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The Carriage Commentator




Sarah reflects on the loss to the driving world with the passing of HRH The Duke of Edinburgh and her family's association with him - 29 April 2020

The little team at Windsor Park Equestrian Club – 25 April 2021

I defy anyone to have had a dry eye while watching the poignant, personal and highly polished funeral of HRH The Duke of Edinburgh (simply ‘PP’ or ‘HRH’ to many in the driving world) especially when the television cameras on their triffid-like booms zoomed in on the box seat of his green phaeton.  A sheepskin run, his well-worn tan gloves still moulded in the shape of his hands, his tweed flat cap, his neatly folded driving apron and even more heart wrenching, the little, round plastic tub with its red lid which held the sugar lumps he fed to the ponies.  The world felt the emotion of the moment; the driving community gulped and shed tears for their much loved and respected father figure. 

For that is what he was to us.  He was there at the beginning of our sport and he shaped it like no other.  It was his drive and vision, his searing intelligence and problem-solving skills, his political prowess and powers of persuasion, his horsemanship and knowledge, his sense of fun and adventure that has left us the legacy, on both a local and worldwide stage, of the sport of combined driving.  We owe him infinite gratitude, not least because so many of us have had our lives shaped and enriched as a result of his decision to take up carriage driving in his middle age.

As has been oft repeated, it was while embedded in his driving that Prince Philip felt off duty.  As ‘one of us’ he was able to compete, mix, ride high and fall short in the companionship of like-minded individuals, whatever their background – as George Bowman so movingly pointed out during his television interview.  But he wasn’t like us, not really.  Because when he was at an event, in whatever capacity, whether in the Royal Box at the Windsor horse show, in the main ring at Smith’s Lawn making presentations, or out driving with the Cleveland Bays, the Fells or latterly as a judge and steward, he did add a sprinkling of gold dust and brought with him a certain frisson and star quality.  In horse terms, you’d call it ‘presence’; that indefinable quality which isn’t just about good breeding, conformation or performance but an alchemic mix of them all, plus a little something else that we can’t pinpoint but that affects us on an instinctive level.  In human terms, it’s natural leadership perhaps, an aura of confidence and authority, a twinkling eye, a swagger, something magnetic that we gravitate towards. 

In my younger days I remember pulling into the iconic northern national events such as Lowther, Castle Howard, Floors Castle, Drumlanrig or Islabank and casting around to see where his entourage was parked.  Like many of us in the driving world, my family have anecdotes which relate to him, from watching him tip the rain which had gathered in the rim of his bowler hat down his back at a particularly wet Sandringham and hearing him say that he had to go and meet some ‘*#!$%&^ Ambassador’ that evening; to the evening in the party tent at Islabank when the generators failed and the lights suddenly went out.  In an instant, his security men lit their torches and shone the beams up onto the white canvas of the roof, their narrow searchlights scouring the crowd for potential trouble.  This was at the height of the Irish terrorist threats and it was at times like that that we were reminded of the precipice on which his royal life was lived, the shadow of the Mountbatten killings never that far away, despite the relaxed nature of the venue and the seclusion of the setting in glorious Perthshire.

My mother competed against Prince Philip in the pony teams class for several seasons during the 1990s and 2000s.  He called her team of unruly but fast Welsh Section As ‘the white mice’ and recorded in his book ’30 Years On and Off The Box Seat’ their results. Sometimes they formed a Scottish team together, perhaps joined by other successful Scottish lady team drivers of the day such as Phillippa Gammell, Debbie Cowdray and Anneke Wallace.  I remember taking non-horsey friends to driving trials events like St Fort near St Andrews where they were awed by their proximity to HRH and dumbstruck by the fruity language that sometimes ensued when his leaders didn’t do as they were told.  We all admired how, by now well into his 70s, he would be out in all weathers, competing on a level playing field.

We were also judged by him on a few occasions and at one Scottish event quite early on in our driving days he gave our Shetland pony Freddie a perfect ‘10’ for a trot movement.  Mum still has the dressage sheet framed with the signature ‘Philip’ at the bottom – it was a proud day. He also competed with the Fells at our favourite local driving trials run by the redoubtable Jack Crawford at Tarland, not far from Balmoral.  Like us, he relished the tough, hilly marathon which needed really fit animals, the spectacular views into the Cairngorms and the hazards made of straw bales and ‘tattie’ boxes, as well as the fearsomely deep water splash.  

