Friday, June 14, 2024
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Notes from the Sticks: A day at the races


This week I am handing over the main part of the column to TCW contributor BRIAN MEREDITH for his account of a traditional British pursuit: point-to-point racing.

AT MY age it’s not often you find yourself doing something you’ve never done before, but here I was, driving to a large open-air event without knowing its precise location. In the weeks previous, out in the car around Devon, I had seen a succession of home-made billboards advertising a point-to-point race meeting at Silverton, just north of Exeter. I found the details on a website but was uneasy about the absence of any map. I worked as a cartographer in my youth and have a useful, some might say excessive, collection of maps, but the directions on the website gave only which main road to take and a description of the junction at which to turn right. There followed only the assurance that the route beyond this point would be signposted ‘on the day’.

My feelings of apprehension were fortunately dismissed when, still on the main road, I came up behind a horse box being driven so cautiously that it seemed inescapable that it contained one, or possibly two, of the beasts which were to be the focus of the day’s events. In other circumstances I would be looking to overtake such a vehicle at the first safe opportunity, but on this occasion I was content to stay behind the truck and let it lead me all the way to the ball. After a couple of very narrow Devon lanes, their close, high banks allowing no possibility of squeezing past any oncoming traffic, the horse box turned down a concrete driveway, while a steward gestured me to carry straight on and turn left through the next big gap in the hedge. 

This opened on to a huge, sweeping vista and after handing over £15 to the man on the gate in exchange for a racing programme, I found myself driving across an enormous field. After the slightly claustrophobic lanes, this was like suddenly finding oneself on the open sea. The steward advised me to make my way down and park at the bottom of the slope.

I was coasting slowly down the hill, across the damp grass, when I noticed a tall blonde girl in a Barbour jacket waving for me to ‘come to her’. This siren was making sure that the vehicles were parked neatly. It was perhaps the first inkling that this was a traditional event with a long heritage that she was not wearing a fluorescent tabard. With a friendly smile and some elegant hand-gestures, she had me lined up perfectly behind a white Transit van.

Coming just a couple of days after the departure of ‘Storm Ciaran’, I had been pleasantly surprised that the event was to go ahead at all. On the website the ‘going’ was described as ‘heavy, soft in places’, and no wonder after a week of almost continuous rain. Today the forecast was sunshine interspersed with heavy showers, and more continuous rain predicted later. I had brought my late father’s umbrella because, unlike my own collapsible models, this is a traditional full-size job which would be able to see service also as a walking stick.

It was an hour before the first race so I decided to investigate the refreshment tent. Divided into halves, the alcohol section was in the trust of a professional caterer, probably a pub, offering all the usual beverages including some local-sounding beers in casks, while the ‘teetotal’ half seemed to be staffed by volunteers, mostly women, and was serving snacks and tea/coffee etc. It took me straight back to the church fêtes and Boy Scouts events of my childhood where the Women’s Institute, or Mothers’ Union, to both of which my mother belonged, would generously donate their time and cookery skills. I ordered a black coffee and was politely directed to a small table across the marquee, where a woman sat with a metal cashbox. ‘Tell her you’ve had a coffee and give her £1.50.’ Not only was this extremely cheap (and the coffee was nice), the idea that I could be trusted to tell the truth was not only nostalgic but vaguely flattering in this security-conscious world.

Strolling around the site, I came across the bookmakers, nine of them in a row, each under a large, brightly coloured umbrella.

I’m not qualified to know whether this is a large number, but it seemed a respectable turnout for what is essentially an amateur event in a field. The last time I saw bookies at a horse race, they were still using blackboards and chalk to keep abreast of the changing odds. These days they all have electronic displays. As far as I could tell, these were TV screens set up on their ends to give a vertical display space and driven via HDMI from computers.

Not everyone relies on the refreshment marquee. Making my way between the cars towards the start line, I passed a huge 4×4 with its tailgate up. Assembled in the space beneath was a full-sized dining table with a spotless white tablecloth, laden with food in traditional willow hampers and bottles and cans of all kinds from lager to red wine to champagne. A family party of about a dozen of all ages were busy tucking in.

