When I was in my teens, I was horse-mad.
I was lucky as I lived in the very horsy County Town of Lewes, Sussex.
Lewes Racecourse stood proudly and visible from all directions, on the top of the hill, over the Sussex Downs. Scattered around Lewes were at least 10 racing stables, plus riding stables, and loads of fields with privately-owned horses and ponies in them.
Every morning from 8am, the streets echoed with the clip-clop of racehorses who all seemed to walk sideways, in between bucking and rearing, while their stable-lad riders calmly stood up in the stirrups, smoking a cigarette, pretending to ignore all the passers-by who stared at them. Then they would shout the usual, ‘Ello darlin’!’ or something similar when a girl went by.
When they had passed, the amateur gardeners would all rush out, brandishing their spades to shovel up the deposits of manure for their gardens.
What lovely times! I can just imagine it now, with parents shrieking at their children to ‘Keep away from the nasty horses, darling!’ and getting up petitions to stop the dangerous animals walking along ‘their’ streets, holding up the traffic, mucking up the roads and risking everyone’s lives!
Oh how life has changed. Sigh.
All the stable lads wanted to be jockeys. They were mostly small and wiry, and constantly struggled to keep their weight down. Ireland seemed to have an endless supply of lightweight little men.
The Windmill was their favourite pub. I wonder how the landlord coped when a head peeped over the top of the bar and a sometimes high voice said, ‘A pint of beer please, Mister!’ Most of them looked about 14!
(Some of them probably were about 14.)
Barry Foulkes, the Lewes Racecourse Club President, went to the same Primary School as me, Wallands, which is at the bottom of the Race Hill, across the road.
The earliest date on which horseracing took place at Lewes is not known, but it was sometime during the reign of Queen Anne, before official records were kept. Certainly a race meeting was held in 1720 where a horse called Fox won the King’s Plate. The first officially recorded action at Lewes took place over two days, 10th and 11th August 1727. Thomas Marchant of Hurstpierpoint mentions in his unpublished diary a plate race at Lewes in 1714. Certainly a race meeting was held in 1727 and this year probably marks the beginning of regular racing at this County Town course. There are records that show Thomas Turner was a regular visitor up to the year 1765; meetings were held in August with the biggest race being the £100 Kings Plate.
The course was, and still is, one mile west of the town centre of Lewes. It is situated some 500 feet above sea level, the turf resting above deep layers of porous chalk, thus ensuring excellent going. It is a right hand course in the shape of a narrow horseshoe, the first part being on a strong incline and then it becomes level for six furlongs. From the five-furlong marker there is a slight descent, lasting for a considerable distance. It then levels out for 100 yards before another strong incline opposite the stands, finishing on the level.
The first race stand was built in 1772, although this burnt down in 1842 and a new stand was erected in 1874, and the 2nd one was in 1893, later to be enlarged in 1893. The Prince of Wales, later to become George IV, seldom missed a Lewes meeting. In 1790 the Prince, who by then had his own racing stables, a part of which was based on his new Brighton Pavilion estate, won the 25 Guineas Sweepstake at Lewes with his horse Smoker. On 27th July 1806 a famous match took place between two celebrated horses of the day, Sancho and Pavilion, for a purse of 2000 Guineas. The Prince turned up in his barouche (a horse-drawn carriage fashionable in his day) accompanied by six beautiful greys.
In 1955 the last of the unique trio of two-day meetings took place. These ran Monday and Tuesday, Friday and Saturday and again on Monday and Tuesday. Losing these probably ushered in the decline of Lewes Racecourse, for annual meetings after this were confined to five Monday fixtures and one on a Saturday.
Unfortunately, Lewes Racecourse suffered from having no running water, no mains electricity or gas and was not connected to the town’s drainage system. Without doubt these shortcomings contributed to the demise of the course. In 1964 a statement was issued by the Horserace Betting Levy Board to the effect that they were withdrawing funding for Lewes with immediate effect.
Losing this financial subsidy was the writing was on the wall despite the fact that Lewes held a special place in the hearts of a host of racegoers and townsfolk alike. All would have read with great sadness the news that the last Lewes Horse Race meeting ever was to take place on 14th September 1964.
My friend Sue Ranger’s uncle was Tom Gates, one of the racing trainers. He had two stables in the town, one at the top of Leicester Road, where Sue lived, and a smaller one near Tom Masson’s, opposite the start of the Downs.
