Duke takes the hazards in his stride
By Sue Mott
I was expecting a little more fanfare. But one minute I was standing in the middle of a field at the Royal Windsor Horse Show, and the next I was accompanied by an upright, handsome, not especially elderly gentleman, smartly but not showily dressed, who was bristling - if you can have such a thing - with good humour. My curtsey was shockingly askew, but he paid no attention to it.
Royal audience: Prince Philip watches Lady Penny Brabourne at the Royal Windsor Horse Show
“Shall we go and stand under a tree,” he said, courteously. It was ferociously sunny. But the prospect of standing up for an interview was unappealing.
“Oh, come and sit in the Land Rover then,” he said. So we did. He in the driver’s seat, aptly, and The Daily Telegraph’s emissary in the passenger seat.
HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, is still competing in national sport at the age of 85. He is competing today, as a matter of fact, driving a team of Fell ponies owned by HM the Queen in the pony four in hand class at the Hopetoun Horse Driving Trials on the Hopetoun Estate, near Edinburgh, home of the Marquis of Linlithgow.
The sport is carriage driving and Prince Philip took it up upon his retirement from polo - rather as some chaps repair to the golf course - for a quieter, more sedate life.
“I took it up as a geriatric sport. I thought of it as a retirement exercise. I promise you, when I set out I thought it would be a nice weekend activity, rather like a golfing weekend. Which it was, until some idiot asked me to be a member of the British team.”
“Does it get in the way of your duties,” I asked sympathetically. “It’s the other way round. The duties get in the way of the driving,” the Prince said.
This is not, it must be said, a gentle sport. This is not crown green bowls or pub darts. There are four lively ponies to control, for a start, and three elements of competition: the dressage, the cross-country, and a rattle through a set of cones which demands precision steering.
The cross-country involves a stage strewn with obstacles. One can come a cropper. It is a bit risky, isn’t it, for the consort of the Queen in his mid-eighties?
“What looks like a risk … I mean, you’re a classic example,” expostulated the Prince, impatiently. “Saying, ‘Oh it’s a very dangerous sport’. You haven’t got a bloody clue, have you?” I was only too happy to admit I had not.
“You’ve never seen anybody come to any harm, so why do you say it’s dangerous? It’s like climbing. People say, ‘Oh, you can fall off’. Well, they don’t fall off. Not if they learn properly and if they’re properly organised. It’s not dangerous. It’s dangerous for people who don’t know the first thing about it. If I were to put you on the carriage, of course you would get into trouble. And if you were to climb Everest, again you’d get into trouble. So you’ve got to see risk in relation to ability. When did anybody take their eye out playing conkers?”
The Prince is the most splendid antidote to the healthy and safety harridans Britain has produced. He has, in fact, suffered remarkably few mishaps in a carriage career of 33 years.
“I turned over years ago when I hit a stump. And once, in practice, a pole on the carriage broke, so you’re pretty helpless then. I was thrown and kicked on the way out.” Did he break anything? “No,” he said.
It all began when the Prince was looking for something to replace polo when he turned 50, in 1971. “I happened to be president of the FEI at the time - do you know what that stands for?” I stammered something about the International Equestrian Federation. “That’s right,” he said. (The relief!) "One of the executive members from Poland said to me, ‘Do you know we ought to have rules for carriage driving because it’s becoming very popular’. I’d never heard of carriage driving so I decided to have a look. I went to Germany. It was electrifiying to see something like 24 carriages going round the ring.
“Then I thought, well, we’ve got some horses, we’ve got some carriages, why don’t I have a go? In 1973 I entered my first national competition, and to my horror I was told I could compete in the European Championships in May that year as an individual. I did and I was rather impressed. Things went quite well until I hit the last obstacle, which damaged the carriage to such an extent I had to retire before the end. However, I had a clear round in the cones, so I was not last, at least.”
Far from it. He has won two team gold medals at World Championships (in 1974 and 1980) and admits his proudest moment was winning the four in hand individual title at Windsor, with a team of bays, in 1982. "It was very satisfying, but the only reason I won was because George Bowman Snr [multiple world champion, team and individual] came a cropper somewhere. These were the days when the Prince competed with horses, but there came a time when he felt he should reduce the horsepower a little.
“In 1986 I came to the conclusion I was the oldest person on the horse teams circuit, having done five World Championships and God knows how many Europeans. I’d already been driving ponies at Balmoral, so I decided to go on with them. We were at Brighton the other day and they’re going really rather well.”
I said there was no reason to give up the sport then, if things were going so well. “Well, there is. It’s known as anno domini,” he countered. But, at least it is a sport you can do sitting down, and surely age doesn’t come into it? “Oh yes it does. You wait,” he added ominously.
Would he care to explain the inimitable pleasure of carriage driving as one of the greatest ambassadors of the sport? “No, you can’t explain pleasure to anyone. If you didn’t like it, you wouldn’t do it,” he said, succinctly.
“Presumably, you get pleasure from doing this?” He eyed my spidery shorthand dubiously. “What do you do for fun?” Lord, on the spur of the moment, I couldn’t think of anything. “Er, watching football,” I said.
“Don’t you actually do anything. Shove-ha’penny or something?”
