design Centre. Whether it’s the spring or Christmas version, it’s one of Islington’s biggest – if not the biggest – shows that rolls into town. As much as we seemingly can’t get enough of it, those behind the show insist the feeling is more than mutual. ‘In terms of its history as the old agricultural hall, it’s absolutely perfect,’ says curator of the show, Catherine Gee, about the BDC. ‘It’s a very beautiful building in itself and is totally everything that Country Living is about.’

If anyone should know that, it’s Catherine. It’s two decades ago this year that she first joined the long running magazine – ‘That’s so scary,’ she gasps when I point out the anniversary – and happily returned to be a part of the Country Living family after a hugely successful run of TV presenting roles. ‘I started at the same time as Suzy Smith [who remains the editor of the magazine],’ she recalls. ‘I say to Suzy that being her PA – which initially that’s what I was – was the best job I ever had. It’s just a brand I totally connected with and have stayed good friends with Suzy over the years. The thing about Country Living is people tend not to leave – and if they do, they always come back!’

Starting as assistant editor of the magazine, she soon progressed to Head of Shows, which saw her become involved with a matchmaking campaign called The Farmer Wants a Wife in 1999. Its success saw a second campaign that was televised by Thames TV and nominated for a BAFTA in 2002 – which led to Catherine going on to front popular shows like Escape to the Country, No Place Like Home? and even replace Loyd Grossman in 2004 as the lucky soul to wander through celebrity homes in Through the Keyhole. ‘My TV work was totally unplanned,’ she says modestly, ‘totally left of field. I always knew, realistically, that in TV your time will come to an end. I always knew I would come back to do something else.’

During all this time – and right through to the modern day, even at a time when digital is seemingly king – Country Living continued to thrive. ‘It has stuck to its principles while lots of changes happened around it and that’s part of its success,’ Catherine says on the magazine’s longevity. ‘I also think it’s inherent in you that, if you are British, you have a love of the countryside. It’s just hard wired into us somehow and it’s very aspirational. We live in such a fast-paced world and the countryside embodies being more relaxed and having a slower pace. Some people may want to live there, for others it’s not possible but they can get a part of what living in the country is like. The Country Living Fair can provide the inspiration and the tools needed for that whether you live in the Scottish Highlands or in a flat in the middle of Islington.’

When Suzy Smith asked her to return to running their shows, Catherine had no hesitation in jumping back on-board. ‘Personally I am very passionate about small businesses and craftspeople,’ she enthuses. ‘I have enormous admiration for anybody brave enough, particularly in the difficult market conditions we have had, to set themselves up to create their own products. I love the fact I can work in some way to help facilitate them and hopefully further their success. Doing the shows just ticks all the boxes for me.’

The Christmas version of the Country Living Fair is always a jovial occasion and is, arguably, the start of the festive countdown in these parts. If Father Christmas went shopping, we’re sure he’d start here: a feast of gourmet ideas conjured up by regional artisan producers; every type of decoration is available; you have the chance to make your own table decorations; find your party style and fashion accessories; and even learn how to wrap beautiful parcels and presents at one of the expert masterclasses.

And it’s not just about standing on your own two legs this Christmas. ‘I would say if you have a dog, it’s the place to go to find your presents,’ Catherine says on what else stands out at this year’s show. ‘There have been a growing number of people making really beautiful products for pets, cats and dogs in particular. It’s pet heaven. But this Christmas fair is all about finding really unique, one-of-a-kind pieces. There’s one lady who only does the Christmas fairs [Halinka Fairies], who makes these amazing handmade fairies that hang on the tree. These are the kinds of things people come to buy. Country Living has always done that and it’s what we continue to do really well.’

So the relationship between Islington and Country Living looks likely to continue for some time yet – particularly when locals have a really good idea about what type of country style they want to embrace. ‘In terms of interior trends, Country Living reflects more of the modern country look – we call it modern rustic. But,’ Catherine adds with a smile, ‘Islington locals go for a slightly more industrial look, or salvaged upcycling, a slightly edgier feel than a few years ago.’

Words: Mark Kebble

The Country Living Magazine Christmas Fair runs at the Business Design Centre from 11-15 November. For tickets, call 0844 848 0160 or visit countrylivingfair.com

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