Monday, 23 May 2016

Horse Tales - Cambridge Conference May 2016

I'll report later on what actually happened at the conference, but in the meantime, here is the text of what I said. This is the full version, because reading this lot out would have taken considerably longer than I was allowed so drastic pruning took place before the event. [Edited to add this is in a large part my fault. I know how many words you  need for five minutes, but was sort of hoping I could speak quickly and it would all be ok. Alas the stopwatch was not my friend, even with my million-mile-an-hour delivery, so cut it was.]


I approach the pony book now from a similar perspective to many children today. I live in a world that is relatively horse-free. I no longer ride. I now live in the middle of a town, where the closest I get to a horse is the carved relief of a horse opposite our local Marks and Spencers.

The 1920s–1930s

That is not how the world was when the pony book as we know it was developing. In the 1920s and 1930s, the position of the horse was massively different to what it is today. It was entirely normal for horses and carts to be seen around the streets. Horses took goods from railway stations in huge numbers. In 1937, the London, Midland and Scottish Railway Company was the biggest private owner of horses in Great Britain. Its stables contained nearly 8,500 horses, with 2,000 in London alone. There were horses everywhere: there were horse hospitals in Camden and Willesden, huge railway stables in several London locations, and in many other cities. The clip below was filmed at the Camden stables in London in 1949. It was indeed another world.

As well as working horses, there was much easier access to riding horses. There were riding schools in the middle of towns. The Cadogan Riding School, which was in Central London, had 250 horses at the outbreak of war in 1939, and it was by no means the only riding school in London. Thousands of horses worked on farms.
But change was coming. I can remember the immense thrill as a small child in the 1960s of the coal cart coming round, being pulled by a horse. It was exciting precisely because of its rarity. Almost all ferrying of goods by the 1960s was now done by vans and lorries. Horses were sold off from farms in huge numbers in the 1950s and 1960s as mechanisation took over. My family farmed, but the horses were long gone by the time I came on the scene. When I was around 10, someone found an old horse collar in an outbuilding, green with age, and gave it to me, because they knew I liked horses.

And exposure to horses has continued to decrease. The inner city riding school is a rare beast. The horse has now been ‘tidied up’ into livery stables, often with segregated grazing. The scrub pony grazing on scrub land on the edges of towns is (perhaps thankfully) becoming more and more unusual.

And yet… even though most children rarely see an actual, live horse in their everyday lives, that seems to make no difference to their attraction to the horse and their desire to read about it. There still seems to be some strange, entrancing pull that the horse has for us. You can see it through the number of pony books published, which has recovered from its low point in the 1980s to levels that in the first decade of this century rivalled the pony book’s glory days in the 1950s. And pony books continue to be published in large numbers, aided by the rise in self-publishing.

The thing is, that if the horse bug bites you, it is not particular about where you live, or how likely it is that you are going to be able to do anything about it. For many pony book readers, reading a pony book is the closest they are ever going to get.

I can remember one of my nieces, who had led a totally pony-free life, saying when we arrived for Christmas, ‘When you were on your way up through the garden, did you happen to see a pony? Because I did ask for a pony for Christmas?’ Sadly, the garden was completely and utterly pony-free, and I did sympathise because my own present lists had always included a pony, and this is the nearest I got:

A fantasy landscape?
I would argue that the ability to experience a real-life horse, whether that is simply seeing it go by in the street, makes no difference to how much children want to read about horses and ponies. Whether that’s because horses and ponies are part of the fantasy landscape of the inner child, and are in fact similar to the wizarding of Harry Potter, is unclear. The relevance of their everyday lives to ponies, and their chances of riding themselves also seem to make no difference.

The adult world
As well as the fantasy element, one attraction of much children’s literature lies in the fact that it puts the child in an adult situation, but one that’s copable-with. Enid Blyton’s Famous Five had adventures on their own in the holidays, but Uncle Quentin was nearby, and real life always rolled back around again with the end of the school holidays.