Wherever horses gather, particularly hunters, you will probably find dogs. There were plenty in evidence at this meeting, all displaying exemplary behaviour. I can’t recall hearing a single bark or any growling.

It wouldn’t be horse racing without a commentary so, after some initial spluttering, the PA system sprang into life. I was heartened that the announcer did not affect the oleaginous tones of a commercial radio DJ, simply calling for our attention and addressing us in a normal voice. Even more heartening was the fact that between announcements there was no loud music, just good old-fashioned silence. As an experience of a world which I had imagined had all but disappeared, this event was just getting better and better.

But I hadn’t come for the beer and I hadn’t come to throw my money away on betting. I’d come to see and admire what are, for me, some of the most beautiful animals in the whole animal kingdom. This is a sport governed and administered by hunts, and the owners are all members of the hunt. The riders are amateurs. Led by grooms, who are mainly women and girls, the horses are walked around the parade ring.

This serves two purposes. It allows the punters to see the horses, but perhaps more importantly it gives the horse a chance to get the blood circulating after its journey. While many of the horses are local, some have travelled 200 miles or more.

Despite the description ‘point-to-point’, which implies that the horses race across open ground from one fence to another, in reality the course is one mile around and the races are run over three laps. (The original ‘points’ were often church steeples which is clearly the origin of the term ‘steeplechase’.)

The first race is described as a ‘4-5 Y Maiden’. For an explanation of this, I’d best just quote the programme notes verbatim: ‘For horses which are maidens, four and five-year olds which have not run in any race under rules of any racing authority (point-to-points excepted).’

In addition to the silver cups and other mementos for placings, there are cash prizes running to £250 for a win, £150 for second and £100 for third. There are various other prizes in kind offered by local sponsors, including a haylage bale for the winning trainer. Given what must be the huge costs of participation in a sport like this, it’s clear they are not here for the money.

There are mounted stewards in their hunting attire. There are no starting tapes so it is the boss huntsman, resplendent in his red (hunting pink) jacket, mounted on a magnificent bay horse, who keeps order at the start.

He blows his hunting horn to confirm that the start was good and ‘the race is on’. The other function of the huntsmen is to chase down and restrain any racehorse which has thrown its rider and is now galloping unchecked around the course, making it a danger both to itself and to others. One such unfortunate rider was thrown on landing from the very first fence, but fortunately he was able to roll into a ball to avoid the hooves of the other horses. A direct strike from the metal shoe of a horse landing heavily and at speed hardly bears thinking about, and we were all relieved to see him get up after the field had passed.

There were plenty of young women, quite a high percentage looking as if they were involved with horses.

Some had jackets which bore the name of a stable or some company which was a supplier to the trade, and quite a few gathered near the winning post to cheer and literally scream their encouragement to their favoured horse. Or was it to their favoured jockey?

There was a whiff of Beatlemania about the sheer level of their excitement which was, along with everything else about this event, really nostalgic.

And that, for me at least, was a big part of the pleasure of the whole afternoon. I had started to feel overloaded with the predictions that Remembrance Day might be ruined by protesters, something which would have been unthinkable for most of my life. This, together with people vandalising works of art and the seemingly unstoppable rise in street violence and knife crime had me fearing that the England of my birth had vanished. But for one afternoon in Devon, I was transported back to a well-ordered world, one where well-behaved people enjoyed themselves without impeding others. A world which resembled that of my childhood in a way and to a degree to which I had hardly dared to imagine still existed.


Sheep of the Week

BACK to me: Obviously the Sheep of this Week is Fiona, ‘the loneliest sheep in the world’ who was hauled up from a beach where she had spent two years after falling down a steep slope.

I emailed the rescue organiser, Cameron Wilson, to ask what breed Fiona is. He replied: ‘She is a Charollais out a Scotch Mule.’ I asked Notes from the Sticks reader ‘peasantfarmer’ for an interpretation and he told me: ‘The sire was a Charollais tup [ram]. They have a pinkish face and that shows through in the rescued sheep’s face. The Scotch mule is a ewe from a Scottish black faced ewe crossed with either a Blue Faced Leicester (most likely) or a Border Leicester Tup. I used to use a Charollais tup on to our home grown North Country Mules (BFL tup x Swaledale ewe) when the mules were gimmers (first mating). Lambing with a Charollais tup is slightly easier as the lambs have a smaller head and narrower shoulders than lambs from a Texel.’

