A beautiful carved hippo, eying up the dew pond at Barbury Castle, excuses the Willis Bros absence from Gatcombe Park. With less than a month until the Festival of British Eventing, the legendary course builders have a mammoth job ahead of them – the 2006 course is still a twinkle in Mark Phillips’ eye. But if Barbury’s hippo and the Loch Ness monster are anything to go by, a mammoth job is well within their capabilities.
At the inaugural Barbury Castle Horse Trials last year, competitors and spectators (myself included) were greeted by dolphins, the Loch Ness Monster and a replica Stonehenge, complete with sacrificial table. This year a hippo, a family of owls, three bears and a crocodile joined in the party.
“This is where eventing is going,” Mark Phillips said to me when I spoke to him at last year’s event. I think he was referring to the beautiful course, magnificent setting and classy food tents and trade stands rather than some kind of Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. And he’s right. This year people arrived at Barbury in droves to enjoy an effort-free spectacle of eventing. From the trade stands you can see the show jumping arena and the whole cross-country, zig-zagging across Barbury’s natural amphitheatre. And if you are energetic enough to walk round the course, you’ll encounter a fairytale’s worth of carved wooden characters plus the complete Alan King racing stables, courtesy of equestrian artist Christine Bousfield.
When I sat next to Christine at lunch last week she bemoaned the fact that everything about equestrianism is driven by photography. “All the Horse & Hound pictures of Barbury just showed horses and riders – there was no reference to the wonderful jumps and setting.” Barbury is evidence that beauty is the driving force behind age-old British events like Henley. The programme, full of Rosemary’s beautiful paintings of the fences introduces a spectacle as well as a cross-country course. “All Barbury needs is a band stand,” my father said afterwards, only to be reprimanded by my mother; “But that would scare the horses.”
Bringing my mother (of the Pony Club variety) and my father (who takes pride in knowing what a “numnah” is) to an event can be tedious. But the excellent course viewing and plasma screens showing both Barbury and Wimbledon created a build-up which suited all tastes. At lunch in the marquee our round table gave the option of horse viewing (me and my mother), tennis viewing, (my father) and horse and tennis viewing (my brother). When Federer had Wimbledon safely in the bag, we wandered off round the cross-country, encountering Lucinda Green cheering on Andrew Hoy and Master Monarch and young rider Jade Lazenby’s mother running barefoot around the course, checking out the massive obstacles her daughter had jumped.
The reverse merit order for the cross-country kept people watching – and gave higher placed riders such as Tina Cook the chance to enjoy a gourmet burger at the Well Hung Meat Company. By the time Sharon Hunt and Tankers Town left the start box at 5:50pm, there were seven empty bottles of champagne on the table next to ours and a crowd lining the amphitheatre.
More champagne corks flew as Polly Stockton was crowned winner ten minutes later, and for the first time in the history of eventing, there was no sloping off before prize giving. But if what Mark Phillips said is true, and this is where eventing is heading, organisers should prepare themselves – I had three pens swiped by eager young fans in search of Francis Whittington and Ollie Townends’ autographs.