I have my criticisms of my mother, and in many ways she was an abomination, but she did make sure I learnt to swim, and – more unusually – to ride.
My sister and I were horse fanatics. Our riding lessons involved a long, meandering bus ride through the lanes of Bedfordshire, and I remember my mum carried snacks for us, which must have passed for lunch. I carried my own hat, which was easily the most lovely thing I owned. The inside had a silky coloured lining and the best smell in the world: the smell of riding. With hindsight, and from catching a breath of it occasionally when unpacking parcels, I think that must have been glue: the glue holding the shock-absorbing foam in place.
When the bus finally dropped us off, it took some guts to walk into the stable yard, full of ponies and girls we didn’t know. I seem to remember the occasional teenage boy mucking out and tacking up, but it was mainly akin to a harem buzzing around the owner of the school. We were devoted to him, grooming the ponies, polishing the tack, raking out the muck.
My childhood also gave me the gift of insomnia, and in the dark reaches of the night I like to roam the internet. I found through Facebook that there is a Museum of the Horse, in Tuxford, Nottinghamshire; and a private Facebook group for Photographs and Memories of Wootton, the village where I learnt to ride. Having found it, I joined at once, and peered at the many old pictures of Wootton to see if I could recognise buildings we used to ride past. I couldn’t: mainly we used to charge around the edges of farmers’ fields, not along the hard main road. I felt guilty intruding: I wasn’t born in the village and I don’t live there now.
Then someone put an old postcard onto the Facebook site, a composite of different views, with a shot of riding school horses in the centre. Immediately there was an online discussion of who the pictured riders were, and the names of the horses. There were a few reminiscences about the stables, and I thought of my little, private hoard of photos which I could share. I was too shy.
A few months later, the Museum of the Horse posted a photo with the question: does anyone remember Bill Juffs? He was the owner of our riding school, and, it turns out, active in Bedfordshire’s Oakley Hunt. Immediately there was a flood of responses, all from grown-up women with childhood memories identical to mine. Yes, we worked in the yard in exchange for free rides; yes, we remember the gymkhanas; yes, we can still name the horses; yes, we still ride.
I shared my photos. There was a swell of passion for Bill, and for the horses we so loved. The best horses have ebullience and personality, so that riding them requires rapport as well as courage. All of us had begged to ride the feistiest and fastest ponies: Bill only let us get on the most exciting rides when we were proficient in clinging on, able to sit out the sly bucks and swerves intended to throw us off.
I don’t know why my mother was prepared to pay for riding lessons out of her savings when we were dirt poor. I think she may have felt it raised us up above the social level of the other children in our village, above the tenant farmers’ daughters who just got on ponies kept with the cows and taught themselves to ride, or were taught by their fathers. When it was such an easy thing to do for ordinary villagers, it must have seemed very extravagant to go to the other side of our county to have lessons.
My nocturnal internet searching made me wonder whether Bill Juffs had been memorialised in any way. I looked on the Bedfordshire Archives site. Its archivists are earnest and meticulous, but information on individual villages is variable. There is a great deal on their website about the village of Wootton, but not a word about its historic role as a Mecca for horse-lovers. The riding school is now closed; there is still a sign to it, even though Bill and his horses are long gone.
The title is from Henry V by William Shakespeare