Reality, of a sort
With pony stories, life is not like that. Day in, day out, year in, year out, the pony needs looking after, and certainly in the vast majority of pony books, the person in sole charge of the animal’s welfare is a child. In the Jill books, Jill, once she’d learned the ropes, had complete and utter say over what happened to Black Boy and Rapide.

Mrs Darcy, the owner of the riding school, was there for expert advice if needed, but Jill and her friends were expert enough to help with the running of the school when Mrs Darcy was away (something of a trope in pony literature – there are many noble pony book children who have taken on the running of a riding school when the owner was ill.)

And they have real-life parallels. The Pullein-Thompson sisters started their riding school in Oxfordshire when they were all in their mid-teens.

Economic reality is perhaps one of the things that divides most children’s literature from the real world. Parents and guardians are (almost) always there to pay for things and make sure every day life continues. The reality of owning a pony pre-supposes that you do actually have a certain level of family income: that you live somewhere where pony owning is possible, and that whoever looks after you can cover the expenses of everyday life. Nevertheless, there are many examples in pony books of children having to face some of the economic reality of horse-owning on their own, whether it’s Jinny selling her paintings to keep Shantih going, or the family in Veronica Westlake’s The Ten Pound Pony earning every penny of the pony’s purchase price, and its keep, themselves.

Perhaps in a world where children are less and less likely to experience the world on their own terms; where the chance of a child having the opportunity to experience adventure out in the wilds, on their own apart from their ponies is vanishingly rare, the pony has come to represent something sadly tantalising to the modern child, and something their predecessors took for granted: freedom. Freedom to act as an adult; freedom to perhaps hack out and be alone and unsupervised.


Thursday, 31 March 2016

Vintage Riding Schools - Heather Hall

I’m attempting to break what has been a bit of a blogging drought by writing a series about riding schools. If you took Pony Magazine in the 1970s and before, you might remember an occasional feature it did called Round the Riding Schools. The sort of riding school that got itself featured here taught you to ride the right way, with instructors who were the backbone of the British equestrian establishment. Some of the schools featured in the article were very large indeed; others were minute. What many of them have in common, despite their size, is that they no longer exist.

As for the esteemed establishment that taught me to ride, I always hoped that it would feature, but it never did. It wasn’t on quite the same level that Pony Magazine establishments were. The instruction was variable to say the least. There was an ex-Army instructor called Ben, who didn’t last long after he made pupils stand on the ponies’ rumps and ride round facing backwards. Even in an earlier, less health and safety conscious age, this was a bit much for some parents and Ben soon left. My own parents were sublimely unbothered by this. As long as we arrived home in one bit, they did not care what we had got up to in the interim.

But questionable though my riding school was, it was all that was available, and so I stuck with it, uneasily aware that there was another, and a better, way. It was that better way that was on offer at the first riding school I’m featuring, Heather Hall Riding School, in Ibstock, Leicestershire.

Some of the riding schools in the Pony article had distinctly glamorous surroundings, and Heather Hall is right up there. It is a large, redbrick Grade II listed house, with a stable block so splendid that it is listed in its own right. The Hall was probably originally built as a farmhouse towards the end of the 18th century, together with the stable block, and it was enlarged at various points. For most of its history it was owned by the Goode family, and after a spell in the ownership of a clergyman and then an engineer at the beginning of the 20th century, it began its career as a riding stable.

Mrs MSM Kew, IIH (IIH stands for Instructor of the Institute of the Horse) set up her first riding school in Bristol. Cribbs Corner began life in 1939, a challenging time to start a riding school. The war saw restrictions on fodder and a falling off in clientele for many schools (Pamela MacGregor Morris’ hero in Blue Rosette finds the advent of war too much for his riding school). Mrs Kew survived, and when her husband, a lecturer in aircraft propulsion, moved to Loughborough University in 1948, she set up Heather Hall as a riding school. In its earliest years, Heather Hall was also run as a girls’ day and boarding school. Mrs Kew taught both riding and art, having studied art herself at the Slade. St Francis School catered for girls from the age of five, and promised:

...a sound intellectual training together with an appreciation of both town and country pursuits. A qualified staff prepares pupils for Common Entrance and General Certificate examinations. Classes are small. Each child receives individual attention both in the classroom and out of school hours. Special facilities for Riding and Hunting and for students for the examination of the British Horse Society. Inclusive fees:- 45-58 gns per term (boarders) 15-25 gns per term (day pupils).