He would stay quite regularly with the Thornton-Kemsleys at Thornton Castle in the Mearns when they ran their trials event each autumn, one of the last of the season when the harvest had been taken and the fields newly ploughed.  In fact, he usually stayed in the ‘big house’ wherever a national event was being held, be it at Hopetoun, Floors or Tatton Park.  The hosts, as well as having the event on the premises, were also expected to accommodate an additional house guest and his modest entourage too. Latterly, one of the party was Lady Penny Romsey as she was known when she first took up driving.  Now as the Countess Mountbatten of Burma, and one of Prince Philip’s closest friends, she was the only non-family guest at his funeral.  The press images of her mournful expression, slim and solitary in black in the back of the chauffered car, was an apt reflection of how the driving world so keenly feels his loss.

There can be no doubt that of all people he would want everyone to ‘just get on with it’ and not wallow in our sadness.  The world is a poorer place without him, but from his Duke of Edinburgh awards to the Windsor Park Equestrian Club, his Patronage of the British Driving Society and his Presidency of the FEI, and all the many good causes he either started or lent his name and energy to, it is also a much richer place.  While a girl in the Aberdeenshire Pony Club, like many thousands of pony mad youngsters, I was in the Prince Philip games team for a few years and loved it.  The mounted games remain a highlight at any major show, from Royal Windsor to Olympia, and his philosophy behind starting them which was to enable children to compete who didn’t have access to expensive show ponies, highlights the altruistic intentions behind all he did.

‘Getting on with it’ is what many of us are trying to do with the extremely welcome lifting of most of our restrictions.  To have just spent the school Easter holidays with my girls doing back-to-back Pony Club rallies was an absolute joy.  One of the best drives we have ever enjoyed was our first outing in months, an Easter Sunday drive courtesy of Roger Page and Sam Searle near Winchester in Hampshire.  I handed the reins over to our eldest daughter, Gabriella, and together we wallowed in bright April sunshine, appreciated the views across the Downs and the cyclical nature of farming life unfolding around us as we drove a circuit of 10 miles.  I was thrilled with the youngster Rosie who alongside her experienced aunt, the irascible Ruby, behaved perfectly and they both arrived back at the horsebox without a drop of sweat on them.  They were just as invigorated by the change of scene as we were.

But it was the opportunity to drive round Great Park at Windsor last weekend which really played with the heart strings.  Like my mother (apples and trees) my team of white Section A’s are also slightly unruly.  Yet I was determined to honour my family’s association with HRH over the years and pay a private tribute to him and all he has done to help give us a wonderful life, so I decided to drive my little team round the park at the first meet of year of the Windsor Park Equestrian Club.  We had even endeavoured to use Mum’s good leather harness which she has generously passed on and which she used in her time competing against the Duke.  Everything fitted until we got to the bridles and we found that the browbands were too tight as my girls seem to have wider foreheads than Mum’s ponies.

So it was back to the everyday gear (easier to clean) and we set off for Windsor.  To add to the poignancy of the occasion, WPEC has now relocated to the Deer Park because of the redevelopment of Smith’s Lawn and the expansion of the Guard’s Polo Club.  It was this same location that we parked at for many years for the BHDTA National Championships, pulling off the main road after our long, long journey south from Aberdeenshire.  Another shiver went down my spine as we parked on that same well-hewn turf.

We unloaded the ponies and my older two suddenly looked very excited, seeing dressage arenas, cones and a few obstacles which were being used for training.  The nervous Pearl had never seen so much activity before, or space, and grew a hand, before calming down and taking it all in her stride.  Out on the drive, I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect experience in more perfect surroundings and we relished every second of our 12 km jaunt, the gang on the carriage reminding me that it was a pleasure drive and not a marathon, but we do like a cracking pace and sometimes can’t help ourselves….

Back at the horsebox all was going smoothly until Rosie, who has started to be rather adolescent thinking she now knows it all after her successful Easter outing, took exception to a loose horse who was making his rounds of the lorry park and randily sniffing out all the mares.  At that moment Matthew Powers, the Royal Head Coachman who had held the offside Fell pony during the Duke’s funeral, stopped for a chat.  Whilst I was complimenting him on the emotive touch of the Duke’s gear on the empty carriage seat, Rosie pulled back, managed to snap her (new) lead rope clip and get loose.  Her head shot up, she glanced round the enormous park and thought for a second about making off, before deciding that the lush grass was a better option and put her head down to eat.  Rather embarrassed, I managed to retrieve her and Matt made a hasty exit.  Children and ponies – always there to keep one’s feet on the ground….

The Royal Mews' Lonsdale Wagonette with a pair of Bays - WPEC 25 April 2021