Saturday, July 30, 2011

Cross-country pub crawling

Burto and I went to look at a truck one afternoon during the week a few hours north of the Griffith’s place here in Dorset. On the way home we decided that it would be sensible to stop for dinner at one of the charming English pubs that seem to be everywhere in this part of the world. Initially this seemed like an easy task and it wasn’t long before we came across this place, which from the outside looked quaint and full of character.

When we got inside we realised that it wasn’t so much full of character as full of characters. We’d noticed the bus as we parked the car and sure enough, the place was chock full of old people. Plenty of stares as we walked in, no doubt because we were the only one’s there sporting an original set of teeth. It felt a little too much like a scene in a zombie horror film so we were in through the back door, out through the front and back in the car within seconds.

After a short drive we found our second option.

Another likely candidate, it caught our attention by offering a daily special of two curries for ten pounds on a sign in the car park. In through the back door again and swiftly out through the front, this was a charmless haunt for a smattering of funny sounding locals. When we thought about it, two curries for ten pounds sounded like a gamble rather than a good deal, and with a fair distance still to cover before we got to the safety of home this was a risk neither of us were willing to take.

With three strikes looming we were staring down the barrel of Little Chef. Thankfully, across the road from the curry pub this establishment had flourished as people not taken by the package deal were drawn in by a desire to eat safely.

Normal crowd, good food, what was starting to feel like a teetotaler pub crawl finally met its match. Clearly not all charming looking English pubs are made equal and while I generally subscribe to the notion that you can judge a book by its cover, it may not be the case in this regard. If you’re not starving or an alcoholic it pays to comparison shop before you settle on a pub in the English countryside.

Eventing in England is as much an industry as a sport. It’s a huge market, and because of this businesses have flourished around eventing that would be impossible elsewhere in the world. The place where we went cross-country schooling the other day is a great example.

This was the most amazing facility I’ve ever seen. Built only for training, the three paddocks were filled with more cross-country fences than you could imagine. Beautifully built and maintained, every type of fence, line and option you could possibly encounter at any course in the world was in these paddocks. With prepared all weather ground in front of every fence it was eventing heaven and one of the most exciting things I’ve seen since I’ve been in the UK. This, I told myself, is why most of the world’s top eventers are based in England.

It was a shame I only had one horse to ride. Despite the best efforts of Tiger and I, we had probably only been able to jump 20 per cent of the fences. As we drove out the gate I looked longingly at the remainder, promising that I would come back to jump them as soon as I could.

Tiger and Newsprint - two old Australian Thoroughbreds ready to take on England

Eventing tomorrow in the Open Intermediate at Wilton. It’s been a great preparation so far, Tiger is going great, and so long as I can find someone to plait him I can’t wait to get there.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Toilet Humour

I’ve been terribly slack with the blog lately and for that I am truly sorry. Having made such a strong start I’ve ignored it over the past few days while interesting stories have mounted up around me. The problem with blogging is that if you’re doing activities that will make the blog interesting chances are you don’t actually have time to write the blog. I have to admit the drinking hasn’t helped either.

It has been a busy time here in Dorset. The sun has been shining on us for most of the week and it’s been fantastic being outside on the horses. Over the last few days the grooms here have kept us entertained and given us plenty to laugh about. A few days ago the toilet blocked in the grooms quarters and despite Sam making a few token efforts to unblock it the impasse remained. With Sam’s plumbing abilities stretched to their limit and Burto and I playing the ‘guest’ card and giving the whole situation a wide berth, it was time to call in the professionals.

It is well known that plumbing is one of the most lucrative and profitable trades, and from the performance of this local plumber I can understand why. After Sam and Lucy unloaded £90 on this bloke the toilet blocked again within hours. Now I’m no expert but this says one of two things to me – either (a) the plumber went home with clean hands and left the toilet in the same state he found it; or (b) the grooms need to change their diet.

