Prince Philip reveals his driving passion
By Caroline Davies
No one is more aware than Prince Philip of the rumours that he is to retire from the hazardous sport of competition carriage driving. They have, after all, been circulating for 20 years.
But now he has quashed them, firmly, in a book published this week on his passion for a sport that has often left him bruised but always beaming."I am getting old," he writes. "My reactions are getting slower and my memory is unreliable. But, I have not lost the sheer pleasure of driving a team through the British countryside."
Problems and disasters may lie ahead, he concedes, but: "I have been fortunate to have had a longer innings than most, and I have no intention of giving up while I have a team of willing ponies and dedicated grooms."
"What happens next is anyone's guess," he concludes.
What seems likely to happen is that next year, having notched up four score years and four, he will be competing in the World Pony Driving Championships.
His performance this year has put him well on course to qualify.
This feat sits oddly with his revelation that he retired from polo at 50 having "watched and played with several elderly gentlemen who seemed determined to go on playing until they dropped dead in the saddle" and vowing not to follow their example.
The book – 30 Years On and Off The Box Seat – details how, after being asked, as president of the International Equestrian Federation, to help compile rules for the increasingly popular sport, he found himself hooked.
He borrowed five Cleveland Bays from the Royal Mews, along with a set of neck collar harnesses and a big wooden carriage called the Balmoral Dogcart, and off he went.
There were teething problems, most notably getting his horses to cross water, an essential requirement for competitions which comprise a tough schedule of dressage, precision-driving through cones and a cross-country marathon obstacle course.
"It must be remembered these were ceremonial horses and their only experience of water was limited to avoiding puddles in London streets," he writes.
Having personally designed a water crossing for Home Park at Windsor, he got them across by shaking sugar lumps on the other side.
Less successful was the water crossing he devised at Sandringham, where the two leaders of his team of four jumped the ditch and parted company with the carriage.
"I was still clutching the reins when this happened so I was heaved bodily across the ditch and dumped more or less on dry land, where the horses set off to explore Norfolk.
"One of them was stopped by my daughter, who happened to be riding in the vicinity and, guessing that Father had come unstuck somewhere, rode to the rescue."
At the "grand old age of 65" and finding himself "the oldest competitor on the international circuit", he sent his horses back to the Mews and press-ganged the Fell ponies at Balmoral into active service.
Having spent the stag-hunting season lugging carcasses, they arrived south "round as barrels and extremely hairy" – a slight drawback in the dressage stakes.
Twenty years on, he is still as passionate about and as successful as ever with his ponies.
Part of the pleasure, he admits, is introducing friends to the sport. By far his most famous convert is Lady Romsey, who is often mischievously referred to in gossip columns as his "carriage driving partner", although they do not compete together.
Ten years ago she asked him about his "driving thing". He lent her a carriage and set about overseeing her progress. He had an inauspicious start as her coach when, introducing her to the art of taking the team through water at Windsor, the "shackle" came off and the "swingle trees" fell on to the leaders' hind legs.
"I had buckled the reins together, so I was able to hold on to them for a short time, but my arms were getting longer and longer and I was halfway over the dashboard," he recalls.
"The next thing I knew, we were heading straight for a fence. Luckily the leaders decided against jumping it and turned sharp right instead …
"This sudden turn caused me to leave the carriage, describing a graceful parabola through the air and into the long grass."
Meanwhile his pupil and the girl groom were left with the galloping wheelers – the back two of the four – and unable to do anything to stop them.
One of the major challenges he has faced is fitting his hobby around official duties and family functions.
There were a complicated few days in 2000 when he had to open a new pavilion for the Royal Yacht Squadron at Cowes on a Thursday, attend the Queen Mother's 100th birthday lunch on the Friday and be at Lowther in Carlisle to walk the marathon course in advance of a competition.
He ended up travelling by train to Carlisle on Wednesday and had a practice run on Thursday morning.
He flew by helicopter to Cowes that afternoon, dashed to London for the lunch at Clarence House on the Friday "after which I rushed back to Lowther by helicopter, arriving with 30 minutes to spare before starting my dressage test".
He admits that his thoughts have turned to retirement from time to time. When he was 82, his old green horsebox and trailer needed replacing, and that would be an "excellent excuse" he thought. "But then I thought, perhaps unreasonably, that I would be damned if I was forced to give up just because the horsebox and trailer had run out of puff."
"You may well wonder," he writes, "why I have continued to compete for quite so many years. The simple answer is that I have enjoyed every moment of it, or, more accurately, almost every moment of it. It gets me into the fresh air and it keeps me reasonably fit.
"I suppose I could just drive about the country but the challenge of the competition is a great inducement to get out and practise, even when the weather conditions might be a bit discouraging."
•30 Years On and Off The Box Seat by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, is published by J.A. Allen, £25.