It strikes me that the promised chance to experience town pursuits was somewhat limited in rural Leicestershire, but that in itself was not reason enough for St Francis to close. It was the introduction of the eleven plus exam, and increasing bureaucracy that saw the school’s closure.

The riding school, however, continued. In 1974, when the Pony article appeared, the school had expanded and now had four qualified instructors, including Nick Creaton, BHSI, now a chief examiner for the BHS, and a saddler. He was associated with Heather Hall from 1973 to 1989, and was chief instructor for much of that time.

The school had an excellent reputation, and has some famous alumni, including eventer Ronnie Durrand, and Di Lampard, now Performance Manger for Jumping for the senior British showjumping team.  Di’s earliest riding experiences were of the alarming sort, featuring a Shetland pony called Oscar, who enjoyed scraping his young rider off under trees. Di’s father decided that riding lessons would be safer, and at the age of six, Di started at Heather Hall. She was taught by Mrs Kew, who she described as “a stickler for the basics”. Di spent most of her early lessons on the lunge, helping Heather Hall maintain its emphasis on discipline and good position in the rider. It obviously worked: by the time she was 10, Di was competing, and she did a one-day event on one of the riding school ponies.

Heather Hall did not just teach children. It was well-known for preparing students for the BHS examinations, including the more advanced teaching qualification, the BHSI. The well-rounded education its students received was helped by visiting instructors like Lisa Shedden, FIH, FBHS, Col AEG Stuart, Jean Mackeness, BHSI, and Jane Turner, BHSI.

Nick Creaton left Heather Hall in September 1989, when he went freelance, and the school closed in October 1989. Mrs Kew died in January 1995, and Heather Hall was sold. The family who bought Heather Hall had a few liveries, but the riding school was not resurrected.  Heather Hall, its stables and land were sold in 2014, and planning has now been granted to return Heather Hall to a single house. The historical assessment of the buildings created as part of the planning application makes fascinating reading. Some of the elements of the riding school are still there; there’s still an indoor school, and the timber stables. There’s still a mounting block made out of millstones. The listed stables retain some of their 19th century fittings, with stall partitions, feeding troughs and hayracks, but the building is, sadly, in an extremely poor state of repair, and in obvious need of much love, attention and money. The new owners have a considerable task on their hands, and they are to be commended for taking it on.

Heather Hall fell victim to a pattern that seems common in riding schools: a simple lack of someone to take the school on. The Kews had no children, and not many people can provide the huge capital investment necessary to take on and maintain a set of historic buildings, let alone run a business which makes incredible demands on time and energy.


My apologies for the paucity of pictures - copyright-free pictures of Heather Hall are all but non-existent. 

Very many thanks to Nick Creaton, formerly chief instructor at Heather Hall, who was an absolutely invaluable source of help. Nick still teaches, as well as acting as a chief examiner for the BHS. He designs saddles and saddlery, and you can find his website here.
Historic Building Assessment of Heather Hall, Trigpoint. North West Leicestershire Planning Department.
The Schools Handbook, 1955 
Di Lampard on her first pony, OscarEQ Life, September 7, 2012, retrieved 12 March 2016.
Di Lampard and Heather Hall. Leicester Mercury, May 18, 2015, retrieved 13 March 2016.

Monday, 18 January 2016

In which I fail to get on Norwegian TV

Walking home at top speed (because it is cold, and I am cold) a bearded chap with a sensible hat and a camera on a tripod (Canon, expensive) stops me. Do I have time, he says, to answer a few questions for Norwegian TV? I am an obliging sort so I say yes. Ask chap where he is from – Oslo. I know Oslo. Make swift mental note that have been to Oslo sculpture park, which is the only Oslo fact a brain fresh from dealing with proofreading since 0700 can come up with. Who knows whether or not this little nugget of experience might come in handy?