Understandably, Lucy was a little gun-shy about calling the plumber back. Even though we had quite successfully kept our heads down during this whole episode, Burto and I started to develop a conscience at around the same time that Lucy – who was cooking dinner at the time – slapped down the lettuce she was chopping and said that she would go and fix it herself. It was time for Team Australia to step up and Burto – who went to boarding school and therefore knows a thing or two about blocked toilets – already had a few ideas involving a wire coat hanger. With a little help from our friends at Google we’d completed our apprenticeship and were ready to make the big bucks.

With coat hanger in hand Burto strode into the grooms quarters and up to the bowl like a trained professional. Mind you, I’ve very rarely seen a plumber in bare feet and this may have led to him failing the workplace safety aspect of his plumbing exam. All this aside, you’ve never seen a guy operate a coat hanger with such precision and finesse, and from the safe distance I was maintaining I was impressed to see him work through the dark storm clouds that were brewing to find a light at the end of the tunnel.  

Sam and I had relished the opportunity to see Burto’s second skill, and it was a real eureka moment when he achieved what £90 worth of professional plumber couldn’t. All credit to him, the guy threw himself at the task and conquered English plumbing, leaving the grooms feeling slightly embarrassed and giving us hours of dirty jokes to tell. Pleased with our efforts we headed back inside while Burto – unsure of what to do with a heavily tarnished coat hanger simply dropped it in the wash bay and followed our lead.

Everyone was happy and for a while Burto took on real superhero status. Unfortunately, the following day Sam and Lucy’s head groom was tidying the yard when she found a random coat hanger lying in a corner of the wash bay. She doesn’t live on site and so had been unaware of the plumbing adventures of the previous evening. Quite disturbingly for everyone involved – and particularly her – she dutifully picked up this coat hanger, folded it up in her hands and threw it in the bin before carrying on with her day.

Burto is no longer the favourite.

Monday, July 25, 2011

In the swing of things

Over the last two days I’ve actually started to feel like a resident of England rather than just a dazed and confused outsider. Having kicked the jet-lag my days are beginning to fall into a routine that starts with Crunchy Nut Cornflakes in the morning and ends later than it should with a glass of some horrendous spirit dug from deep in the bowels of the Griffith’s liquor cabinet.

For those who don’t know, Crunchy Nut Cornflakes is the universally accepted breakfast of champions and having made its mark in Australia it is now taking the world by storm. No one has asked him yet but I’m sure Cadel Evan’s Tour de France victory was fuelled by this delicious combination of corn, peanuts and sugar. It’s perhaps to its detriment that the sugar content of the Crunchy Nut has been increased in its British form, although it is still a long way from short of the American version that I was eating earlier this year that carries a dental health warning and actually hurts your teeth when you eat it.

With breakfast out of the way there’s horse riding to be done. The weather over the last two days has been surprisingly pleasant, with balmy temperatures mixed with splashes of sunshine. For an Australian it’s almost t-shirt weather, although I’m pretty sure that down by the seaside there are swarms of fluorescent locals getting their kit off and basking in the few rays of sunshine that make it to earth in this part of the world. No doubt many of them spend their time in the sun praying that the effects of global warming will occur sooner rather than later.

Burto's stable block with Tiger at far left

A slightly fuzzy view from the paddocks

Hacking out on the lanes around Symphony Farm has been one of life’s great equestrian experiences. The farm land is truly magnificent and you get the feeling that the horses enjoy the outlook as much as you do. Sunday drivers are an issue on weekends but at least you can hear their vintage sports cars a mile away and can scurry into a hedge to avoid impalement on the front of a 1963 Jaguar – it’s the fast moving tradesmen on weekdays that are the real danger.

There’s quite a steep road that runs up a hill through the centre of a village a mile or so down the road so we spend some time trotting up that as fitness for the horses. It’s fantastic exercise and far more interesting than poking around an arena. Whether the locals enjoy us clattering past within metres of their houses is another question but we always ensure that we smile nicely and try to avoid letting the horses crap anywhere near their front doors. The thing about village design in England is that many of the old houses are built almost onto the road, to the point that it would be possible to lose your head to a passing truck if you poked it out the bedroom window at an inopportune time.

