Historic eventing venues: A nostalgic tour *H&H Plus*

  • Visiting beautiful stately homes is one of eventing’s unique selling points, and different locations have come and gone. Catherine Austen takes a nostalgic tour and catches up on plans for two venues that return to the fixtures list in 2020

    Eventing in Britain is known worldwide for its palatial venues. Castles, palaces, stately homes – ever since the Duke of Beaufort gave the sport its first home in this country at his house, Badminton, in 1949, competitors and spectators have had privileged access to some of the finest sporting locations possible.

    While Badminton has remained a constant, other equally beautiful events have come and gone over the decades. Who now remembers Harewood in Yorkshire, which ran a major three-day event for four years in the 1950s? However, sometimes historic venues return to the calendar – such as Osberton and Chatsworth, which ran in the 1950s, then as a three-day event in the 1980s, and from 1999 in its present form as a highly prestigious one-day.

    This year, both Cornbury House and Cirencester Park will host horse trials for the first time in many years. Both replace “little” Gatcombe fixtures, Cirencester in the spring and Cornbury in the autumn.

    David Howden, who rents Cornbury House from its owner, Lord Rotherwick, says: “My family and I have a passion for horses, but as soon as I discovered that so many people had such fond memories of eventing at Cornbury, I thought bringing it back to such a magnificent setting would be a wonderful thing to do.”

    Mike Etherington-Smith and his wife Sue ran a novice and advanced event at Cornbury for “six or seven years” in the 1990s.

    “Robin Rotherwick evented himself [as the Hon Robin Cayzer, he completed Badminton] and when he took the estate over from his father, he wanted to run an event,” Mike explains. “Cornbury has glorious unspoilt parkland that isn’t open to the public. All the riders came – it was like a Who’s Who of eventing with a great atmosphere, and it’s a pleasure to see it returning.”

    David Evans built the Mike-designed cross-country track, and this time David will be designing it. The event has a different footprint to the “old Cornbury” – dressage will take place to one side of the house, with the cross-country on the slopes behind, wheeling in and out of the Wychwood Forest. A new plateau has been levelled for the showjumping and main hub of the event, from which much of the cross-country will be visible.

    “I want to bring a freshness to it and make it a really great experience for riders, owners and spectators,” says David Howden. “I’m not sure eventing has really moved forward in the way that other sports have in terms of increasing its appeal, and we are determined to do that; we have the opportunity to create something slightly different here. There are a lot of people who love the separate elements of what makes up a horse trials in a spectacular venue but who might not ever have been to an event, and we want to appeal to them.

    “I told David Evans that I want spectators to be able to see nine, 10, 11 jumps at once, not just one or two. The conditions for horses will be top-notch, the prize money will be much better than is usual and I am passionate about sustainability, local farming and produce; I want to create something that has longevity and is in harmony with its surroundings.”

    William Fox-Pitt has good memories of Cornbury’s first incarnation, and plans to be there again this autumn.

    “It’s very exciting that it is back in the calendar,” he says. “It was a lovely event in the old days. I lived near Bicester then so it was local, and it was a good pre-Badminton run when it first started, and then a pre-Burghley run when it moved later in the summer. Tamarillo was second at his first event with me there – it was only a novice but he went fast and jumped everything, which wasn’t always the case when he was young! I remember Cornbury being lots of fun and very beautiful.”

    Kitty King’s childhood ambition was to ride in the advanced at Cornbury. The event stopped before she got the chance, but she has happy memories of doing junior classes there.

    “I did my first ever Pony Club open class at Cornbury, which ran over the novice track, I won the JRN [junior regional novice] there and remember watching my cousin Holly Griffiths do the young rider advanced trial,” she says. “It was an eye-opener – the course seemed massive; it felt really special being able to compete there. It had a real ‘three-day’ feel, and challenging and well-presented courses.”

    And Beanie Sturgis not only rode there, but Cornbury was also the first place that she worked in cross-country control.

    “I remember we used to make the commentary team – Justin Llewellyn, Mike Tucker and Giles Rowsell – work their way through the alphabet, using a different adverb to describe the way a horse was going round the track. Q and Z were pretty tricky!” she says.

    Iconic cross-country fences

    Cirencester Park held the Midland Bank-sponsored national championships in the 1970s before they moved first to Locko Park and then Gatcombe, and Lucinda Green remembers winning at Cirencester on Be Fair in 1972.

    “I won £200, which I used to buy a Visit USA air ticket, which got me to the US, all over it from coast to coast and home again,” she says. “I remember it being a big, galloping course, and it’s wonderful it is coming back.”

    Cirencester Park is being run by Alec Lochore’s Musketeer Event Management company, and an unaffiliated event was held there last autumn to test the waters.

    “Lucinda won the 100cm class!” says Alec. “Lord Bathurst, who owns Cirencester Park, was very excited to present her with her prize because he remembers being taken out of school to watch her win on Be Fair.”

    One of Cirencester’s iconic cross-country fences was the cross-rails over a ditch known as “Cirencester rails”, which Mark Phillips reintroduced at Burghley a few years ago. Alec is designing the cross-country courses, which will be built by the Willis Brothers.

    “It will be a ‘young’ event this spring and quite rustic, becoming more established in its second year,” he says. “It is a lovely place that could develop into a fantastic event – the estate are very on-side and up for it. It has a lot of support locally, is a very central location and I hope it will really grow.

    “It takes place in a slightly different area of the park to the old event – you can still see a few of the old fences from the 1970s – to the side of the polo grounds and alongside the avenue that looks down towards the church in Cirencester town.”

    While Cornbury House and Cirencester Park are established venues making welcome returns, there are brand-new, exciting events debuting this year as well.

    Chief among them is Thoresby Park in March. The ever-popular Belton ran for the last time in 2019, but organiser Stuart Buntine quickly secured a new location for his important pre-Badminton event, the Grade I-listed Thoresby Park in Nottinghamshire. It will hold CCI4*-S, CCI3*-S, CCI2*-S, novice, intermediate and advanced classes.

    A fairy-tale castle

    Wylye, Kinlet, Kings Somborne, Powderham, Lulworth, Thirlestane, Brigstock, Stowell Park, Sherborne, Savernake… they are all names that conjure up memories for today’s riders.

    “Wylye was on amazing downland and there were no trees to hide under,” remembers Lucinda Green. “It ran in October and it always rained hard! Thirlestane was lovely – the fairy-tale castle looks so French.”

    Francis Whittington has particularly fond memories of Thirlestane – where he scored his first CIC3* victory in 2005 on Spin Doctor – Brockenhurst, and Burgie (which still hosts grassroots events).

    “The Burgie parties were legendary and, in June in the north of Scotland, it never seemed to get dark,” he recalls.

    New 105cm internationals

    There will be six events in Britain and Ireland holding the new CCI* classes at 105cm level this year.

    They are both the spring and autumn fixtures at Ballindenisk and Kilguilkey (July) in Ireland, and Brand Hall (May; pictured), Chilham Castle (July) and Blair Castle (August) in the UK.

    Janet Plant, organiser of Brand Hall, says: “We were sad to lose our FEI status when the pony two-star moved to Belsay, so when we were asked to hold a new one-star class, we agreed. We’ve been the pilots for a lot of new classes over the years – we don’t mind!

    “The CCI*-S will run on the Saturday and Sunday so amateur riders are only away from home for one night, to help them keep costs down. We haven’t had a 105cm course here before, so it will be a new-ish track, and will very much retain its lovely big-event feel.”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 12 March 2020