I was awake at 4.30am, listening to the dawn chorus, both mornings. On the first morning, it was not the birdsong that woke me but worry. What had I done? We are so new to this carriage driving adventure that has swept three of my four children into a horse and pony-centred exciting way of life. This was our first all Wales Junior Camp with the British Driving Society. This was the first time I had driven our pony anywhere (not the first time he had travelled, just the first time I had driven him). This was the first time of hiring a horse box. And what had I done?
We left home at 7.30am exactly. Everything had been done to time and we were spot-on schedule. Our little Dapple-Bum (not his real name) was whinnying away in the back to remind us that he really wasn’t too sure what was going on. Our track is long and bumpy. Driving down it, I was assured I could handle the three hour journey ahead and that negotiating the track was possibly the trickiest bit. Indeed! I restyled our gate at the end of the track and dented the side of the horsebox in the process. “Steady on, Mum” was Longshanks’s response as I rapidly reversed out of the situation. He assessed the damage. “It’s just a scratch” He said showing me the photo he taken on his phone. That looks like more than a scratch to me. I now have acquired a family name for myself as a modern artist specialising in gate sculptures and on finding a damaged gate on an evening walk in the mountains it was enquired of me if it was my work of art.
This photo was taken after they had straightened it!
The worry that woke me that first morning was about how much of a dent my mishap would make in our budget for horsing around. It would seem that my children have fallen in love with something for which we need a bottomless well of funds, but I deem the love they have for it more important than funds. I have also met an outstanding generosity and kindness amongst seasoned carriage drivers who are willing to share that love by teaching, lending, providing opportunities, opening doors and encouraging making carriage driving incredibly accessible for youngsters beyond all that I could have imagined or expected. I recognise how the success of camp rose on the shoulders of voluteers willing to share their time, expertise and resources. It is something I have learnt is an intrinsic part of the carriage driving community and I never take it for granted. I hope we never stop learning from others and that my children will always see that they are who they are because of what others have done for them, in inspiring, equipping and teaching them. I hope one day as a family we might have enough understanding to be able to give back encouragement and inspiration to those who have given so much to us.
Our journey to Herefordshire was uneventful after the initial mishap although the tension in the cab could have been cut with a cheese-wire and little Dapple-Bum reassured us of his presence with a whinny at every roundabout. Until four days before leaving, I had given up thinking we could even attempt to take our pony to Junior Camp but some gentle persuasion from the Junior Commissioner and the suggestion of a carriage to loan at camp was the catalyst we needed. On Thursday, I booked a box for hire and Longshanks suddenly decided he would do everything he could to take his two wheeled carriage with us, proceeding to completely dismantle it.
His first job on arrival at camp, after settling Dapple-Bum into his ample stable, was to reassemble the carriage. That was a manly task and without being intentionally stereotypical the girls enjoyed getting everyone’s beds sorted, including the tent. My bed was the front seats of the box. I put the cushion from the carriage seat under me to raise my head so that my feet would not be higher than my head as I slept. I had parked on a very slight slope. You live and learn! Miss Puddleduck slept on the luton and Miss Friendship was on a camp bed in the horse area. Longshanks, being a gentleman, was in the tent.
The second morning I awoke to the dawn chorus not out of anxiety but because I was cold. The anxiety of the first day in overcoming new “firsts” had abated and the second day had been full of fun. By then, I was much more relaxed. The setting and surroundings were quintessentially “English Country Garden-esque”.
Everything had a lovely Monnington touch to it: a cider press in the room by the bathroom; amazing sculptures throughout the gardens; sturdy antique furniture for everyday use; even the decor in the loos were in-keeping with the age and style of the whole place – a tasteful blend of aged and artistic modern. The stables were well appointed, the ponies more settled and a collection of carriages brought by the juniors filled a corner of the yard. I overheard a youngster trying to read the fluorescent tabard on the back of a carriage that said “Please pass wide”. She slowly read each word, enunciating clearly “Please…pass…wind”.