Tiger - at home in the UK

I’ve been giving Burto a hand with a few of his horses and I also rode one for Sam and Lucy today, but for any owners of their horses I can guarantee that I put in a big effort so your money is still being well spent. It’s excellent to be able to ride a few more in the day because Crunchy Nut contains a lot of sugar and poor Tiger can’t be expected to shoulder the burden of working that off alone.

Sam and Lucy have been incredibly accommodating and so far they win the prize for the most lovely couple in England, narrowly squeezing out Burto and Newsprint to a mantle previously held only by Kate and Wills and Posh and Becks. They run a great operation here at Symphony Farm and it’s a pleasure and a thrill to be based with them.

Life is good.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Out and About - Aston le Walls

This morning’s 4:00 kick-off did nothing to cure the effects of the jet-lag. Never mind that however, we were going eventing and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I hadn’t actually managed to lay eyes on Burto yet so it was an early morning reunion in his new barn at Sam and Lucy Griffith’s place. It wasn’t quite as emotional or involved as my reunion with Tiger the day before but it was still good to see him. Just so he didn’t feel left out I gave Tiger a pat before we jumped into the truck (somebody shoot me if I start to say ‘lorry’) and we hit the road to Aston-le-Walls.

In a perfect piece of planning, I’d managed to miss the dressage phase of the event the day before, so it was only the jumping left to do for the advanced horses. This also meant I’d missed the three hour wait on the side of the road that Burto, his groom Amanda and the three horses onboard had endured the evening before after the truck blew a tyre on the motorway. Half my luck.

William Fox-Pitt's truck

Burto's borrowed truck

No such incidents this morning and after a three hour trip we were eventing in England. No need to unload when you arrive, you just pull up, turn off the engine and leave the horses standing on the truck. Even in fine weather they leave them all onboard. Maybe I just haven’t been here long enough (I admit, two days doesn’t really qualify me as an expert) but I don’t see the sense in it. Perhaps the puzzle of ensuring the right horse is always the most accessible is the English equivalent of Sudoku.  

Even though it had been relatively dry in our part of the world it had rained overnight at the event, and with more puddles than Werribee it soon became clear why gumboots are the footwear of choice for the English event-goer. Out on the course the going was heavy, but this didn’t seem to bother anyone and I got the feeling that for the locals this was better than it being firm. Burto and I went for a quick walk around the advanced course which was big and tough enough without being too unkind – perhaps a description we would also lend to ourselves.

It seems that wherever you are in the world, the bacon and egg roll is a fixture of an eventing diet and before we could even consider doing anything further one had to be eaten. Like McDonalds, Coke and Starbucks coffee the bacon and egg roll is universal and you can pretty much guarantee they’ll taste the same wherever you are, even if their love affair with bacon here means the egg is a bit of a sideline act.

With tomato sauce on my face it was time to do some work. I’d dubbed myself the assistant groom for the day, and part of my responsibilities involved doing rails for Burto in the show jumping practice arena. Anyone who knows Burto would be aware that he can dominate a practice arena like no one else and it’s good to see that he hasn’t taken a backward step on arrival in his adopted country. Back home, I’d always kept a safe distance as his grooms hustled to make the jumps to his satisfaction, but now I was the one doing the hustling while trying to wrestle control of the jumps from people who had been in the country for longer than two minutes. With four horses to jump there was a lot of hustling to be done, but fortunately the lovely Lucy Griffiths soon popped up to control proceedings, allowing me to act more as the hired muscle than the brains of the operation.

It wasn’t a bad warm-up to hang around in. It mightn’t have been the world’s fanciest event but everyone who’s anyone in world eventing was there. It takes a while to get your head around the fact that you’re surrounded by almost all the people who compete at all of the major four stars and championships. I think at one point almost the entire British team was in the warm-up together, so if a meteor had crashed to earth at that time Australia would have had much better chance of a medal at the Olympics next year. You’re very much in their territory and it can’t be anything but positive to be surrounded by them all.

