Horsey Fraternity Have Richness of Character (21 December 1973)
Captain Phillips is a lucky man. He has not only married a princess. He has married a former horse-riding champion of Europe – A title which has nothing to do with the accident of birth, and one of which she can never be deprived. I myself know little about horses, except which is the head and which the tail. There are horses which look the epitome of power, and others which look the epitome of speed and many in between which look neither the one nor the other. An uncle of mine had a horse. He used it to pull a float or trap from which he delivered milk, pouring it from a pint measure into jugs left on the doorsteps. He had a considerable round, but his horse, without being told, knew exactly where to stop and when to set off again. The reins were used simply at hand to be used if necessary. Sometimes, when the horse was unharnessed, I was given a ride on the way to the pasture and that was the only horse- riding I have ever done.
Imagine my consternation, therefore, when on joining the army I find myself tricked out as for the cavalry, with short, flared overcoat, bandolier round mess tin and all, except spurs.
It transpired that the regiment ranked as a mounted one. It had long been mechanised but because of the shortage of new gear this old stuff had been dragged out again for the temporary use of recruits. My next overcoat covered me from chin to instep like a stove pipe and served me excellently for the rest of my time, often as an extra blanket and sometimes as my only one. So no Captain Phillips.
Coming to North Bucks, I found quite an amount of activity involving horses – an activity which seems still on the increase despite all the urbanisation – though mainly recreational.
Gymkhanas began to be held, though these seem to have declined a little recently. The first I remember was held in a field by the canal or river at Water Eaton. The interesting thing about that one was that most of the competitions were won by a 12 year boy. The same boy also figured prominently in one held just a little later at Bletchley Park in aid of an NFU distress fund. His name was Alan Oliver.
The Whaddon Chase point to point races also started up again, first at Wing and a little later at Horwood. A furiously-riding competitor at those early meetings was Richard Barbour. He had left a farm in his native Scotland to re-start at Galley Lane Farm, Great Brickhill. There, among other things, he bred dairy cattle which won national championships and people came from many parts to his annual sales. In all, he was reckoned one of the most successful farmers hereabouts.
Then suddenly as it seemed, he upped sticks and went out to an enormous piece of land in Kenya which he promptly named Bletchley Farm. But he also knew how to play.
He once sent me nearly tipsy with whisky during an interview at Galley Lane – an easy thing to do with a near-abstainer.
But my dearest memory of him is watching him riding like a bat out of Hades, brandishing his whip like sword and uttering a wild Highland yell as he sailed over the final fence at Horwood and then thumped down on the other side. Sad to say, some years ago he collapsed and died beside a gate on that far-off Bletchley Farm.
But then the horse fraternity is rich in characters. Take Nubar Gulbenkkian, if you can. In every respect he was larger than life. You might think that easy for an oil magnate, but if you consider the lives led by Nubar’s “Mr Five per cent” father and others such as Howard Hughes, you may conclude that it is not.
In addition to the oil connection, Nubar was for a long time a diplomatic representative of a Middle East Estate. So he had his serious side. But he knew how to play – and then some. For many years his English country home was at Hoggeston and during that time he was a highly popular figure with the Whaddon Chase Hunt, in the field, at the point-to-point meetings and at the hunt balls alike.
He was an Armenian, but his enthusiasm for what is regarded as mainly a British sport was terrific.
Nowhere in his large world were his bushy brows and beard, his monocle and his orchid better known than on the village greens of North Bucks. The very way he accepted a stirrup cup from the hostess of the moment was a sight for sore eyes.
Towards the end of his life he wrote an autobiography and called it “Pantaraxia”. There is one rather boring chapter of grouses about his dealings with the Gulbenkian Foundation, but all the rest is sheer journalistic joy. He even tells of hearing what two locals thought about the chances of “that there foreign chap” through the canvas while he was visiting the necessary at one point-to-point.
What he does not tell – at least, I don’t remember it – is how useful his foreign-ness was to us during the war. This has been revealed in a more recent book by Airey Neave who was the first British escaper from Colditz. After his escape Mr Neave was given the duty of helping to organise the famous escape routes for shot-down airmen and others.
Soon a problem arose which might be solved if only they could have the services of someone with a cast-iron entry to Vichy, France. The choice fell on Nubar. He accepted. And while outwardly on a visit to Vichy as a neutral, he secretly set up vital escape contacts too. Quite a man, our Nubar.