By the second night children were loving camp and learning lots. Collectively they had overcome their initial shyness of each other. I think the ice was broken by rather raucous rounders the first night. It was a noisy affair. It involved tackling (how did they manage to get a hint of Rugby in there?) and the Northerners beating the Southerners, although I don’t think the teams were so geographically well formed and I don’t know on which team any mid-Wales participants ended up. The rounders malarkey became a feature of downtime at camp and a celebrated way of burning off any excess energy that was left at the end of the day. It was a child-led activity that none of the officials had to officiate. I leave the rest to the readers’ imagination.
The dawn chorus was an important sound to record as having been heard both mornings at Monnington, but more importantly were the peacocks. We heard them throughout the day, sometimes echoed by a child attempting to make the same call, but most commonly followed by a discussion about what the peacocks sounded like (an over-grown cat; someone shouting “help”) or whether we liked the sound of the peacocks or not. They were most definitely resented by the lighter sleepers! I liked them. Their feathers were collected by the youngest children while the older ones attempted to stroke them. Their roosting habits made them a picturesque feature. I also heard my first cuckoo of the year, at Monnington.
On the third morning, there was the sound of silence. At 8am, the rendezvous for stable management duties on the yard was met with silence and some very sleepy but conscientious youngsters who had kept their appointment. Some other very sleepy youngsters were still sleeping having kept half the camp awake to the early hours of the morning with the sound of talking. Tents are not the best for sound proofing. There was silence at breakfast that morning too apart from the occasional scratching sleepy dust from bleary eyes and the sound of muted yawns.
Meal times began on the first day quiet and awkward, developed into noisy banter-filled parts of the day as camp progressed, but on that final day felt subdued again. Everyone was remarkably well-fed and huge credit goes to the caterers for providing suitable sustenance for growing youngsters. It was here around food that much laughter was heard and discussion of the days activities. After watching the amazing display given of the Morgan breed, where the training aids used were noisy enough to make the children jump out of their skins, the adults discussed making sure the children understand that those aids are best suited to training Morgans and shouldn’t be tried on their ponies at home. It was a privilege to watch those horses move. “That’s it, Mum. A Morgan horse is my ultimate aim” Longshanks tells me, and I skeptically wonder if that will change when he sees something else of equal elegance. But that said, when he came back from South Wales, having driven a Morgan there he was all noise about how amazing they are, even then. I am going to read Justin Morgan had a Horse by Margeurite Henry to Miss Puddleduck now it will mean more to her and Miss Friendship, having read it years ago, says she wants to read it again.
On the first evening, those with ponies had the opportunity to explore the Monnington Estate. Longshanks, Dapple-Bum and I discovered the orchards. I had to research Bulmers Cider when I got home. I felt sure there was a connection and there is! Another sound of Monnington was hearing the tractors spraying the orchards. Unfortunately, we were a little late in the year to appreciate the apple blossom, but they were lovely to explore with a carriage.
There was the sound of lots of encouragement throughout camp, people encouraging each other and their ponies. It was exciting to see people stepping into new territory and doing something they hadn’t done before with the encouragement to support them. For some it was doing a mock show for the first time, for others it was driving a cones course with a long-legged, beautiful Friesian or having a go at looping a tandem whip correctly – this looked like a random attempt at fly fishing with a whip. For our noisy little pony (he was the most vocal in the stable) it was everything that was new, especially being somewhere where he had to stand and wait while other horses and carriages were busy around him. We felt he did very well. He certainly didn’t disgrace us.
Miss Friendship said her highlight was having a go at driving a tandem – something she had never done before. I asked Longshanks what he enjoyed best and he couldn’t be specific he had enjoyed so much. Miss Puddleduck loved driving the cones course and making new friends. I got a surprising thrill out of being swung rapidly around a cones course by one of the smallest ponies at camp, while back-stepping for a very confident young driver. But like Longshanks I cannot limit myself to one thing as a highlight. I always enjoy meeting and getting to know new people. It was lovely to have people become real people instead of just names and photos in the BDS Magazine. Miss Friendship described how she felt she had been away for a week, not three days, when we returned home and that was because there had been so much to absorb.
Well done, BDS Wales! An excellent camp and the name Monnington is now filled with the sound of many happy memories.