Burto in flight at fence 2

Perhaps because I was helping him, or perhaps because he’s a pretty awesome rider, Burto had an excellent day, bringing home a second and a third in his respective advanced classes. Phenomenally, this was a day devoted to advanced classes, and from 9:00 in the morning until we left around 5pm people were jumping non-stop in both the cross-country and the show jumping. No doubt that some of the best horses in the world went around today, and with no low level horses around to cause trouble the day had a remarkably calm and professional feel about it.

Because of my assistant groom duties Tiger scored a day off today, but I have to admit that after seeing it all happen I am pretty keen to get stuck into British eventing.

Bring it on.

Eventing, not cricket

Friday, July 22, 2011

Finding Tiger

Even after a solid ten hour sleep I still felt hungover this morning. God only knows how wretched the people that do drink on planes feel the next day. Still, I told myself to toughen up and get on with the business of living in England. The first objective was to get myself a mobile phone. Too many days disconnected from the world could cause a person to shrivel up and die on the vine of loneliness so it was imperative to get a tumor-box back on my ear asap. I must have stood in front of the pre-paid mobile display at Tesco for half an hour making an informed and sensible decision on which company and phone offered the best value for money. Genuine comparison shopping is the sort of thing you find yourself doing when you've only got one horse to ride in the day.

A certain calm came over me when I was reconnected with the world and I was ready to move on with life. The next adventure had me tracking down a saddlery in which to buy a riding helmet, as my helmet had been a necessary victim of the excess-baggage repack at the airport before I left Sydney. Even though people go on about how small England is, a 30 mile trip here really is a big mission on windy country lanes. It was 30 miles well spent however as my new jockey skull cap and black silk means I'm looking more and more like The Fox every day.

With my phone now working and a helmet to protect me from falling asteroids I was ready and able to find my horse. Even after going to the US earlier in the year the novelty and surprise involved in finding your horse in a field in England doesn't wear off. It might have been almost 3 months since we last laid eyes on each other but Tiger is hardly the sentimental type, and I can't help but think the attention I was trying to lavish on him while he grazed was just a major inconvenience.

Burto and his groom Amanda have done a great job getting him into shape, and I know that he looks far more beautiful for me than he would have done three weeks ago when he arrived to them. It was fantastic to be back on board, and I'm happy to report that my first ride in England was a good one, even if I didn't really achieve anything of great value. One thing's for sure, that won't be the ride that wins Burghley for me.

Sam Griffith's has a great place at Symphony Farm and I'm sure it's going to be a lot of fun there over the next few weeks. I haven't actually laid eyes on Sam or Chris yet because they were eventing at Aston-le-walls today, Burto was riding five horses and I think a good day was spoiled by the truck getting a flat tyre on the way home. Bugger.

See you back here tomorrow.


Welcome to England

Anyone who fears that the world is getting too small has either not flown from Australia to England or is doing it in a business class seat. Even in the modern age of jet travel it's still a hell of a long way, and even though I love flying, in an economy class seat you feel every minute of it. Not that I was doing it as tough as the big dude sitting next to me from Hong Kong to London, who battled away for hours sleeping with his head slumped so far forward his chin was almost touching his stomach. I took it upon myself to monitor him for signs of life as I had serious concerns that in this awkward position he would suffocate slowly, ruining his holiday and injecting a negative vibe into mine. Fortunately for both of us he survived, although he no doubt spent his first night in the UK tracking down a chiropractor to reassemble his vertebrate.

With my arrival scheduled to coincide with the middle of summer, I reasonably expected to touchdown at Heathrow and be greeted by sunny skies and heat. What a dreamer. Grey clouds, showers and drizzle did little to dismiss the stereotype that England has really crap weather. Not only that, they have really long queues to enter the country. An hour and a half of shuffling up and down a maze of lanes left me in a bothersome mood when I finally got to passport control, and when the customs officer asked why I had come to the UK I was in half a mind to answer that I'd come here only for the weather, the queues and to play quidditch with Harry Potter.

Clearly the tiredness was affecting my sense of humour so escaping the airport was a priority and with my new friend TomTom calling the shots I was soon on the road to Dorset. This was an extremely pleasant drive down motorways and highways that gradually decreased in size and importance as we went south. Even in my semi-conscious state it was exciting to spot Stonehenge as I sped by, and if I hadn't thought it would upset TomTom so much I might have stopped in for a poke around.