Tom Masson had the posh stable. It was always neat and tidy. He looked after some of the Queen Mother’s horses.
Miss Sinclair’s stable was over the road. One of the other trainers had his name on the licence for her as women weren’t allowed to be trainers!
Several days before the day of Lewes Races, the house was filled with smells of cooking. (It usually smelt of horses.) The owners came back to the house after the races, for high tea.
Mrs Gates, with the aid of several other ladies, would make jars and jars of the most delicious lemony lemon curd.
I still love lemon curd. When I eat it, it takes me straight back to that house, full of men wearing cravats, with extremely well-spoken ladies in well-worn tweed skirts, expensive jumpers, thick stockings and sensible shoes, perched on rather shabby sofas, loudly discussing how their horses had performed, and laughing at something that Sir Gordon or someone had said!
The day of the races was always warm and sunny – it was, it’s not my imagination! Believe me, I’d have remembered if it was cold and windy up on that hill.
We would travel up the hill in one of the horseboxes, and Sue’s Mum would take me in, wearing an Owners & Trainers badge. Then she’d take the badge off me, go out of the private enclosure, and bring Sue in, who was wearing the badge!
You didn’t have to understand what was going on to soak up the atmosphere.
One minute the horses and riders were tiny dots in the distance, slowly chuntering along – or so it seemed. Then suddenly you became aware of the increasing thudding, and how fast they were really going as they galloped past, the jockeys’ heads down and their tiny bottoms in the air, chatting away to each other, frantically smacking the horses on the rump with their whips, urging them to go just that little bit faster!
‘Aah, poor horses!’ was my teenage lament, but I was assured that it doesn’t hurt them at all as their skin is so thick.
I’ve made contact with Jackie Steggall, nee Jackie Cole, through Barry after many years.
She also went to Wallands. She lived up on the Racecourse.
I was born at Brighton Hospital on 29th March 1950.
I lived at Lewes Racecourse from when I was just a few days old until a few months after it closed in 1964.
Although just a tiny child surrounded by seemingly massive buildings and far reaching views, I can never remember feeling frightened, bored or lonely. Although Dad (Jack Cole) took over as caretaker from Grandad I think that Dad did the work and Grandad gave the orders and also bribed me with pocket money for every job he taught me to do. This included painting running rails, parade ring railings, doors, just about everything really. I used to love mowing nooks and crannies and under railings where Dad’s big mowers, which were pulled by the tractor, couldn’t reach.
I loved horses from an early age and would ride the trainers’ cob horses or retired race horses. The trainers were Mr. Gates, Mr. Masson, Miss Sinclair and Mr. Gosden. Mr. Gosden’s children Sally and John were my playmates when they weren’t away at boarding school. 0f course John Gosden was an accomplished trainer himself. I also had a Shetland pony called Pansy who was such a handful she was like riding a bucking bronco.
We lived in the Tattersalls Race Stand, which is on the right facing the racecourse. The Club Members Building is on the left. Our accommodation consisted of a living room, kitchen and toilet then going right through the bar area of the stand, around the corner, up several flights of stairs and through the back of the glass fronted stand brought you to the bedrooms. We only had Calor gas lights and cooker, with oil lamps and candles to see by and our water used to be pumped from wells. Then when I was eleven, in 1961, we had a generator fitted which gave us electric lighting and a television! Until then it was just a radio and gramophone for entertainment but I used to love the thunderstorms when I would sit in the glass fronted stand and be amazed by the lightning.
One night, when I was in bed, the police turned up to say that a prisoner had escaped from Lewes prison and could they search the buildings. The only one unlocked was where we lived and that’s where he was discovered. From then on I had to sleep on the settee until Mum and Dad went to bed.
Grandad had a large kitchen garden also lots of chickens, rabbits, a couple of pigs and a cow so we were quite self sufficient. As a consequence I became animal mad and am still very passionate about all creatures.
