Hey - Granny!  
“Hey - Granny! Where d’you go with your caravan and what d’you do?” my grandson asked me when I was last visiting my daughter and her family in the USA.

It’s the sort of question that takes quite a bit of answering - but he wanted to hear about it, so I began by explaining that last year I’d been to Scotland, England and Wales, and showed him on a map. He didn’t question the fact that I travel by myself and am quite happy towing my caravan behind my rather elderly car - which is something most “grown-ups” seem surprised by. I’m not known as The Soup Dragon for nothing, perhaps, and I suppose my grandson has reached the age of nine without thinking much about it - maybe because I like cooking and do make a lot of soup..… no comment about the “dragon” bit !

Although I travel by myself - but accompanied by my two dogs - the places I go to mean that there’s always somebody I know to help me set things up when I arrive on site. I’m not the only solitary traveller, however, and my friends emerge from their own caravans when I get there - offering a cup of tea or something stronger, perhaps - and help with putting up the awning and so on. If I arrive before they do, the role’s reversed. Between us we ought to try to set a record for fixing awnings - we’ve had a lot of practice now - but I still wish somebody would invent an awning which I could easily manage on my own but which looked like a “proper” one and not an igloo.

It usually goes like this: I arrive on Tuesday afternoon, sometimes having travelled around 200 miles, and having set everything up, from then on my friends and I take turns each evening with the cooking and we eat together. Others usually join us after supper, and we sit in the awning and talk about what we’ll be doing over the following few days. Maybe there’s a stately home we want to visit, or a well-known garden, or even the beach. Maybe somebody’s run out of gas on their last trip and has to go and find the nearest place to get some more. Mostly, however, it’s What Have They Got You Down For? “They” are the people who are organising the thing that we’ve all come to be a part of.

Imagine a village - but it consists of the most extraordinary mix of dwellings you’ve ever seen. There are some which are brand new. Mostly they are older, though, and all are “owner-occupied”. Some of the occupants have four legs, a mane & a tail. There are dogs, and even the occasional cat. Somebody used to have a pet duck which went everywhere with them……….and of course, there are people and more caravans and motor homes. It’s in the grounds of a stately home or on a part of a country estate. The surroundings are beautiful and everyone is looking forward to what happens next. Everyone hopes for good weather, but - if it rains, nobody melts (though one or two of us wouldn’t mind shrinking a bit) and things get done with cheerfulness and jokes. People help each other out, and if somebody’s left something vital at home there’s always somebody in the “village” who’ll find a solution to the problem and lend the missing item.

The village is in reality a horse-box park, and its occupants have come to enjoy a long weekend of competition, with their horses and carriages. It takes place over three days - Friday to Sunday - and during that time my friends and I help in all sorts of ways. On Friday, which is Driven Dressage day, I might sit alongside one of the judges and write down the marks and comments made for each competitor, whilst another friend might be seeing that each one enters the arena at the designated time. Another might be collecting the score sheets and taking them to the event office, whilst another might be going round the marathon course making sure that all the markers and posts etc are in their proper place ready for Saturday, and fixing all the stuff that somehow got left undone the day before.

On Saturday I usually have to get up early to walk the dogs - I’ll be on duty at around 0830 to collect the paperwork, clock and two-way radio - because it’s Marathon Day. Quite often my job is to be at the start of the first of the three marathon Sections and to fill in a time-card for each competitor when they arrive to begin the most exciting phase of the whole event, which consists of a cross-country course through fields, woodland and tracks. The total distance the competitors have to drive is usually about 20 kilometres, and it includes a walk section, plus a ten-minute halt/rest and vet check around half-way. The final part of it includes eight “Obstacles” and this is where the competitors have to drive as fast as they can through a tight twisting course of posts and rails and which might include trees or even a pond, a bridge, or a river crossing. Each obstacle has six lettered “gates” which must be driven in the correct alphabetical order and the idea is to take as little time as possible to complete the obstacle without making a mistake. Each obstacle is manned by four or five people who are called Observers. At least one of them will use a stopwatch to record the time taken. They also look out for “errors of course”, or somebody getting down or even falling off the carriage and so on. There’s a separate diagram/score sheet for recording each competitor’s performance, and one of the jobs is to sit with a plan of the obstacle and a pencil - drawing on the plan the route the competitor actually took. Sometimes this ends up looking a bit like a picture of a tangled piece of knitting wool! The competitors who drive a single horse or pony can take shorter and faster routes than those who drive a four-in-hand, and the people who drive a tandem - that’s one horse in front of the other - have the hardest job of all as the lead horse can, and sometimes does, turn round completely to come face-to-face with the one between the shafts.

Whoever writes the results up on the portable scoreboard trailer during the Saturday has to have a clear head, because the computer print-out which shows the penalties looks at first to be unbelievably complicated. The competitors often crowd round anxiously waiting to see just who’s done the fastest times. It’s the only part of the whole of the event when they can’t actually watch their rivals performing, as they themselves were out on the course at the same time. Perhaps I shouldn’t say “rivals“, as they are all very friendly. There isn’t much in the way of prize money if you win - handsome rosette ribbons, a trophy of some sort perhaps, and the knowledge that you did well are the rewards.

Sunday sees the final phase - The Cones. They look like traffic cones, and have a yellow ball balanced on the top of each one. The twisting course consists of twenty or so pairs of cones, some in a serpentine shape, and they are placed in such a way that there are only a few centimetres to spare when the carriage wheels pass through. The object is to complete the course within the time allowed, and leave all the yellow balls in place. Mistakes mean penalties, and so does taking longer than the time allowed. The competitors go in reverse order - so whoever is in the lead after the first two days of the competition is the last to go in their particular class. The excitement builds up, especially when there are only a few penalty points separating first, second and third. Even if you’re not watching at any particular moment, you can tell when somebody’s done a clear round, as they play a special tune over the public address system!

The village fragments and disappears during the course of the day as each competitor packs up and leaves for home - some travelling as far or even further than I do. By Monday morning you’d never be able to guess just how many people and animals had spent a long weekend there. There’ll be tidy muck-heaps in their designated space, a full waste skip or two and maybe some small patch of ground where the odd horse had fidgeted in his portable stable and scraped the grass a bit. No rubbish flying in the wind, and no mess. I think it’s because we all appreciate the fact that we are able to stay in such lovely surroundings that everyone makes absolutely sure of that.

I switched the computer on and showed him some video clips on a horse driving trials website. “Can we go to one of these events when we next come over to visit, Granny?” my grandson said. “Looks like a lot of fun”. “Yes“, I told him. “I’ll arrange for another caravan for you all so’s you can come too”. And they did. We spent the time in a lovely place, right beside a river. Only a few feet from the awning to the river bank, with kingfishers flying to and fro and all the horsey things going on as well. They loved it, and so did I.

 

 
   
   
   
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