This was no time for dilly-dallying however, and by 8 o'clock I had made it to Gillingham, the smallish town next to the tiny village where I am staying for the next few weeks. Dorset is true English countryside, with beautiful green rolling farmland interspersed with neat little rustic villages that the word 'quaint' was invented to describe. The roads around here are extremely narrow and were seemingly designed at a time when people traveled on bicycles - while the lines on the road indicate that they are intended for two way traffic you've got to be brave to believe it. A feature of this area is the large hedgerows that line the roads, and with these hedgerows on one side and cars driven by people who think they're on the Top Gear test-track on the other, I quickly began to wonder how sensible I had been to pass on the full insurance option offered at the car rental outlet back at Heathrow.

My arrival into Gillingham in the daylight was a bit of a false dawn. While TomTom had successfully guided me to the village, the lack of street names or numbers in this part of the world meant that I was quickly lost. Now would be a good time to mention that the screen on my iPhone had self-destructed back in Hong Kong and at a time when I needed it most it just stared back at me blankly. After 37 hours of travel, Steve Jobs' name was repeatedly used in vain. With Apple in the doghouse I reverted to old technology and climbed into one of Dr Who's red telephone boxes, although with the phone number of my accommodation stored in my phone I couldn't tell the Tardis where to go, so it just stared back at me blankly too.

Thankfully, as it rounded 9:30pm and darkness set in technology finally came to my rescue. It seems that not all of the people in Gillingham lock their wi-fi, so by parking out the front of their house and borrowing their resources I was able to track down the directions to my new home on my computer. If I was more computer literate I might have hacked their computer and stolen their bank details while I was at it.

With proper directions the narrow country lanes and imposing hedgerows weren't so daunting, and rolling down the driveway to find that I'd rented a cool little flat off some very friendly young owners was one of life's great moments. I barely had time to say goodnight to myself before I was unconscious.

Welcome to England.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Adventure Begins

Hooray! You made it. I'm very glad that you took the time to stop in and say hello. This is my record of another eventing adventure so hopefully it turns out to be interesting. With horses, international travel, eventing and the English involved something exciting is bound to happen.

I'm forcing myself to write this. It's 6:30am and I'm sitting on a hard wooden chair in a food court at Hong Kong International Airport after an overnight flight from Sydney. I've got three hours to burn until my onward flight to England, the spiritual home of eventing and my home for the next six or seven weeks. I was sitting in a quiet corner but apparently my table of choice is prime territory for airport janitors when they're on their break. They might be speaking Han Chinese but instinct tells me they're not talking about horses.

This adventure actually started last night when I left Sydney. I might be flying solo but I didn't leave alone - the scales at the check-in counter told me that I'd packed my entire life into a suitcase. At 36 kilograms and $US860 in excess baggage fees, even I had to agree my life was way over-valued. Of course, you can't kick off an odyssey like this with $US860 of excess baggage charges weighing down you credit card, so after much family discussion, a few tense words and a minor dummy-spit we were back at the car having a serious repack of my belongings. While I was understandably attached to most of the things I'd packed, between harsh culling and dressing like an Eskimo we'd manage to strip 10 kilos of me, making me the biggest loser for the evening.

Back at the check-in counter things were looking up. The check-in guy - who half an hour earlier was ordering more fuel for the plane to account for the weight in my bag - was so impressed with my weight-loss program  that he turned a blind eye to the seven kilos that I still hadn't managed to strip off. Little did he know there was about 15 kilos in carry-on hiding safely out of view. Given the potential costs involved, this was a white lie that God would happily forgive me for.

Only two and a half hours now until my flight so this has been a great time-killer. I arrive in London on Thursday evening and I'm headed straight down to Sam Griffith's yard in Dorset where Chris Burton has recently moved and where Tiger is now a resident. They're off to a competition on the weekend so I'll hopefully be able to get my first taste of British eventing before I throw myself into it in the OI at Wilton next weekend.

I'll let you know how it goes.

See you somewhere out there.