The gates at the Beacon car park are the most used on the Estate with serious soil erosion now taking hold on the hillside in the Coombe.
With the help of the volunteers the Trust make regular improvements to the estate infrastructure to accommodate the ever increasing number of visitors – this can have unintended consequences. So the gates into the Coombe have now been “improved” with the three existing self-closing slam gates upgraded into kissing gates – preventing access to horse riders, bike riders and pram pushers. The enclosures around the gates limit access to just one or two people at a time presenting problems for dog- walkers. There may well be queues forming at busy times!
Horses for courses
There were no such restrictions in the 1740’s when the “locals” arrived for the horse-racing.
The Estate map of 1762 shows two arable fields called “Horse race pieces” 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 in the late 1750’s. The area was no doubt a meeting place for the Welsh drovers, on their way to London – when horse riders get together in any number they invariably choose to race their steeds.
Thoroughbred racing did not become popular in England until the mid 1700’s by which time all of the English classic races had been established. Francis 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 which is now a care home, and may have used the course in the Coombe. 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 them on the course. Mr Ellis the owner of Church Farm in Little Gaddesden writing in 1750 tells us that a certain Mr Herne, 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 – combe, and won a great deal of money by a particular “bite” – a cunning plan. He restricted the gallop of his horse in the first race, so he lost that race. A large amount of money was then wagered by the “locals” on the second race expecting a similar outcome, but the restrictive harness was removed from the bay-horse without their knowledge, and Mr Herne won the race easily. The cunning plan had worked and Mr Herne had cleaned up!