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The Carriage Commentator

Coachman's Class Winner - Colin Varle. Image by Top Shots Photography



28th & 29th June 2023

Sarah was invited to commentate at one of the UK's best county shows for the first time and it was a wonderful experience - July 2023

Royal Norfolk Champion – Jessie Dudley Apicella
It has been a long held ambition to be involved in the Royal Norfolk Show.  Its a stalwart of the British county show lexicon and is talked about in hallowed terms, as one of the best outdoor events there is, and one that promotes all that is best about what so many of us do with our equines as well as with farming and the countryside.

So it was with mixed emotions that I received the call from RN driving chief steward Justin Cowles to ask if I was available to commentate on their driven classes.  One of the main reasons was to support and promote the return of coaching and multiples at the RN, but the main reason was to fill the spot so brilliantly assumed by Angela Sixsmith, former British Driving Society Chair and a fellow of the RN, who at that stage was on end of life care.  Justin and I spoke knowing that Angela was unlikely to make it to the show, even if she hadn’t passed away, which she did 10 days before her beloved event where she had commentated for some 30 years.  During our initial conversations I suggested that Angela could, if she was able to, say a few words, but it was not to be and so she left big shoes to fill.

One of the aspects behind the success of the RN and its sister / rival show, the Suffolk, across the East Anglian borders, is the sense of community among the stewards, volunteers, exhibitors and sponsors and the enormous pride they all take in their event.  Being appreciated as a volunteer is too rare these days, but being invited to a pre-show dinner the night before and then being thanked by the commentator at the end (something I always try to do) is the very least they can expect.  It’s a long few days and for those, like Justin & Ellie Cowles, who are organising stewards, its an all-year round affair, the burden compounded for them this year by the loss of Angela who they cared for at their home in her final days.

But Angela would have been keener than anyone that the show must go on, and on it did, with aplomb.  With experienced and dapper judge Richard Lanni at the helm, all those who showed under him were thoroughly and fairly scrutinized and he had a comment for everyone, which isn’t something all judges offer, whether they were at the top or the bottom of the line.  Rounding off what had been a busy week for Richard, accompanied by his wife Sandi (who is wonderful company), as they had enjoyed a trip to Royal Ascot followed by Richard judging at Smith’s Lawn, he relished all his classes at the RN.

Being assigned a superb grass ring, named ‘Westover’ after the sponsors, next to the stabling and car park so that turnouts don’t have to traverse a busy and often very spooky showground, is one of the big feathers in the RN cap.  Excellent communications with tannoy announcements to the stabling and parking areas, plus two dedicated stewards who did nothing other than round up competitors and make sure they were there on time, ensured that the classes ran smoothly without gaps in-between.

Having travelled to Norwich on the Tuesday afternoon and enjoyed our officials’ gathering the night before, we arrived at the showground after smooth passage in (not something that always happens) and awaited the arrival of our turnouts in the Private Driving classes.  RN offers a wonderful selection of classes for all levels of driver and equine, and Norfolk based competitors are also encouraged with a special rosette.  Sadly, as we are finding across the board in show driving, the numbers simply weren’t there.  The quality was fine, there was plenty to talk about and enough to keep Richard busy, but how long shows can go on offering prime ring time when those who turn up are rattling round trying to fill the time and space, who knows.

Opening at 8.00 am with the Exercise Cart class, which carried a Victoria Foods Champs ticket, all four who were entered came forward – a promising start.  Winner was a very smart chestnut Welsh Cob with four white stockings belonging to the Randall family, who supported the show in force.  Being driven by John, ‘Llafar Mr Bling’ should have a bright future ahead of him.  Showing the range and all inclusive nature of these (relatively) popular classes, in second was Julia Prentice with her gutsy little coloured Shetland ‘Red Indian of Catchpool’ who in another life was one half of a scurry pair.  With his little legs going like pistons and his nose tantalisingly close to extremely lush grass, he showed that his diminutive size is no barrier to being a cracking driving pony.  At the other end of the scale, third placed Nicolas Carter driving Neil Andrew’s dark bay Shire ‘Walton Express’, who was anything but, being rather a big gentle giant who ‘pulls in chains’ and has been exhibited at the Horse of the Year Show under saddle.  Finally young Shayne Smith who shared his ‘Smith Blueboy’ cob with his younger brother for the classes was in fourth.  Shayne, accompanied by his father who is a farrier (handy) impressed us all at Suffolk with his neat turnout, coachman’s hand and spiffing little cob with legendary feathers, mane and forelock.

Unfortunately any donkey awards which were bequeathed to the show by Angela were unfulfilled, as was her driven donkey class, as the only entrant didn’t attend.  So next in was one turnout in the Vintage Vehicle, Theresa Mccarron with ‘Farino St. George’ who had the ring to herself.  This gave Richard plenty of time to offer a few tips, not least to pop the traces inside the belly band, and remove one of the driver’s cushions to improve her position.

Thereafter followed one of the more entertaining classes of the day when poor Barbara Cushing, the ‘President’s Consort’ and representative of the major show sponsors Thursford, who have the big steam and fairground museum near Fakenham, found herself in a dilemma when trying to decide which of her two turnouts in the Concours d’Elegance class should win.  She was becoming increasingly agitated as she looked from Clare Bourne driving Tessa Reeve’s ‘Sealmaster Storm’, the handsome orange dun Morgan gelding to a pretty four-wheeler, to James and Kymberly Titmus and their consistent black horse ‘The Outlaw’.  Settling on the overall impression of Clare’s turnout, with the more organic colouring, which Barbara said was close to her heart, to in turn being wooed by the eye catching cream yellow and black of the Titmus’s, progress wasn’t being made.  Having established we had a spare first rosette from the no-show donkey class, it was agreed that both turnouts should be awarded a first prize which was the perfect outcome.

