When I was eight I discovered our local riding school. It was called Offington Hall and was a wonderful Place. I’d had nothing to do with horses until that time, but they were in the blood. My Nan had grown up on a farm with horses and Grandad had ridden horses in the First World War. Horses became a passion for me and I passed that on to my daughter, who rides regularly and loves her pony.
My friend, Ann, and I used to go off on our bikes – like you did in the 1950s when we lived in a freer world. I can’t remember why we decided to cycle down the bumpy track to the stables, but we wandered around and said hello to the ponies and a cheeky chap called William ate a button on Ann’s duffel coat. It didn’t seem to do him much harm, but I’m sure her Mum wasn’t very pleased!
As far as I can remember, we made a couple of trips to see the ponies. We always went in the back entrance up that track, but the front entrance was a five-bar gate with a stern notice stating “No admittance except on Business”. We never dared use that gate. The place was the old coaching stables for Offington Hall. I think the main building was gone by then and bungalows had been built all around on what must have been the grounds, but the stables were still there. I believe they still are. It was all built of flint with a beautiful cobbled yard, which was a nightmare to sweep.
On my 9th birthday I was given a mystery tour and we all set off in the car. We’re a bit early said Mum, so we’ll pop in to the stables and say hello. I was terrified. What about the notice on the gate? No Admittance Except on Business! It’ll be fine my Mum assured me. And it was.
My present was 6 riding lessons and that first day I got kitted out with second hand riding clothes – those old-fashioned baggy jodhpurs, hat with a piece of thin elastic to keep it on, jodhpur boots and a yellow polo-neck jumper and hacking jacket. No-one left that yard without all the proper riding gear, so we must have looked smart on our rides. Unfortunately I don’t have any photos at all of those early days.
The stables were run by Mrs Francis. I believe she was Polish. An elderly lady who lived in the small house that was part of the yard. She was extremely fierce and had a mynah bird called Monty. Her living room doubled as the tack room and it was a wonderful place full of super-clean tack. Mrs Francis never let anything be put away without being thoroughly cleaned and saddle-soaped so it had that wonderful aroma of leather tack.
Mrs. Francis’ front door was a stable-type door, opposite the entrance to the main stables. Every horse knew she kept treats for them so they wouldn’t pass the door without poking their heads over for a pat and a treat. I’d love to know her background and how she came to be so fond of horses, but we never thought to ask in those days.
Ann didn’t share my passion for horses so she never came to the stables again, but I spent every spare minute for the next 3 years there. I loved everything about it and horses came to define my childhood.