At the 2011 Burghley Horse Trials – part 1

One of the highlights of my social calendar is the annual trip to Burghley for the horse trials. Although I ride and, probably immodest of me to say it, ride rather well, neither my horse, nor my skill, nor my nerve would take me to this level. As it happens, we have just got an additional new horse that has competed at Burghley in the past – as has my partner – but just the sight of some of the fences fill me with such fear we won’t be attempting it!

There is something rather special about Burghley that is quite difficult to define. The atmosphere is electric yet relaxed, a great team of people organise it, the visitors all thoroughly enjoy it and, of course, there is the splendour of the magnificent Burghley House that dominates the grounds.

Burghley House was built in the 1500’s for the first Earl of Exeter, one of Queen Elizabeth I’s favourites. Today it is considered to be one of the finest Elizabethan houses in England and is still owned by the same family. Dominating the west front of the house and its turrets and towers, the great gilded gates were designed to catch the rays of the setting sun. These, and the huge numbers of windows, create a blaze of light on a summer’s evening , exactly the image that was required: power, wealth and fine enough to impress the Virgin Queen when she visited.

The Exeter crest is designed into the gates and, elsewhere, there is yet more gilding. The levels of craftsmanship is outstanding, not just in the architecture but down to every detail. Even the garden railings are beautifully crafted.

The grounds, where the horse trials take place, are also kept beautifully. A dominant feature of the parkland is the large numbers of Sweet Chestnut trees, mostly planted in avenues. Their immense girth really shows the twisted bark that is seldom seen on younger trees.

However, it is the lake and Lion Bridge that creates the focal centrepoint whether from the park or when seen from the house. These were created later than the house by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (who else?!) around 1778. The lake is designed to give the impression of a winding river and features as an obstacle in the trials.
Trialling or eventing, for those unfamiliar with the sport – the word ‘horse’ is only said by those that don’t ride and is a social faux pas when used – is one of the toughest tests of endurance for both horse and rider. First there are dressage tests where the skill and accuracy of both are measured. This is followed by the most popular part of the contest (although all have their aficionados), the cross country course (link here). At a length of 6686 metres with 33 fences – the highest standing at 1.45m – it has a target time of just over 11 minutes to complete. Cross country tests the bravery, strength and stamina of both horse and rider. Finally, there is the showjumping on the last day. Here, the test is for stamina, accuracy and skill. This year, William Fox-Pitt won Burghley for the sixth time, a record, which made a very successful end to Burghley’s 50th anniversary.

If you are not horse crazy – and the majority of the thousands of people that come here are – there are other things to occupy your time. Socialising is important, catching up with people that you may see only here, and shopping is even more so. There are over five hundred shops to visit on the site selling everything from clothes to furniture, to paintings and sculpture and, of course, lots of horse related products. The food halls are important too: my favourite was the Neil’s Yard cheese shop with its amazing displays of English cheeses. They tasted good too!

For those of you that have never been here, do give it a try, especially at this time. The house and gardens are open to the public all year and, from time to time, concerts are performed here. Burghley House should be on every persons agenda to visit at leat once. If you need convincing, follow this link to their website.

The next post will concentrate more on the cross country course and will even have some ‘horsey’ photos!

At the (Hurly) Burghley Horse Trials

Feeling reckless, I took a day or two off work to visit the Burghley Horse Trials, one of the premier contests in Britain. Not for a rest, for it is exhausting – all that socialising, shopping and concentrating. For the horse world is a small world and amongst the thousands of people that attend there are always dozens that you know, chat to, have a coffee and a sandwich with ……

A walk around the cross country course is always exciting: working out how you would approach the jumps, most of which are huge and difficult, talking with the competitors and admiring the thought and work that goes into creating the course. I should say that my riding skills are nowhere good enough (nor my courage level high enough) to compete but my partner has in the past and jumped into the dreaded “leaf pit”. The photograph of it below hardly does justice to the 4ft drop into the pit – the horse takes off just to the right of the guy, then immediately tackles either one of the two smaller jumps and then gallops off down the course. It is quite nerve wracking to watch, especially if it’s your partner doing it! If I was on my horse, Barney, I would be another 7ft higher still – it makes me feel quite ill just thinking about it!
The water jumps are always a popular place so I visit them before the competition starts. People congregate here, not to see the jump carved to look like a duck, but in the hope of seeing the riders fall and get a good ducking!
A crowd of over 140,000 watch the eighty or so horses compete over four days – the guy with the best view is certainly the television cameraman – I always watch most of it on the giant screens that are strategically placed around the grounds. There is always a place, ‘though, where you can get a clear view of the jumps and, if the crowds get too much, a quiet place under the magnificent sweet chesnut avenues.
Burghley House is a magnificent Elizabethan building built – and virtually unaltered – in the sixteenth century and set in hundreds of acres of parkland. With over 80 major rooms, gardens and the park, it is well worth a visit. Although still privately owned (by the same family since being built) it is open to the public throughout the summer months.

Great excitement! She-Dog has met her husband! The potentially lucky lad may ‘marry’ her around Christmas and, with luck, we will become proud parents in the spring of 2010. Burghley is a good place for romance too – watch this space!

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