Race days for me were great fun because I loved seeing so many people and all Dad’s work people and Grandad’s old cronies used to give me a threepenny bit or a silver sixpence so I had a nice heavy money box without risking a penny on the horses. However, Dad sometimes played bookmaker to me and I could be quite lucky by just picking out names or choosing my favourite jockeys who were Lester Piggott and Scobie Breasley. As race days were on a Monday a lot of the catering staff used to arrive an Sunday. I found this quite exciting as the chefs used to show me how to cook various foods. One day I decided to surprise them by baking an apple pie in our own kitchen and taking it to them in the racecourse’s huge kitchen which was in the bottom of the Club Members’ building. The wind between the two buildings used to be terri?c and quite often it was a job to stand up let alone walk but this day, along with my apple pie, I made the manoeuvre with my pie unscathed. However, at the door of the kitchen I started walking down the ramp where blocks of ice for the open brick walled fridge had just been slid down and just as the ice had done, so did 17 I careened right to the bottom on my backside, apple pie in pieces on my head and absolutely mortified with embarrassment.
Being so shy and upset the chefs never saw me for dust and no amount of coaxing would make me show my face again.
Whenever I had a birthday party dad used to take the tractor and trailer to the bottom of the motor roads (the two made up roads leading onto the Downs, the others being dirt tracks unfit for motors) to collect my friends, an experience which they all thought was great fun especially if it had been snowing which it quite often seemed to in those days around the end of March. The party would be held in the grandstand where we could all run around make as much noise as we liked because there were no neighbours to upset.
I was very keen on sports and athletics and had plenty of space to practice. I also used to use the Totalisator building’s metal railings to swing from my legs and climb through and became extremely proficient because if I fell off it was onto concrete. I was also able to roller skate indoors and used to play at concerts with Mum teaching me to tap dance whilst the dogs sat there as an audience.
I went to Wallands school between the age of 5 and 11. The walk to school was1 mile each way, downhill there but uphill back. Poor Mum used to piggyback me most of the way in the early years but I was quite a sturdy child so no light weight. On race days I still went to school but afterwards would go to a friend’s house in Highdown Road. We also used to sit on the bank of the motor road collecting car numbers which used to be quite a rewarding occupation as race goers used to throw us money out of their car windows presumably after a profitable day. At the age of 11 I started at Mountfield Road school. Now I realise that it was quite a long walk but at the time I thought nothing of it, whatever the weather. The strangest part of it was that having no street or road cred, Lewes seemed so noisy and busy to me that I was happy to get home to peace and quiet and the animals.
In the winter Dad used to have a flock of sheep grazing on the racecourse, section by section, until the whole course was grazed. This kept the grass down and the ground manured to develop the lush course conditions for the next racing season. Lambing was a busy time but I loved it. School was rather an inconvenience at that time though! If any ewes rejected their lambs I used to look after them indoors and in the stands. I would wrap them in sacks and warm them in our coal/wood fuelled oven. Not very popular with Mum but needs must! The farmer gave me a lamb called Joey who became just like a pet dog but being a ram became rather boisterous when playing and would charge your legs or bottom and send you flying. I once took Joey to Wallands school for the day for all the kids to experience a lamb close up (this event actually made the Sussex Express) but had a busy time with a dustpan and brush clearing up behind him. I quite often used to start off for school and then return home with him because he had followed me. In the end Dad’s workmen said that either Joey went or they did because by this time he would find his way out of any enclosure, charge them and knock them to the ground. Very funny but they couldn’t see that for some reason. He went back to the farmer: I was heartbroken.
So, all in all, I would say that I loved living at Lewes racecourse until around the time that it closed. By then I used to envy my friends going to clubs etc. and wished I was more at the hub of things, not realising that my wish was soon to come true as the course closed when I was fourteen and a half years old although we didn’t leave there until the following year. We moved to a bungalow on Neville estate. It seemed like a doll’s house in comparison to our previous home with Mum, Dad, Gran, Grandad, myself and Candy the dog all together, but having mod cons was great.
When we were kids and Jackie showed us round her home, I was almost in tears of envy. It was huge! There were animals everywhere and, oh, the views!
Jackie told me that the old racecourse buildings have been converted into houses.
She went up there to have a look and a woman showed her round her house, which was built where Jackie used to live.
‘You must all have a very friendly community here,’ Jackie said.
‘Oh no,’ the woman replied, ‘We don’t talk to each other!’
How sad to live in those wonderful surroundings, and have nothing to say!
The racing stables have nearly all been built on now.
Tom Gates’ house and stables are buried under blocks of plain, ugly flats.
But I still regularly go back there in my dreams, and when I wake up I can almost hear the whinny of a horse, resting its nose on the stable door, watching the world go by. And I clearly smell the familiar cocktail of leather, bran, manure, hay and straw. Lovely! Who needs Chanel No 5?