Next was a lovely class, Family Produced Turnout, which can be interpreted fairly openly and is another bite at the cherry for exhibitors and helps make the travelling, cleaning and hard work worthwhile.  Richard’s winner was Stephen Tubb with ‘Bertie Independence Warrior’, put to a Spider Gig, followed by Neil & Wendy Winney with their veteran bay Cob ‘Glanvyrnwy Prince of Wales’, whose name I’ve grappled with for many years as he’s now 24.  Also being shown in the ridden veteran class the following day, he is a trooper, like Stephen’s horse, who knows the job and does it well.  Alfie Smith, younger brother to Shayne, had Blueboy’s reins and was next, then driving a very flashy palomino Cob who has everything in place except his manners, was Albert Smith with ‘Keenleyside Golden Flyer’, and 8 year old Section D stallion who had only recently been put in shafts.

For the Mountain & Moorland, once such a popular class, there were two forward with Neil taking the top spot, followed by Theresa Mccarron.  The smaller Non-Hackney type brought a few more out of the side lines with its promise of a HOYS place so in came Josie Randall with her cream coloured ‘Leyeswick Farvies Boy’, who stood ahead of Theresa.  The larger Non-Hackney class had a great entry of seven, but for various reasons (class clashes, sinus problems) only two came forward so Stephen Tubb went ahead of the Sealmaster turnout.

Rounding off the morning, and nearly helping us to fill the four hours allocated for the classes, was the Hackney type class.  From four entries, two turned up and the winner was Jessie Dudley Apicella driving the Walsh family’s chestnut Hackney ‘Marylind Question Mark’ who has also been very successful in wagon classes.  Next was Shane White’s ‘Brookfield Our Way’.  Much to Jemma Walsh’s relief, her horse took the championship and the coveted golden ticket to HOYS but overall, Jessie’s attention to detail in terms of her outfit and presentation, should make others sit up and take notice.  Her stand show was in a class of its own as she used the ring to the max to show off the floaty, scopey paces of this flashy horse.  Then she did a neat one handed turn in front of Richard to ensure that the turnout was on the downhill for the rein back – basic stuff but making sure that the horse stands square in front of a judge and that you have assessed the ring to see where the slopes and tufts are all helps, and can make a difference to positions.  Richard even suggested to some of the more novice drivers that they didn’t attempt an ‘uphill’ reverse, but they didn’t always take it on board when returning for the next class.

After a quick lunch, we reconvened for the coaching and multiples class which had a quick foray into the grand ring for 15 minutes for some pre-judging before setting off on the 6 mile ‘marathon’.  Under Justin’s impetus, coaching returned to the Royal Norfolk last year after nearly 60 years, and having attracted three coaches last year, it was quite a task to get to nine.  Inspired by the new format at Suffolk, the RN decided to open up to multiples too and the class was boosted by Liz Jarman with the Post Chaise and Janice Clough with her dun Cobs and Spider Phaeton.  Although not judged, they really lifted the class.

Safely back from the drive, which all felt would have benefited from a drinks stop which should be factored in for 2024, Richard’s winner was Max White with his father Paul and Haydn Webb’s Whisper, Winnie, Baron and Navy to the Holland & Holland Park Drag which had been Albert Wildblood’s, Frank Sykes’ and Lord Ballyedmond’s before being purchased at a T & S sale by Paul and sent to Mendyka’s in Poland to be spruced up.  Second went to Sonny Hillier with his smooth black Friesians and another Holland & Holland, ahead of the Geoff Dudley and the big bay Gelderlanders.  It was Geoff’s first time in the coaching ring and made all the more special by his Park Drag, another Holland & Holland, having been purchased at T & S’s autumn sale last year from the Ronnie & Shirley Gedge Collection – which was Norfolk based.  The Dudleys did well have the coach, which was in need of a lot of work, turned round so quickly and get it to the Royal Norfolk. They stood ahead of Colin Varle with a new team of grey Lipizzaners who were at their first show as a four, and Tom Farmer with another team of Friesians then Jack Harris with the Mills of Paddington Pony Coach and his game little Hackney ponies.

Rounding off what was a very successful day, the show laid on a coaching dinner which was well attended.  Nearly missing it due to the awful traffic around the showground, compounded by some random policing and appearance of ‘roadworks’ (no works were visible) and a lot of cones and junction closures, I raced in rather late from the hotel to be told I was saying a few words, which revolved around thanking the generous sponsors of the dinner (Cribbs) and the class (shoemakers Gaziano & Girling).  Guest of the show at the dinner, fellow commentator Nick Brooks-Ward, also got up to thank everyone and spoke graciously, about the quality of the driving and the turnouts, which was spot-on.

Dodging the morning’s rain and rounding off the coaching on the Thursday, we were back in the grand ring for the Coachman’s class, where Richard laid out a sympathetic slalom and the Parker / Townsend Memorial Trophy, presented to the show by Justin, deservedly went to Colin Varle, who was visibly delighted.  Max stood second then Jessie Dudley-Apicella, having regained her seat on the box was in third, but she also took the lady whip award.

In all, a classy and cracking show which is well worth a visit, if you haven’t been before.