As we all know, no good deed goes unpunished so as soon as Fiona was delivered to her new home, a farm park where visitors can feed and stroke the animals, a bunch of idiots, sorry activists, from an outfit called Animal Rising turned up to protest that the sheep was going to be ‘exploited’ and would be ‘a spectacle’. I must say I can think of much worse examples of animal exploitation deserving of activists’ attention.

All is now apparently calm and Fiona, seemingly quite unmoved by recent events and having been relieved of her overgrown fleece which weighed 60lb, is settling into her new quarters.

The story made me look out a few videos of sheep clearly enjoying being ‘exploited’.

Incidentally Cammy Wilson has an excellent YouTube channel called The Sheep Game, in which he sports an incredible variety of hairstyles, and has a presence on Facebook. The man is a star.


Wheels of the Week

THIS is a 1939 Excelsior autocycle, 98cc. The manufacturers were originally called Bayliss, Thomas and Co and were founded in 1874 making penny-farthings. They launched Britain’s first ‘motor-cycle’ in 1896 in Coventry. They changed their name to Excelsior in 1910 and moved to Birmingham in 1921.

According to the Moped Archive, the Excelsior Autobyk was one of two Villiers Junior-powered autocycles launched in 1937. The first was supposed to be the Raynal Auto, also made in Birmingham, but Villiers were worried about Raynal’s selling potential so they ‘leaked’ the design to Excelsior to ensure sufficient sales.

The Moped Archive says: ‘Early Excelsior Autobyks were unsprung, with a short fuel tank that incorporated a separate oil tank. No engine covers were fitted but there was a round tool box between the seat tube and seat stays.  Inverted handlebar levers controlled both brakes.  A back-pedalling mechanism for the rear brake was introduced later. The price of an Autobyk in 1939 was 18 gns (£18.90).’ The Bank of England inflation calculator says this would be about £1,000 today.

What I couldn’t discover from any of the enthusiasts’ websites is how the thing actually worked, so I turned to TCW‘s resident motorbike expert, Derek Reynolds. He replied: ‘Basically, auto-cycles were bicycles to which an attachment was fitted to power the thing along. They developed into motorcycles eventually, but there are Auto-cycle clubs who gather together for runs and adventures, much the same as there are clubs and forums for those who gather together with camp stoves and paraffin lamps from all ages. Yes – really! (Needless to say, I have a small collection myself. Very sad.)

‘Auto-cycles come in various shapes and sizes. Mostly with small two-stroke engines (being lighter than four-stroke – fewer moving parts), driving the back wheel by a small wheel driving directly on to the rear tyre (sometimes the front, as in the French Velosolex, my late Mother-in-Law had one which she dubbed her ‘Harley Davidson’.) Some drove a separate wheel attached to the rear cycle wheel, becoming in effect, a three wheeler. Some images in this link. Most were started by pedalling the bicycle either on a stand or along the road, then engaging the engine unit to a wheel by some lever or other. With luck, it would fire and away you go, until a steep gradient was encountered whch would require the euphemistically titled Light Pedal Assistance (LPA), in other words furious pedalling. “Mopeds” were the more modern evolution, a sort of “in between” stage before a fully designed motorcycle, a “stepping-stone” for some aspiring to bigger things.

‘The bikes featured in the Globalnet link (see above) were mostly the intermediate bikes between true “auto-cycles” and motorcycles. Mostly the engine drove the rear wheel by a chain, with sometimes a separate chain connected to pedals for both starting and the Light Pedal Assistance.’

During the war Excelsior made about 3,600 models of the Welbike, a small, collapsible motorcycle delivered in a pod by parachute intended to be used by paratroops for rapid movement around a battlefield.

After the war the company never did well and it folded in 1965.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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