In the byres of Ernie Bowden’s farm in North Cornwall about 70 heifers are sleeping soundly in their stalls. As the sunshine begins to break across the gorse banks and the nearby coast, a light breeze drifts in from the seashore and a single bugle note rends the air. Within minutes, humans and horses, the same in number as the cattle herd, assemble in a grass field from their stalls and camp beds in adjoining barns. This is the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery on its well-earned summer break.
Before them is a morning riding along the beaches and, for the intrepid, into the sea. Many ride without saddles. Some come a cropper, but all come to good.
The day before had seen anything but this informality. The Troop had ridden into Camborne along streets lined with well-wishers, to be given the freedom of the town. Before the High Sheriff James Williams and Lord Mayor John Beare, commanding officer Major Neil Cross had accepted this accolade with pride for the King’s Troop, which has been coming to Cornwall for rest and recuperation since 2001, and has won many local hearts.
“We are proud to have them and we hope they like being here,” said councillor Colin Godolphin, a painter and decor-ator who, despite being a lifelong Labour supporter, tabled the motion for the “freedom citation”. For many in London, the King’s Troop has, since its naming by King George VI in October 1947, stirred similar emotions.
NO ONE IS UNIMPORTANT
The Troop is perhaps best known for the 41-gun salute fired each April in Hyde Park to celebrate HM The Queen’s birthday. It participates each June in Trooping the Colour and all major state visits and its spectacular musical drive is a regular feature at county shows.
Those who live in west London have, over many years, witnessed its early morning rides, sometimes with gleaming gun carriages, through Maida Vale and Notting Hill, down to Wormwood Scrubs. But all that is about to change and there is an air of sadness and anticipation among the Troop’s seven officers and 170 soldiers, 40% of whom are women. In December they will move from their barracks at St John’s Wood to new premises in Woolwich, south London.
The move brings to an end more than 200 years of continuous occupation by military units of “The Wood”, a five-acre site with officers’ mess, stabling for 130 horses, a Grade II listed riding school and billets for the soldiers. The King’s Troop has been stationed there since 1946.
“I thought I would like to be the commanding officer that closed the gates at The Wood,” says Neil Cross, who has held this position for the past two years. In fact, a new commanding officer will be in place when the day arrives as terms to command the Troop are for two years only.
“I met my wife in this room. So much of my life has been bound up here,” Cross continues as we sit in the drawing-room of the officers’ mess, surrounded by military, racing and hunting memorabilia and the odd lurcher belonging to fellow officers. In the hall above the door is a fox’s mask, the conclusion of a 50-minute hunt with the Derwent (24 February, 1953) from Rowe Bridge to Howl Dale. The precise accounting of a boar’s head nearby is unrecorded.
“I have been given a degree of independence that I would not have had elsewhere,” continues Cross. “The King’s Troop is a family. No one is unimportant. To command here is a privilege. The application of standards is in your hands. Not a day goes by when I am not amazed and impressed.”
Amazed and impressed has been the reaction of many people around the country who have witnessed the King’s Troop perform its musical drives at full gallop. No doubt this has encouraged young men and women to think about joining as soldiers, farriers or vets.
Patrick Martin, who for the past 19 seasons has been huntsman of the Bicester with Whaddon Chase foxhounds in Buckinghamshire, recalls joining the Troop as a soldier from public school aged 17 in 1977. “What my three years with the Troop taught me was discipline, respect for authority and to turn yourself out to the top standard,” he recalls.
Hunting has been entwined in the King’s Troop’s history for a very good reason, says Cross. “It is important that we know how to get something extra out of a horse, and how to ride the terrain. This is critical when towing a 11⁄2-ton gun carriage.” Members of the Troop are regularly to be found out hunting with the Quorn and the Cottesmore and, of course, the Royal Artillery on Salisbury Plain, and the Troop has its own hunt button.
SHOES LAST A FORTNIGHT
The horses come to the Troop from Ireland as four year olds. They are mainly old-fashioned, part Irish draughts. “They are horses with huge scope,” says Cross. “Some will have to pull a gun carriage, parade, jump, hunt, event and point-to-point – real all rounders.” The job of keeping them shod and sound falls to the Troop’s master farrier and its vet.
Staff Sergeant Nick Cooper, the master farrier, has been with the Troop for 23 years and at any one time supervises two to four apprentices. Within his area are double-fired kilns with four anvils and all the farriers spend at least an hour each day making shoes. It is the rear shoes that take the most punishment; while the Troop is in London, a set is expected to last a fortnight. “The goal is to keep the horses as comfortable as possible,” says Cooper.
This is also the goal of the vet Captain Miles Malone, RAVC, who joined the Troop last May from Afghanistan – there are always members of the Troop on active service – and started a riding course. By November he was good enough to take part in the Lord Mayor’s Parade. While all the soldiers wear ceremonial dress, he is distinctive in a pith helmet. “It is my job to know the sick, the lame and the lazy,” he says.
The condition of the horses, as well as the harnesses and gun carriages, adds to the pageant and ceremony of the Troop.
The move from The Wood will be a loss to west London. But the immense warmth of spirit which the Troop fosters – what Cross calls the spirit of family – will endure. “I do not want to see the move as anything but the next chapter in the Troop’s history,” he says. “We are moving to a brand new site and the Troop will flourish in their new home.”
Nor will everything be demolished as the site, valued at upwards of £230 million, goes under the wrecking ball. The listed riding school will remain. The headstone of Wonder, the horse on the Troop’s crest, who lived to be 40, will be moving to Woolwich as will the paintings and trophies of the officers’ mess. “We are going to recreate the officers’ mess at the new site so that it is identical to the one we have here, right down to the wallpaper and curtains,” says Cross.
The summer week of rest and recuperation in Cornwall, so much looked forward to by the soldiers, the horses and – not least – their hosts, will survive, too. Last autumn, Ernie Bowden and his wife Mary were invited to stay at St John’s Wood and join the King’s Troop for the day. “It was overwhelming, a great honour,” says Bowden. “We hope they will come back to the farm for many years to come.”
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