Heythrop Country Fair and Donkey Derby

Sunday 17 June 2012



Choc & Martin r.jpg


Having completed his heat, Choc chats to Martin Keighley



“The hunting readers might see me riding in a donkey derby at the Heythrop’s summer fair on 17 June”, wrote Choc in his final Horse and Hound diary of the season published on 03 May.


The internet is a godsend when it comes to finding out details of forthcoming events and initially I located a brief snippet about the Fair on the Countryside Alliance site but no information about the location, although I know the Heythrop is based in Chipping Norton.  Then, in early June, full details were published on the Heythrop Hunt’s website. 


The event would be held at Cocklebarrow Farm, which was located on the road between Aldsworth and Eastington.  Time to examine my Ordnance Survey map OL45; a relic from my days as a rambler.  It was very easy to find, being located just south of the A40 between Burford and Northleach; an area I am well familiar with having travelled to Cheltenham on over 20 occasions. 


I was now all set to attend, with the only dissuader being very bad weather; with June this year having been very wet and windy.  Fortunately, as the day approached, it became apparent that this particular Sunday might be sunny, with just the threat of a shower here and there, although breezy. 


On the day of the Fair I awoke before 07:00, showered, washed and dried my hair, applied sun-block and makeup, ate a breakfast of instant porridge and toast before setting off for Gloucestershire just after 09:00.  I decided to wear my jeans, blue ankle boots, mauve Wallis tunic top, turquoise cardigan and purple padded jacket.  And I packed my purse and camera etc into a pretty butterfly patterned rucksack I’d recently purchased from Accessorize. 


The quickest route to my intended destination would have been M25, M40 and A40, but I chose the slightly more scenic route through Hemel Hempstead, Aylesbury, Bicester and Oxford.  Having exited the A34 at the Peartree Interchange I then headed west along the A40 to reach Burford.  Thus far, the route had been very much like any Cheltenham Festival day. 


Having left Burford, I continued a short distance along the A40 before turning left to travel down the B4425 signposted to Bibury, a village I had visited many moons ago.  Aldsworth is located very close to this main road; and I took a lane on the right-hand side leading to the village, a ‘pointing finger’ sign having been placed beside the road to indicate the way to the Fair.  I gather Nessie Lambert, Master of the Heythrop, had initially set up all these signs late last week, only for a mischief maker to come along and remove them all! 


My car being a Fiesta, it was easy for me to negotiate the narrow winding lane between the houses, but not so easy for the large 4x4 vehicle following me.  The lane out of the village, which led to the field where the Fair would be held, was very straight and I followed a couple of vehicles travelling along it, before we all took a left hand turn into the entrance.  My entry fee was collected, £5, and I was instructed to drive around the perimeter of the enclosures to find a place to park.  It was just after 11:00. 


Having parked up, I purchased a programme, for £1.  Proceeds from the day would be donated to the Heythrop Hunt and to the Eloise and Katie Memorial Trust; the girls, sisters of Alice Plunkett, both having passed away due to cancer before the age of 30. 


The first event, the hound racing, was just getting under way as I walked to the main arena.  There were four heats, 6 hounds in each, with the races being sponsored by local businesses.  In addition, each hound was auctioned to the highest bidder prior to their respective heat; the total monies bid were then split 50/50 between the charity and the person who’d won the bid for the winning dog.  Spectators could also bet upon the races; Tim Kent, DBS Director and auctioneer, was acknowledging the bids.


Once the bidding was concluded, the hounds were led across to the ‘racetrack’ which ran along beside the lane.  They were loaded into traps and a hunt representative blew a hunting horn so that once they were released they ran up the track towards him.  There weren’t 24 hounds, so a number ran more than once. 


The hound racing having been completed, the next event was a display by the Cotswold Falconry Centre in the main arena.  A representative from the Centre brought along a Barn Owl, although it is not a falconry species as such.  He also flew a ‘hybrid’ falcon; this particular bird took ages before it decided it would take off and attempt to catch the lure.   


Next up was the terrier racing, numerous locals having brought along a variety of terrier breeds, and the like, to take part.  The dogs were loaded into traps at one corner of the arena and a ‘fox brush’ lure dragged across the grass to the farthest corner, the terriers chasing it as it went.  The dogs became extremely excited and made an awful din.   


It was whilst the terriers were racing that I noticed Choc walking along the field behind me; he had brought son William to the Fair (it was Fathers’ Day after all) and they headed for the mini-bouncy castle situated near the end of the arena.  I have to say that Choc’s jeans were better fitting than usual and his top well-fitting too ... it was a very nice rear view as he placed William upon the bouncy castle!!! 


They were accompanied by Choc’s friend, Patrick Sheehan, and his daughters.  Patrick had been Choc’s best man in 2009 and, I believe, they used to house-share when younger.  William having finished playing on the bouncy castle, they headed off to buy ice-creams from a van located on the far side of the arena. 


Anyway, the next event was a demonstration by the Cotswold Polocrosse Club.  However, due to the underfoot conditions, they were unable to do this on horseback.  This being the case, volunteers were requested to go into the arena to try out their skills using the lacrosse sticks.  Jockeys Timmy Murphy and Denis O’Regan were amongst those who took part.  Choc, holding William, walked back through the arena whilst they were honing their skills ... but I didn’t notice whence he’d come from!


