Henrietta Fiddian-Green organises animals in a bonanza nativity play, which draws thousands to the Surrey Hills, as she explains to Martha Terry
For nine days before Christmas we run nativity plays in a barn, set up like Jesus’s stable, on the Wintershall estate in Surrey. It’s spectacular, starting with flares leading up the hill from the car park, and Mary and Joseph appearing on a donkey, the three kings on horseback. There’s sometimes a cow with a calf, lambs in the audience and chickens, too. People can touch and smell the stable scene; it’s real and dramatic.
My mother, Ann Hutley, was inspired by a trip to a shrine in Medugorje, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 35 years ago to do something with the Christian message for this country, and she decided on a nativity play. My parents started with a donkey and a few hay bales in a barn and it’s gradually grown. Now, there’s a cast of 60, and it’s always a sell-out with 600 people at each show.
My sister, Charlotte de Klee, is now the producer, while I manage the animals. We have three donkeys which I practise leading along the route in the dark because the performances are at 7.30pm. Chester’s an old favourite, he’s been doing this job for nearly 20 years, though we are training up a younger one.
Donkeys are pretty easy, but when you have a Joseph who has never led a donkey before it can get interesting. It’s fairly chaotic, there are sheep jumping into the audience, and the shepherd – my real stockman – cringing in sackcloth because he needs his sheepdog to round them up.
The three kings’ horses are polo ponies, Baya, Lightning and Blue. We use polo ponies because my kids played polo and they’re well behaved. We also have a black New Forest, Harry, a faithful 30-year-old we use as a pack pony with children leading him.
We do have two hunters, Max and Dexter, whom we hunt with the Surrey Union. But they are not in the nativity play – far too big, difficult and young, and one can’t go anywhere without the other.
We have an evolving cast, selected by word of mouth, formed by anyone from solicitors, cleaners, blacksmiths to stockmen. We have most religions within the cast – Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Orthodox – the message is for everyone.
I’ve played the Angel Gabriel, with an amazing set of goose feather wings; I’ve been Mary four times, with each of my children as baby Jesus. Now my siblings and I have run out of babies, we’re on to the grandchildren. We tend to have three or four baby Jesuses as nine performances is a big ask.
We’re all exhausted by Christmas – no one’s bought any presents and the tree is only just about up. But it’s normal for us and so worth it.
The live animals and varying age of the cast are what makes the show such a success. We naturally engage with our own age group, and our audience are children, 40-year-olds, dads, grannies and so on, just like our cast. Animals also help engagement. People are mesmerised by them. After the show we let them stroke them.
It draws people in and brings the Christmas story to life. The story is 2,000 years old, but this is our way of giving people access to the person of Christ. You see grown men crying and laughing; they’re gripped.
When I’m not organising the animals for the shows, I run a farm with 60 Sussex cattle and 150 herdwick sheep. I bought the herdwicks for the nativity – they’re particularly tame – and their breeder came down from North Yorkshire to see the play, which was touching. I’m also a passionate potter, making kitchenware out of the Wintershall clay.
Not having the nativity this year will be a massive dent on the Wintershall charity’s income. The nativity fuels the expenses of another show we put on in Trafalgar Square – where we tell the biblical story of Christ’s death and resurrection. We have 10,000 spectators at each show, which is free for Londoners. It costs £150,000 to put on.
This year (18–22 December) we are planning a drive-in nativity or walk-round performance in groups of six outside. I’ve put six ewes in lamb, so hopefully the kids can see the newborn lambs. The Christmas message will still go out from Wintershall.
Ref: Horse & Hound; 17 December 2020
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