Make further mental scramble to work out what Norwegian TV might be asking about if it's not the sculpture park, and while he is fiddling with camera and we are both avoiding someone intent on running down anyone in their way with their mobility scooter, plump for EU and our forthcoming referendum and marshal what I hope will be sparkling British opinions, fresh from the East Midlands, on my view on the EU. (Stay in, if you’re interested.)

Interviewer: You live in Kettering?

Internal me: Easy one to start with.
Me: Yes.

Interviewer: And what is Kettering famous for?

Internal me: God – what? Shoes? Is anyone in Norway interested in Kettering’s long ago and now sadly defunct place in the shoe industry? Probably not.
Me: I’m really not sure.
Internal me: HELP ME HERE.

Interviewer: Do you like football?

Internal me: Are you kidding? I make active efforts to avoid it.
Me: Not my thing, I’m afraid.

Interviewer: Did you know Kettering has a football team?

Internal me: Yes, but what has that to do with anything?
Me: Yes.

Interviewer: Do you know how they’re doing?

Internal me: Look, I said football isn’t my thing. I have no idea. I have no idea how any team is doing. Is it so badly Norwegian TV have heard of it? 
Me: Absolutely no idea, I’m afraid.

Interviewer: Do you know what they’re famous for?

Internal me: Absolutely not a clue. 
Me: Absolutely not a clue.

Interviewer: Did you know they were the first team to have a sponsored shirt, 40 years ago?

Internal me: WTAF? I mean, what? 
Me: Gosh, no.

Interviewer: Thanks, that was brilliant.

Head off on my way. Once across the road, I turn round and the interviewer is still where I left him, asking someone else to stop. I think we both hope that this time, he’s found someone who has a bit more idea about the great and glorious history of Kettering football than me. 

Friday, 25 December 2015

Christmas Day 2015

Patricia Leitch died earlier this year. She wrote one of the best ever pony series with the Jinny books, and book eleven, Horse of Fire, has one of the most magical Christmas scenes in a children's book. This post is dedicated to Patricia with thanks for the many presents she gave the world through her books.

Jinny and Shantih are appearing in the local nativity play. Jinny has fine and splendid dreams about how she and Shantih will appear as glorious king and even more glorious horse, but when the moment comes, it's not like that at all. Jinny is cast into utter misery by the rude disconnect between her dreams and reality, but then, as they're leaving, a little boy stops and stares up at Shantih.

"The little boy stared up at Shantih, his eyes wide with tiredness and excitement. 'I saw them,' he stated stubbornly. 'It was the golden wings it had.' 'You're right,' said Ken, speaking directly to the little boy. 'I saw them too.' 'Filling his head with such nonsense,' snapped the woman, but the child's face lit up as he smiled at Ken. 'You see,' said Ken, as they watched the little boy being dragged away. 'It is always worthwhile. All his life he'll remember Shantih's golden wings. Tell his grandchildren about them.' A surge of gratitude lifted through Jinny. It had all been worthwhile - the hassle, the striving, the not giving in. For the little boy the nativity play had been as wonderful as Jinny had wanted it to be for everyone."

And then Jinny and Ken, after they confound the deer smugglers who've been plaguing the moors, go to the Tinkers' celebration of Christmas.
"Here there were no costumes, no kings, no one striving to make this simple ceremony the best ever. It was as it was. Suddenly Jinny saw that all her efforts to turn the Glenbost nativity play into a spectacular happening had only been a way of showing off, wanting to make people see her as the best king, to admire Shantih. She hadn't really cared about the nativity. She had only cared about Jinny Manders being the most.
They went one by one and knelt before the Child. Sara first, the other tinkers, then Ken, and last of all Jinny. It seemed they moved in a formal, precise dance in which all played their part - those who waited and those who knelt. Jinny would have left Shantih as Ken had left Bramble but Sara motioned her to take Shantih with her. While Jinny knelt Shantih breathed warm sweet breath over the baby, who opened his eyes and laughed."

Thank you very much for sticking with this Advent Calendar. A very Merry Christmas to you all.

