Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Having a Grape Old Time!

It's about time I took a foray back into the more distant past for a fresh King's Ginger adventure. Luckily enough, I have had one up my sleeve for a few months, ready to unleash on my loyal readers at the most opportune moment! This particular story revolves around sparkling wine (and horses), and what better time to enjoy such things than in the lead up to Valentine's Day? Well, sparkling wine, not horses. Though what you do with your own time is no business of mine.

Onto the tale!

In stories gone by, I have written about King Edward VII's big love of horse-racing, and taken a trip to Goodwood. He visited racecourses all over the place, of course. But he was a regular visitor of one in particular - the Stockbridge Races. Stockbridge Racecourse itself no longer exists, having sadly been forced to close in 1898, before our hero even ascended the throne. More on this later. In its time, days at the Stockbridge Races were described as 'among the pleasantest of the whole season', with none of the 'bustle and excitement of Epsom, Ascot and Goodwood'. While the aforementioned other races were quite graced with the presence of his Highness, the Prince of Wales, so he frequented Stockbridge too, quite often with famous mistress Lillie Langtry in tow.

Stockbridge Racecouse - the Bilbury Grandstand, 7th July 1898

The Prince and Lillie were only together three years, from 1877 to 1880 (though they remained friends for decades), but he was so taken with her that they were almost inseparable in that time. He even built her a house, which I visited a few years ago. As you can imagine, due to their celebrity couple status, her appearances at Stockbridge were quite the event, but what's interesting is that the reverse was obviously quite true as well. In 1885, she bought a stable of racehorses and was variously involved with racing her horses, winning prestigious cups (under the name Mr Jersey) and even trying to breed them. She was eventually obliged to sell up by, you guessed it, a chap. She married in 1899 and later that same year, it was reported,
Mrs. Lily Langtry, known in racing circles as "Mr. Jersey," under which name her horses are nominated in English stakes, is about to dispose of her racing stable and to wash her hands forever of the turf. She will do this at the expressed wish of her husband, Mr. Hugo Gerald de Bathe, who does not think It Is a woman's province to own a Race horse.
I digress, because despite winning cups at Ascot and Goodwood among others, she never won anything at Stockbridge with her horses. And neither did the Prince! In 1881, he apparently said,

“I have only won one race myself under Jockey Club rules, but far from being discouraged, I still continue racing, and hope one day to own a Derby winner of my own breeding, although I really think, at the present time, my luck is so bad that if a horse of mine were winning a race, it would drop dead before passing the winning post.”

In 1886, he entered the Stockbridge Cup with his horse, Counterpane. Perhaps the name was an omen, because after a very flat performance, the poor horse limped in last and promptly keeled over dead at the finish line. Apparently, 'souvenir hunters pulled out every hair of the horse's tail. Gruesome!

Tom Cannon

Chose this picture of Tom for obvious reasons

While attending the Stockbridge Races, the Prince very often stayed at nearby Danebury House (in the perfectly-named Nether Wallop) as a guest of the owner Tom Cannon. Tom was described as a 'natural jockey' (which presumably means a short fellow), albeit one who occasionally overindulged and had to 'don several large woollen sweaters and run around the Racecourse' to cut down to optimum jockey weight! He's also great-grandfather to Lester Piggott, so clearly a good jockey gene in the family. He rose from a young stableboy and jockey, to the master trainer of the Danebury Stables, and later, after marrying the owner, John Day's daughter Kate in 1865, became the owner upon the death of Day in 1883. He won an astonishing 1,544 times in his career.

So, what happened to Stockbridge Racecourse? The above ruin is all that remains of the Bilbury Grandstand from the top photo, taken at the last ever meeting. It sadly caught fire in 1973, having stood empty and unloved for nearly a hundred years.  Sadly, it was all the fault of a lady who can only be described as a killjoy! 

The owner of part of the land over which the racecourse ran, Sir John Barker Mill, died in 1860, his widow in 1884. A distant cousin, Marianne Vaudry, then inherited the estate. She was highly disapproving of gambling, racing and betting, not to mention drinking. She gave all the local pubs over to 'The People's Refreshment Association', who sold food, and no booze. She believed drinking alcohol led inevitably to vice. 

She sued Tom Cannon for trespass, claiming he unlawfully training horses and playing cricket and other games on his property. He won the suit and was allowed 'right of recreation' on the land, but could no longer train racehorses there. In order to stop anyone gambling there, Vaudry then withdrew the lease on her bit of racecourse and the major sponsors their meetings moved to Salisbury Racecourse. It was nearly the end. But not quite! Apparently, from Days at the Races:
She had to give notice to the club that she was going to sell it, and the Prince of Wales, afterwards King Edward Vii, sent an equerry down there, with an open cheque to buy Stockbridge racecourse. But she tore it up and threw it in the fire. There's a strong willed woman...
Apparently, she later said that if she had realised the harm her actions would cause, she wouldn't have closed it. The three days of racing made some Stockbridge residents enough to last a year. But it was done.

Fittingly, one of the last ever events held in the Grandstand was a supper dance to celebrate the Coronation of King Edward VII, on 23rd June 1902. Guests feasted on lobster, beef and veal plus 'Tipsy Cake' and everyone danced until 7am the following morning. What a fitting end!

Nowadays, Danebury is a private home, but the clockhouse building in the photo above dates from the racecourse's heyday. The site was used for testing Spitfires during WWII. Racehorse stables are still there, but (Marianne Vaudry would be horrified to know) the estate is now a Danebury Vineyard, which was planted in 1988. They produce a fantastic sparkling wine, Cossack, which goes fantastically well with... The King's Ginger!

I brought my own bottle along, of course.

Apart from my fabulous KGL carrier, the starring part of my outfit is from the wonderful Ally Fashion. She will make you this if you ask! 

As I said above, Cossack sparkling wine goes brilliantly with King's Ginger as a Valentine's cocktail - the Royal King! It's crisp and light, perfectly complementing the sweetness of the liqueur. I took it upon myself to sample it at Danebury and, while I only had a very small glass of the cocktail as I was driving, it was definitely to be repeated. And what better way to wake up on Sunday 14th February than with decadent breakfast cocktails? All you need is a couple of fingers of King's Ginger, topped up with fizz. Here's one I didn't prepare earlier, by Instagram legend Symmetry Breakfast:

Pancakes... booze... happy Valentine's Day! You can buy Danebury Cossack online - The Drink Shop carries KGL as well - hurrah!

Fleur xx

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