I’m attempting to break what has been a bit of a blogging drought by writing a series about riding schools. If you took Pony Magazine in the 1970s and before, you might remember an occasional feature it did called Round the Riding Schools. The sort of riding school that got itself featured here taught you to ride the right way, with instructors who were the backbone of the British equestrian establishment. Some of the schools featured in the article were very large indeed; others were minute. What many of them have in common, despite their size, is that they no longer exist.
As for the esteemed establishment that taught me to ride, I always hoped that it would feature, but it never did. It wasn’t on quite the same level that Pony Magazine establishments were. The instruction was variable to say the least. There was an ex-Army instructor called Ben, who didn’t last long after he made pupils stand on the ponies’ rumps and ride round facing backwards. Even in an earlier, less health and safety conscious age, this was a bit much for some parents and Ben soon left. My own parents were sublimely unbothered by this. As long as we arrived home in one bit, they did not care what we had got up to in the interim.
But questionable though my riding school was, it was all that was available, and so I stuck with it, uneasily aware that there was another, and a better, way. It was that better way that was on offer at the first riding school I’m featuring, Heather Hall Riding School, in Ibstock, Leicestershire.
Some of the riding schools in the Pony article had distinctly glamorous surroundings, and Heather Hall is right up there. It is a large, redbrick Grade II listed house, with a stable block so splendid that it is listed in its own right. The Hall was probably originally built as a farmhouse towards the end of the 18th century, together with the stable block, and it was enlarged at various points. For most of its history it was owned by the Goode family, and after a spell in the ownership of a clergyman and then an engineer at the beginning of the 20th century, it began its career as a riding stable.
Mrs MSM Kew, IIH (IIH stands for Instructor of the Institute of the Horse) set up her first riding school in Bristol. Cribbs Corner began life in 1939, a challenging time to start a riding school. The war saw restrictions on fodder and a falling off in clientele for many schools (Pamela MacGregor Morris’ hero in Blue Rosette finds the advent of war too much for his riding school). Mrs Kew survived, and when her husband, a lecturer in aircraft propulsion, moved to Loughborough University in 1948, she set up Heather Hall as a riding school. In its earliest years, Heather Hall was also run as a girls’ day and boarding school. Mrs Kew taught both riding and art, having studied art herself at the Slade. St Francis School catered for girls from the age of five, and promised:
...a sound intellectual training together with an appreciation of both town and country pursuits. A qualified staff prepares pupils for Common Entrance and General Certificate examinations. Classes are small. Each child receives individual attention both in the classroom and out of school hours. Special facilities for Riding and Hunting and for students for the examination of the British Horse Society. Inclusive fees:- 45-58 gns per term (boarders) 15-25 gns per term (day pupils).
It strikes me that the promised chance to experience town pursuits was somewhat limited in rural Leicestershire, but that in itself was not reason enough for St Francis to close. It was the introduction of the eleven plus exam, and increasing bureaucracy that saw the school’s closure.
The riding school, however, continued. In 1974, when the Pony article appeared, the school had expanded and now had four qualified instructors, including Nick Creaton, BHSI, now a chief examiner for the BHS, and a saddler. He was associated with Heather Hall from 1973 to 1989, and was chief instructor for much of that time.
The school had an excellent reputation, and has some famous alumni, including eventer Ronnie Durrand, and Di Lampard, now Performance Manger for Jumping for the senior British showjumping team. Di’s earliest riding experiences were of the alarming sort, featuring a Shetland pony called Oscar, who enjoyed scraping his young rider off under trees. Di’s father decided that riding lessons would be safer, and at the age of six, Di started at Heather Hall. She was taught by Mrs Kew, who she described as “a stickler for the basics”. Di spent most of her early lessons on the lunge, helping Heather Hall maintain its emphasis on discipline and good position in the rider. It obviously worked: by the time she was 10, Di was competing, and she did a one-day event on one of the riding school ponies.
Heather Hall did not just teach children. It was well-known for preparing students for the BHS examinations, including the more advanced teaching qualification, the BHSI. The well-rounded education its students received was helped by visiting instructors like Lisa Shedden, FIH, FBHS, Col AEG Stuart, Jean Mackeness, BHSI, and Jane Turner, BHSI.
Nick Creaton left Heather Hall in September 1989, when he went freelance, and the school closed in October 1989. Mrs Kew died in January 1995, and Heather Hall was sold. The family who bought Heather Hall had a few liveries, but the riding school was not resurrected. Heather Hall, its stables and land were sold in 2014, and planning has now been granted to return Heather Hall to a single house. The historical assessment of the buildings created as part of the planning application makes fascinating reading. Some of the elements of the riding school are still there; there’s still an indoor school, and the timber stables. There’s still a mounting block made out of millstones. The listed stables retain some of their 19th century fittings, with stall partitions, feeding troughs and hayracks, but the building is, sadly, in an extremely poor state of repair, and in obvious need of much love, attention and money. The new owners have a considerable task on their hands, and they are to be commended for taking it on.
Heather Hall fell victim to a pattern that seems common in riding schools: a simple lack of someone to take the school on. The Kews had no children, and not many people can provide the huge capital investment necessary to take on and maintain a set of historic buildings, let alone run a business which makes incredible demands on time and energy.
My apologies for the paucity of pictures - copyright-free pictures of Heather Hall are all but non-existent.
Very many thanks to Nick Creaton, formerly chief instructor at Heather Hall, who was an absolutely invaluable source of help. Nick still teaches, as well as acting as a chief examiner for the BHS. He designs saddles and saddlery, and you can find his website here.
Historic Building Assessment of Heather Hall, Trigpoint. North West Leicestershire Planning Department.
The Schools Handbook, 1955
Di Lampard on her first pony, Oscar. EQ Life, September 7, 2012, retrieved 12 March 2016.
Di Lampard and Heather Hall. Leicester Mercury, May 18, 2015, retrieved 13 March 2016.