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Thursday, 24 December 2015

Advent Calendar 24 - Catherine Harris: The Ponies of Cuckoo Mill Farm

Catherine Harris' Marsham family crash through her series about them, and Christmas is no different. This Christmas they have to suffer the terrible (in their opinion) Forrest family, whose father has died. The initial meeting between the families did not go well. Mrs Marsham has to dole out some harsh home truths - but before she does that, she describes what Christmas Eve is like for her:

"I think Christmas Eve is the most beautiful of all nights," said Mrs. Marsham. She pointed towards the uncurtained window. 'Look how bright the stars are tonight. One couldn't help but know that it's Christmas night just by seeing them. And then there's a sense of silence somehow. I know we all rush about and make lots of noise and upset things, but beyond ourselves, the very atmosphere close around us seems so very still, waiting. It's the one night when I believe in magic.'
Happy Christmas Eve.

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Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Advent Calendar 23 - Veronica Westlake: The Ten Pound Pony

Veronica Westlake's The Ten Pound Pony is one of my absolute favourite books, and hopefully one of Susan Keith's, who suggested this, too. This excerpt is set on Christmas Eve (as is tomorrow's), and I really need to say nothing about it as it makes all the points it needs to perfectly well on its own.

We all went to bed for a short time after that, as later on we should be walking three miles into New Fratton (and back) to go to Midnight Mass there, and I think we were all in a strange, dreamy, unreal state when, with a slight shiver, we stepped out into the brilliant moonlight and started our long walk through a shining fairy-land of frost and snow. 

It must have been that queer trance between sleeping and waking that set me thinking and wondering about Colonel Mainwaring. Beastly as he had always been to us, incomprehensible in his headstrong rages, I yet felt sorry for him as I sat in the warm, glowing little church looking at the bright colours on the altar and hearing the first strains of the Adeste Fideles pealing out.  
Later on, as laughing and joking we pelted towards home and saw our funny little cottage, looking just like a Christmas cake in the moonlight, with the little candle in the window burning steadily in its bowl of moss, and a log fire, and the tiny glittering Christmas tree waiting for us inside, I wondered if he were shut up alone reading in his big, empty shuttered house from which all life and love seemed to have been driven - lonely and alone."

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Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Advent Calendar 22 - Ruby Ferguson: Jill Has Two Ponies

I couldn't let Christmas pass without another episode of Jillish Christmas. In Jill Has Two Ponies, Jill gets an early Christmas present of two loose boxes. She gets her mother a splendid white cushion "from a shop that appeared to be the kind of place that furnished palaces," and both are delighted with their presents.

Jill's other presents more than make up for this bounty. They are presents with a theme.

"As for my other presents, by some strange trick of Fate they nearly all turned out to be handkerchiefs. As I opened mysterious parcels in the cold light of that Christmas dawn and more and more handkerchiefs fell upon my bed I began to think I was under a spell, like people in fairy-tales. Of course I could understand getting handkerchiefs from rather soul-less people like my Aunt Primrose and my cousin Cecilia (of whom you have read in my previous books) and handkerchiefs I got, six white linen ones of a rather dainty size with a white J. for Jill in the corner; but when it came to Ann Derry I just couldn't guess what she was thinking about! The six she sent me were jolly big ones and would come in for stable rubbers, but why shouldn't a horsy person send another horsy person stable rubbers and have done with it? 

Mrs Lowe, Martin's mother, had also sent me handkerchiefs. Seven of different colours with the name of the day of the week in the corner, upon which day I suppose that particular handkerchief had to be used. I began to wonder if some awful Fate would befall the careless person who used the wrong handkerchief on the wrong day. In any case it would probably put you off pretty badly if you pulled out your handkerchief and found it said Monday when you knew perfectly well it was Saturday.

 ...When I went into Mummy's room and told her about all these handkerchiefs she laughed like anything and said it was a judgement on me for all the hundreds I had lost in a long and energetic lifetime. Then we heard Mrs. Crosby (No Relation to Bing) letting herself in downstairs and I went down to give her her present. Then she gave me what she had brought for me, which was a handkerchief, an enormous yellow cotton one with red horses' heads all over it.

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