Royal Ascot is under way at last, thank God – those gigantic hat brims offer valuable places to hide while the sun continues to crank up London’s temperature north of 30 degrees. SO RUDE! Go and do it somewhere it’s expected, like Spain, or Cornwall.
In heat like this, the mere idea of idea of schooling tends to make you feel a bit out of sorts – I forgot my contact lenses while jumping the other week, so spent most of the hour pushing increasingly slippery glasses up my nose or swinging round corners completely blind like a colossal twit – so it was with great joy that I got the train to Putney to head off for a leisurely hack around Richmond Park instead with my pal Ebona.
Ebs and I met when we were working at Twitter, and every few months we meet up to hack around a different part of London. There is something utterly magical about exploring Richmond Park from horseback: if you encounter one of the many herds of deer, then it can turn into a very lo-fi version of Jurassic Park. They are splendidly unbothered by you going past if you’re on a horse, and sometimes even if you aren’t. I’ll never forget turning a corner one summer to see a vast stag, resplendent in all his antlered glory, posing by a lake while a pair of Japanese tourists snapped away on their SLR cameras.
There wasn’t a deer to be seen on Saturday. The does must have been in nursery mode, looking after the new arrivals, and the herd had taken themselves far away to the other side of the park to bed away in the trees. But even without them, Richmond Park is a staggeringly beautiful place to ride. You could almost drink in the scenery: those gorgeous silvery forests, stretching up like so many ballerinas and creating ghostly shadows that stretch on for miles. The bracken and ferns that line the bridle paths, themselves huge yellow brick roads of sand that wind around the park, keeping you reassuringly far away from all the lycra-clad cyclists and cars.
I was temporarily pulled out of my “Bloody hell, isn’t this lovely!” reverie when my horse Cleo and I had to pull up after a few strides of gentle canter because of kids building sandcastles in the bridle path (this is a classic London riding hazard). Once our leader had politely suggested to their parents that football might be a better option, we were off again, and now surrounded by Richmond Park’s summer wildlife: the topless London man.
Whether jogging, walking with ice creams, or passed out on tartan rugs, they were everywhere; lining our ride the way the animals usually do in the autumn months. Occasionally we’d encounter a pack of frisbee enthusiasts wandering up the bridle path and getting the shock of their lives when we suddenly appeared trotting behind them. Well. More like a mild “oh!” because we were definitely going at summer speed rather than full-pelt!
Our leader mentioned that her next ride was rather unusual: a birthday boy going for a walk up the grassy hill away from the stables for a photo with some friends, but he wouldn’t need the full hour. Ebs and I looked blankly at each other. Why on earth wouldn’t you want the full hour? And would this man be wearing clothes?
The answer, we found out when we arrived back at the stables, flushed with summer, is yes, and if you are Napoleon.
This birthday boy, flawlessly dressed with a tricorn hat balanced perfectly atop a riding hat, and similarly dressed friend armed with a video camera in tow, was the most London thing I’d ever seen in all my years living here.
“I have literally never been more disappointed with my clothing choices right now,” I blurted out to them, enthusiastically.
I didn’t catch Napoleon’s name – and, frankly, it would have rather spoiled the effect if I had – but his friend Tom said that they were off to re-enact the Battle of Waterloo.
Of course they were. How completely marvellous.
“Can I gallop?” asked Napoleon, as one of the Stag Lodge helpers sorted his stirrups out on Cleo, who had been roped in as a steed of suitably military bearing.
“Hmmm,” she said, in the sort of expertly non-commital fashion that means “Absolutely not, but bless you for asking”.
As tempted as Ebs and I were to follow in the chaps’ stead, there was the rather more pressing call of post-ride refreshments, and so we gathered all our bits and pieces and headed off in the direction of our own Waterloo, and the South Bank Food Market.
Napoleon, sir, I hope you had a brilliant birthday. A votre santé, you magnificent lunatic, from one urban equestrian to another. You’ve totally just stolen my crown.