It was then time for the final and main event of the day, the ‘driven’ Donkey Derby.  There were four heats with four competitors in each.  The first heat was for Huntsmen – Julian Barnfield (Heythrop), Nick Hopkins (North Cotswold); Simon Hand (Cotswold) and Rod Wilson (Glamorgan).  Once the donkeys had been harnessed to their respective carts, they were led along the racetrack and into the main arena.  One of the donkeys, I believe called Princess, was extremely strong and the handler had difficulty steering her in the right direction!


Once inside the main arena, the huntsmen and their respective donkeys were auctioned off to the highest bidder.  As per the hound races earlier in the day, the monies collected would be split 50/50 between the Hunt/Memorial Trust and the winning bidder of the winning donkey.  The auction having been completed, the donkeys were led back to the racetrack, the huntsmen climbed aboard their chariots and they were off.  I believe Julian Barnfield won this heat; he had driven Princess.


It was then time for the second heat, four National Hunt jockeys taking part – Denis O’Regan, Timmy Murphy, Sean Quinlan and last but definitely not least, Choc.  Once inside the main arena, Choc was the first to choose his steed, a grey one sporting blue tack.  He was then auctioned off to the highest bidder, who just so happened to be trainer Martin Keighley.  Denis O’Regan was teamed with Princess. 


All the auctions having been completed, the donkeys and pilots headed for the race track.  Then they were off.  Denis stormed into the lead and won.  Choc completed in second, Timmy third and Sean fourth. 


I had stood half way along the racetrack so I headed to the winning line area to take photographs and hopefully to say hello to Choc.  He briefly chatted with Martin Keighley, presumably passing on donkey driving tips, before heading back a short distance along the track and climbing out over the barrier. 


I chased after him and called out to say hello.  I recall kissing him on the cheek and have a feeling that I might have spontaneously given him a hug too! 


Patrick had been looking after William whilst Choc was racing and they now joined Choc.  William had become a little fractious but, as soon as he saw Choc, his face lit up!  I said hello to him and Choc said ‘This is Jane’.  William was a little shy ... I said I was shy too.  Which I am.  I said how nice it was to see them both, before saying goodbye. 


It was then time for the third heat of the Donkey Derby, the Celebrity race.  Taking part were Charlie Brooks (who, in light of current events, joked about being on the run); a guy dressed up as Felix the Fox, another as Banana Man, plus (I think) Luke Tomlinson, International Polo Player and Captain of the England Team.  And, guess what, Princess and her driver won again.


The final heat was the National Hunt Trainers – Richard Phillips, Martin Keighley, Charlie Longsdon and Fergal O’Brien.  Having won all three previous races, Princess was much in demand.  However, it was Fergal O’Brien who claimed the donkey.  The auction completed, the donkeys were led to the racetrack.  Then they were off.  There was no surprise when Fergal won; Richard Phillips completed in second, Charlie Longsdon third, with Martin Keighley bringing up the rear. 


The final race, the Grand Finale, included the winner of each heat - Julian Barnfield, Denis O’Regan, Luke Tomlinson and Fergal O’Brien.  The latter claimed Princess. 


Following the auction, the donkeys and pilots were led back from the arena to the racetrack, and then they were off.  Something must have gone wrong at the start, because it was Denis who got a flyer and, although Fergal was closing quickly as the line approached, the verdict was given to Denis.


Ten minutes later the victor and runner-up returned to the main arena and were each awarded a bottle of champagne; Fergal deciding to spray the liquid at his conqueror. 


After returning to the mini-bouncy castle with William following his respective heat, Choc had already departed from the Fair.  It was now time for me to leave too. 


On my way out, I bumped into the Keighleys.  Freddie was driving a go-cart and racing against Archie Bellamy, with young Harry watching on.  Belinda showed me a photo of the boys’ new pony.  I then took my leave and returned to my car. 


It wasn’t 16:00 yet.  Having changed into my driving shoes, I started the car and set off towards the exit gate at the bottom of the field.  It was difficult to see if anything was coming from the left, but fortunately it was a country lane so very unlikely.  I waited for a 4x4 to pass from my right before it turned up the lane directly opposite.  I followed it up the thoroughfare past Lodge Park to join the A40.  I turned left, westwards. 


I didn’t feel quite ready to return home so, as it was a beautiful afternoon, I’d decided to take the scenic route back.  Upon reaching the roundabout on the Cirencester/Stow road I turned right and headed towards the latter.  The road is very hilly and far nicer to drive in daylight hours as opposed to after dark as had happened during the diversion which occurred on one of my homebound trips from Cheltenham during last year’s Festival. 


After Stow On The Wold I headed past Adlestrop and joined the A44 towards Chipping Norton.  Upon reaching Enstone, I set off upon the 15 mile cross country journey to Bicester.  This part of the journey is the most difficult, the B roads winding their way through the Bartons, Lower Heyford and Middleton Stoney.  I noticed that numerous houses are springing up on the development to the southwest of Bicester.


After Bicester, I headed along the A41 to Aylesbury.  A housing estate is also being developed on the western outskirts of the town. Having driven around the ring-road I joined the A41 bypass and drove back to Hemel Hempstead.  The Belted Galloway cattle were still in the field at Boxmoor; I’d noticed them on my trip out this morning.


I left the A41 and drove down to the ‘magic roundabout’, then up the hill and past Jarman Retail Park; through Leverstock Green and back to St Albans.  I arrived home at 18:05.


And it had been dry and mainly sunny all day too ... a very pleasant change from recent weeks!  But, of course, best of all I’d seen Choc and William too!!!


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