Driving Prince Philip

 

Growing up, you think there is nothing unusual about the sports you play, yet each country has its own oddities.  Football, in the US, is played by men clad waist up as old-fashioned astronauts and from the waist down as heavy-set ballerinas.  It’s a sport where only one player’s feet actually kick the ball, played on a “gridiron” as opposed to a pitch or field and interspersed with acrobatic dancing from a troupe of young women who, judging from the amount they are wearing, are apparently advertising make-up.  Britain is often mocked for its obsession over cricket with its “square legs” and “silly-mid-ons,” but it’s not cricket or, for that matter, netball, croquet or curling on which we need to focus in an eclectic tribute to Prince Philip, who died on April 9th 202, just two months before his hundredth birthday.

One extraordinarily hot summer’s day, my sister-in-law, having just competed in the cross country section of a carriage driving competition, decided there was no alternative.  She dumped an entire bucket of water over her head to cool off.  A tall figure just steps away, whom she had barely registered, said,

“Yes, it is rather warm today.”   

Shaking the drops of water from her hair like a dog, she realized she was talking with no other than Prince Philip!

Looking at recent pictures of the prince as an increasingly frail, elderly man, it’s easy to forget that he was quite the athlete. Okay, so he excelled at that elitist of sports, polo, where not only do you ride a galloping horse but also drive a ball hard down the field without breaking your own or the horse’s neck.

Carriage driving looks like a quaint, ”Olde English” pastime where, in the safety of your picturesque carriage, you trot down leafy village lanes past thatched cottages and country churchyards.  Looks can be deceptive!  Carriage driving is actually a relatively recent sport dating back not much more than half a century.  And Prince Philip was in at the start, helping to draw up the rule book that ensures fair play.

Having decided, at fifty, to swap one dangerous activity for another, he realized, as one does, that he had rather a lot of horses and carriages hanging about. Perhaps he could learn to drive them. I have to pause here lest you think that my brother and his wife own a string of stately homes, have butlers and grooms at their beck and call. Understand, we are not talking Richard Branson here.  Yes, it’s a costly and time consuming hobby, but it’s not reserved for the toffs.  Ray and Penny owned two ponies, two carriages, a small haystack of feed and yes, any amount of manure for the garden. They purchased a second-hand, (almost vintage) truck in which to store all these necessities, (and themselves), when they went to competitions. 

Carriage driving events are like weekend getaways with lots of excitement, stress and shoveling the stuff!  Ray and Penny competed in the category for a pair of ponies, the prince usually drove a team of four horses.  Penny was the fearless driver and Ray, the “groom” whose job is to lean out from the back step to help the ponies take a tight turn. Regardless of the size of the team, the requirements are the same for all competitors. The weekend kicks off with an inspection of the rigs by the judges. The carriages and the animals all need to be in tip-top, safe and gleaming condition. Everything is polished, groomed, brushed and braided, so it shines even if the mists gather or the rain is falling.  Dressage comes next in which the competitors drive their teams through a series of required maneuvers such as a figure eight, a U turn or a neat halt on an X marked on the ground.  A heavier carriage is required the following day for the cross country or marathon.  Again, this is no little scenic jaunt in the park; instead you are hurtling down ravines, fording rivers, steering through hurdles of all kinds, all precisely timed to complete the course in a pre-assigned time.  And now there’s just the obstacle course to negotiate to complete the weekend event. The driver must steer the carriage through a series of cones that mark the twists and turns and slalom required. In places there’s only forty centimeters of leeway to avoid upending a cone and incurring penalties – and don’t think you do this at a walk!  Speed and accuracy are of the essence.

There are many disadvantages to royalty such as the complete lack of a private life, on the other hand, Prince Philip had resources to hand – spare carriages, spare horses, a bevy of grooms, the odd mechanic, a security guard or two, and you can bet your life he didn’t iron the wrinkles out of his shirt, or sleep in the van!  Even so carriage driving is a demanding sport. Think of the number of reins he had to manipulate, often making split second decisions to control the vast weight of the carriage, horses and retinue. Think of the hours of practice it takes to train a team of horses to work apparently seamlessly together, think of the number of competitions he won representing Great Britain internationally.  And don’t think the prince  never crashed or fell out – we have witnesses!

As the pandemic began to loosen its grip on Britain, the Queen, at ninety-six, was seen riding her horse in Windsor Park.  Was she thinking of all the times Philip came rattling past in his carriage and four?  Perhaps!

Photographs courtesy of Penny and Ray.
All events pictured were attended by HRH Prince Philip.

End Notes

Reading

The Namesake
Jhjumpa Lahiri

Virtual Choir

Leave Her Johnny Leave Her
The Longest Johns  Massed Choir Project

Listening

Gaelic Song 
Julie Fowls

Wellerman
The Longest Johns

Viewing

This is a Robbery
Netflix

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