Steaming beer tents, roaring crowds and local heroes — the gung-ho spirit of a point-to-point is as alive as ever, says Rory Knight Bruce
Rory Knight Bruce celebrates the joy of a point-to-point, with its amateur spirit and ability to pull together all parts of rural life. (Find point-to-point fixtures for 2023 here.)
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THE JOY OF A POINT-TO-POINT
Of all the scenes in rural Britain, few have changed so little in the past century as the point-to-point. The pennants still fly above the white-railed paddocks and verdant brush and birch adorn the fences. The beer tent could come from the Lammas Fair in Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, and the doughty trainers, owners and silk-clad jockeys from the pages of a Dick Francis novel. It is a scene that has kept — through changing times and lockdown — its innocence, colour and character in the landscape of the real countryside.
For more than 70 years, we held our local point-to-point at home in Devon on what was called the Racecourse Field. With three-mile races, originally partly over banks, it would, from my earliest memories in the 1960s, attract crowds of 3,000 and more. They’d be there for a day out, a flutter, a pint or two, and to cheer on their local hunter or smart challenger from an adjacent pack. My father, who was the Master and huntsman after the war, would compete in a tail coat and top hat, never to grace the winners’ enclosure. My earliest memories as a child were selling racecards and shinning up the beer tent pole for a wager at the end of the day.
That amateur spirit may have given way in part to top young jockeys on their way to win the Grand National but, look more closely, and there is still that support for a local horse and hero prepared to give it a go. So it was at this year’s January meeting of the Heythrop at their splendid new course at Cocklebarrow in Gloucestershire. Cars were greeted and directed by Joint Master and huntsman Charles Frampton, bales were arranged in an enormous heated marquee for picnics and there would have been many attendees, mostly with their dogs, who could give Caleb a run for his money in local resident Jeremy Clarkson’s Diddly Squat Farm.
“Cocklebarrow is the Royal Ascot of point-to-points,” says Fiona Walker, vice-chairman of the Point-to-Point Secretaries Association. But, for all the splendid 4x4s and brimming picnics — one I spotted being enjoyed by another local, former Prime Minister David Cameron and his family — there is still something genuine and umbilical between the racing, the hunt and the landscape. Hunt staff in their immaculate green livery lead out the horses for every race. More than 4,000 turned up on the coldest day of the year.
“The thing you have to realise is that owners, trainers and jockeys are a resilient bunch,” says joint-chairman of Cocklebarrow and former trainer Charlie Brooks. “They don’t get a lot of money for their love. But the whole day helps to create the riders and fans of the future. The greatest emphasis we place on the day is ‘community’. Of course it is fantastic if your horse wins a race, but it is also for everyone to be part of a vibrant rural community at the very grassroots. Our emphasis is that it is a family day out and you have to keep people warm, hence the heated marquee.”
Entertainment for the children has been stepped up; pony races before the main card are a popular attraction. Other imaginative innovations are a full-blown Greek taverna outside and a steaming hot tub demonstration. James Bowles of Oyster Meister was on hand in the heated tent to serve Jersey oysters and gave me a fine demonstration on how to eat caviar. On other days, he is to be found catering for the directors’ box at Arsenal Football Club.
Duncan Bailey, headmaster of Cothill House preparatory school, had brought 40 pupils for a day out. “We are a very outdoor school and this is a perfect excursion for the pupils to let off steam in a sporting and safe environment.”
But point-to-points today are not all about oysters and hot tubs. Liz Egerton has been secretary of the Monmouthshire point-to-point since 1998 and is familiar with the other 12 courses in Wales. “The link between hunting and the races is a little thinner now in Wales than in years gone by, but boy, have we missed pointing because of Covid,” she says. “It’s great to see everyone from the local butcher, pub landlord and tricky farmer whose country we cross during the hunting season. Everything seems to be forgotten when we all meet up, whether it’s in the bar, around the paddock or at the bookies collecting our winnings.”
Egerton also emphasises the immense role of volunteers, as well as the excitement of the races themselves. “It is a huge opportunity for jockeys and horses to go up the ladder. For those who don’t progress that far, they will have had the thrill in the true spirit of amateur racing to spin round a cold farmer’s field on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, cheered on by friends and family.”
