The fourth Ashridge fun-ride taking around two hours to complete was held on Sunday, over nine miles using some tracks not normally open for riders. Some thirty five horse-riders were able to navigate around the Beacon hills with the help of the volunteers, and the co-operation of the tenant farmers – volunteers acted as marshals and gate-keepers. There is a permitted horse-route around the Beacon for permit holders from Piccadilly hill to the Bus-stop car park, but this is rarely used. The last time that an organised horse meeting took place here was probably way back in the early 1700’s when there was a race course in the area, some two hundred and fifty years ago.
The Ashridge Estate map of 1762 shows two arable fields called “Horse race piece” on level ground south east of the Beacon, and to the east of Piccadilly Hill. This suggests that the area was used for horse racing before the field enclosures. The area was no doubt a meeting place for the Welsh drovers, on their way to London and the southern counties, and when horse riders get together in any number, they invariably choose to race their steeds. Their horses were a mountain breed with an uneven gallop, but they would only need a short stretch of dry level ground, like chalk grassland. Thoroughbred racing did not become common place in England until the mid 1700’s by which time all of the English classic races had been established. Thoroughbreds were first imported at the beginning of the 1700’s, when regular racing had been established at Newmarket under the patronage of Charles II. Francis Bridgewater the “canal” Duke (Ashridge 1748-1803) indulged in the fashionable pursuit of horse racing and breeding, keeping a house and stables at Newmarket. He sold his horses at the Robin Hood inn in Little Gaddesden and may have used the Ward’s-coombe course. Scroop the first Duke of Bridgewater (Ashridge 1701-1745) had some one hundred and fifty horses on the estate, including race horses and no doubt trained his horses on the course.
Mr Ellis the well known diarist from Little Gaddesden tells us that in the early 1740’s a certain Mr Hearne, a gypsy who lived a while at Brick Kiln cottage on Berkhamsted common along with some thirty compatriots, was “full of money”, and kept a couple of race horses. He ran a little black bay-horse against a Gentleman’s large grey at Ward’s -coombe, and won a great deal of money by a particular “bite” – a cunning plan. His horse in the first race was secretly restricted in it’s gallop, so he deliberately lost the race. A large amount of money was then wagered by the “locals” on the second race expecting a similar outcome, but the restrictive harness had been removed from the bay-horse without their knowledge, and Mr Hearne won the race easily. The cunning plan had worked and Mr Hearne had cleaned up!
Today’s horse-riders are particularly welcome at Ashridge because they add so much charm to the bucolic scene.