Polo Practice In An English Country Garden
Cliveden House, a heritage mansion on the edge of Buckinghamshire, has a private polo clinic.
The swoosh of my mallet slicing through the air in an arching swing and the dull crack when it hits the ball, whipping it across the field, has got me hooked. I nudge the horse to the next ball, leaning slightly out of the saddle, tipping to its right, toes turned inwards in the stirrups, poised to strike. I lose my fear of falling off the horse even as it moves quickly from walk straight into a canter. Tarquin, my instructor keeps up with a volley of instructions and encouragement. I have no time to think. The adrenaline rush I’m getting from smacking the balls keeps me going. I am discovering the allure of polo at Emsworth Polo Grounds.
Polo is just one of the activities offered by Cliveden House, a heritage mansion on the edge of Buckinghamshire. I have signed up for the polo clinic that the country hotel offers in collaboration with Emsworth, a private polo club in Windsor, 20 minutes away by car. Cliveden is a picturesque 376-acre estate and home to an 1851 mansion after two fires destroyed the original one built in 1666. It has played host to guests from Chaplin to Churchill. In the late 19th century, it was bought by the affluent Astor family. In 1963, it became known as the setting of the Profumo affair, which helped to bring down the serving government. Grandeur, aristocracy, politics and scandals — Cliveden has all ingredients to be the perfect backdrop to experiencing how blue-blooded English live and kill time.
Although polo was not invented by the English, the English took to it seriously when they colonised India. Today, its association with the titled and moneyed is cemented, despite attempts by polo aficionados to make it seem more accessible than it really is. To play polo seriously, even if not professionally, you’d need at least four horses. If you are from land-scarce Singapore like me, the maintenance cost would be a king’s ransom. Home club of Four Quarters Polo, one of England’s most successful polo clubs, Emsworth’s pitches and paddocks, indoor arena and even a well-appointed four-bedroom bungalow are for event hire, and polo clinics can be customised for people who have never ridden to players with handicap as they work with a range of professionals.
My coach is Tarquin Southwell, a rather rugged and roguish-looking player who turned professional at 21. To refresh my rusty skills, Southwell starts off the ground with the basic four strokes of polo and steering and neck reining a polo pony (quite different from equestrian riding) before I ride an eight-year-old bay Argentine mare called Carthy. If I were a nervous noob, my first mount would be a wooden horse. After warming up on Carthy, Tarquin teaches me how to aim accurately for the ball, estimate distance and deliver more power in hitting.
An accident on a badly spooked horse two years ago gave me a fractured tailbone for two months but shattered my confidence for years. While I am a regular rider and have done a few polo clinics, I still worry on a new horse. But giving confidence is something Southwell is a natural at. Besides his slightly alpha manner (common in many good polo players — a plus in a game where you need the respect of a herd animal and make quick decisions) doesn’t leave much room for negotiation. Very soon, I am happily cantering around the field, smacking balls with gusto.
Back at Cliveden, other upper-class English eccentricities await. It opened as a hotel in 2012 after a multi-million-pound restoration project by billionaire brothers Ian and Richard Livingstone, who have leased the property from the National Trust (they also manage boutique hotel 11 Cadogan Gardens in Chelsea, London). Should your thing be clay-pigeon shooting, falconry or a cruise down the Thames, Cliveden can arrange. I opt to stay indoors, for Cliveden House is a destination in itself. The sumptuous interiors now fitted with 21st century comforts are a sight to behold, while nature lovers will enjoy the extensive garden with a 1,000-yew maze and 51-variety rose garden. I only have time for lunch at Astor Grill (formerly the stables), a steam bath at the newly reopened spa and dinner at a restaurant owned by Michelin-starred chef André Garrett before retiring for the night in the Sutherland Suite.
There’s really no better place to live out your Downton Abbey fantasy. And how convenient that the real Downton Abbey, otherwise known as Highclere castle (where the current Countess of Carnarvon lives with her family) is under an hour away by car.