“Walking,” I added hastily, which sounded pathetic, so I added, “and climbing.” (Completely untrue, since I haven’t climbed anything except the stairs to a lounge bar in 10 years.)
The Prince is impatient with inactivity on every level. He was chatting away with the Duke of Beaufort one night at Badminton, half a century ago, when he said: “It seems a great pity in all these horse shows that they only have jumping and show classes for children. They just sit there, all dressed up. They don’t get much fun out of it. Can’t we think of something the ordinary pony can do? The family pony. It may look like nothing on earth, but it’s a great favourite.”
That is how the Pony Club Mounted Games came into being, borrowed from the Army’s gymkhana. They celebrate their 50th anniversary this year. Clearly the Prince is just as keen to promote sporting activity among others as he is to take part himself. The emphasis being on the taking part.
He is not much one for sitting on the sidelines, so when I inquire about his excitement at the up-coming World Cup, he is equivocal. “I am not really a talented spectator, frankly. Yes, it’s quite fun to watch but it’s not the be-all and end-all. I’ve had enough of it. I did something like five Olympic Games, as president of the FEI, when I was just standing around watching these things. I’d rather do something.”
One suspects he and the Queen will have to do things at the London Olympics in 2012, when the Prince will be 91. “As little as possible,” he said, and it may have nothing to do with his age. I made the mistake of mentioning the opening ceremony, and I did not get away with it.
“Opening and closing ceremonies ought to be banned. Absolute bloody nuisances,” he raged. “I have been to one that was absolutely, appallingly awful - aaaagh.’’ He finished the sentence with an exasperated gasp. “At the Olympics, in the old days, when they were more or less amateur, the last event of the whole Games was the show jumping in the main stadium because the horses used to cut up the ground. Well, blow me down, I was suddenly told - at Munich, I think it was - that we couldn’t have the main arena for show jumping any more because it had to be prepared for the Closing Ceremony.” Words cannot describe the horror inserted into the last six syllables. Momentarily, he reminds one of an aghast John Cleese.
“So I said, ‘What is the Olympics about? The competition or the closing ceremony.’ So I’m truly fed up with opening and closing ceremonies. They’re a pain in the neck.”
“Good morning, sir.” The Prince was greeted through the window by the organiser of the Windsor event. They chatted, mostly about the weather. “While I’ve got you,” said the Prince, suddenly, “you put some horses beyond the railway line, have you?” “Yes.” “Well, don’t.”
This was a very instructive exchange. At least I wasn’t the only one to be told off and it demonstrated how seriously the Prince takes his role as Ranger of Windsor Great Park. “I’m a sort of godfather of the whole business,” he said.
It seems, though, that his interventions are more benign than merely spraying the area in machine-gun fire. A lifetime of devotion to sport, action, risk and taking part inevitably comes to the fore. Beside his equestrian activity, he has played soccer (in goal), field hockey (at centre forward), squash, badminton and rugby. He was captain of the Gordonstoun Cricket XI. “But there were only about 20 of us at the school”.
Later in life, at a charity match, he had England player Tom Graveney caught at fine leg from an HRH off-break. “He, of course, was then unmercifully teased by all his contemporaries. Every time I met him afterwards I always tactfully failed to mention it and he always brought it up.” The Prince has not, though, ever parachuted, nor bungee jumped. “No I don’t think I’d like my eyeballs to go out and then in again, somehow.” He laughed.
But he is all for competition. “Everything you do is based on competition unless some half-witted teacher seems to think it’s bad for you. People like to pit their abilities against someone else. People want to race each other. It’s what gives the whole thing spice.” A carriage and four trotted smartly past the front of the car.
“Hallo Boyd,” he called. “That’s the Australian, Boyd Exell. Very good driver,” he explained. “Made an absolute horlicks of it in Brighton the other week.”
If you ask him about retiring altogether from the sport, he is surprisingly philosophical. “Well, we’ll see. I’ve taken the first step. I doubt I’ll be competing next year. You’d be surprised how much work it is. You’ve got to practise like mad and it’s absolutely bloody exhausting.”
I wonder if he had gone home after a particularly frustrating day. ''Yes,” he said taking up the reins of the thought process, “every time. I want to shoot the lot of them. Then myself.” How does he relax? Those green eyes flared with incredulity again. “Relax?” he said. “Have dinner and go to bed.” No one else in the family is quite so keen on carriage driving as the Prince himself. “I think I might persuade Sophie Wessex to drive. We’ll see. The Queen has driven. She won a show class here at Windsor.” I venture that it is healthy to have separate enthusiasms. “Yes,” agreed the Prince, "it’s the secret of a happy marriage to have different interests.
“Now, where do you want to go,” he said, gunning the engine. I took this to mean the interview was over. As he drove, we talked about his general fitness. “Well, I’ve been lucky. I’ve had very few things go wrong. It’s terrible for people who break things. Take Rooney. That must be really hideous for him at the high point of his career.” What did he think of Theo Walcott as Rooney’s replacement? “No idea. I don’t have opinions about things I know nothing about.”
“Lots of people do,” I said (as one of them). “I know they do,” he said sternly. “But I don’t.”