No one knows this feeling better than amateur jockey Ian Widdicombe, who farms outside Totnes in Devon. For more than 17 years he rode farmers’ horses in local point-to-points, amassing 70 winners over more than 1,000 rides. “I never touched alcohol from New Year’s Eve until the Torrington Farmers’ meet in June,” recalls Widdicombe, 61. Perhaps the highlight of his career was taking Rashleigh Boy to Cheltenham in April 1987. Setting off at dawn with the horse in a trailer and returning at midnight, and winning over three miles and two furlongs. “I can remember it like it was yesterday, a wonderful feeling.” It was his mother’s 50th birthday. “It was also the only time my father ever shook my hand,” he says.
If the strand between hunting and point-to-pointing might have weakened a bit since the post-war heyday, we should also consider those amateur huntsmen who have turned jockey to take part in their own point-to-points. When Frank Houghton Brown was the popular Master and huntsman of the Middleton in the 1990s, he twice rode in his hunt Members’ Race, coming second by a length on each occasion to top jockey Thomas Greenall. He was given a horse and all the help he needed by riding out early each Sunday morning with legendary Yorkshire trainer Mick Easterby at Sheriff Hutton.
“If I give you Bracken Hill to hunt all season, you will win a point-to-point,” Easterby told Houghton Brown, who recalls: “Although I didn’t win, I loved it and lost a bit of weight. It was a great buzz.” Today, both Dan Cherriman, Joint Master and huntsman of the South Shropshire, and Henry Bailey at the Ludlow have had their successes over the fences.
While the landscape of point-to-points may not have changed, some have sadly disappeared. None is more lamented than the Fife at the late Sir John Gilmour’s Balcormo Mains, also called Balcormo Races. “Starting in the 1920s, it had a deserved accolade as Scotland’s finest annual al fresco party,” recalled John Bradburne, writing its history in 2016. “It grew and grew as Fife, Perthshire and even Edinburgh society folk came to understand the wackiness of it all. Picnics too became larger and more sophisticated.”
No one was more generous nor lavish in his hospitality than the convivial businessman James Gulliver. He would arrive with his butler-cum-chauffeur always parking early in the front row. At noon, a full luncheon would be served with the finest champagne and claret. I can attest to this, having on several occasions been one of his grateful guests.
Today, Fife hunt chairman Robert Turcan remembers the glory days of the point-to-point, in which he rode twice. “It would attract crowds of 3,000 drawn from the landowners of Fife, Perthshire and the Lothians. We also got a lot of students from St Andrews and Edinburgh universities,” he says. Turcan won the heavyweight class of the Members’ Race twice on his hunters, Sampson and Jumbo. On the first occasion he came home alone as his brother was a faller. In 1986, he beat the 1978 Grand National winner Lucius. The final family connection with the Members’ Race was when his son Giles, at 6ft 6in tall, was first past the post in 2007. The Fife now share a meeting with neighbouring hunts in the Clyde Valley.
The Crawley & Horsham in Sussex take great pride in their point-to-point each March at Parham Racecourse. “Not only is it a really entertaining country day out, but the many local trainers in Sussex love it,” says former hunt chairman Lady Soames. “Of course there is competitive picnicking but, like the Hound Show at Ardingly each June, it showcases the rural south-east at its very best.” Sussex is steeped in racing with Goodwood, Plumpton, Fontwell Park and Brighton racecourses on the doorstep.
“Parham is a great opener to the racing season, where owners and trainers can have a great day out,” adds Serena Soames.Everyone will have their favourite course but, says Egerton – whose father rode for Sir Harry ‘Foxhunter’ Llewellyn – there is nothing better than supporting your local point-to-point. In Wales, it is not all champagne and greenswards.
“There is something very dramatic about the Pyle course near Bridgend, with amazing industrial views across the giant concrete chimneys of the Bridgend steel works,” she says. The amalgamated Llangeinor Pentyrch have their point-to-point meeting there. Brooks believes that the connection between hunting and point-to-points is still very strong. “If you did not have hunting, you would not have point-to-pointing in its current form,” he says. So what were his earliest memories, which have encouraged him to take on the chairmanship at Cocklebarrow? “Trying to kiss a girl in the beer tent when I was eight years old. I did later ride in a few races but didn’t really like getting muddy feet.” Instead, like thousands of volunteers across the country who put on point-to-points, he is allowing happy racegoers to make memories of their own.