When I told the person in Morton’s Sandwich Bar in Oxford who used to make up my working lunch time sandwich, that I was returning to the West Country to live in Minehead she said “Oh I used to love riding down North Hill and on to Minehead beach for a good gallop. It was so exhilarating”.
Remembering this I decided it would be interesting to research the once annual races held on the sands that were enjoyed by so many. Prior to 1870 horse races were held annually on the beach but for some reason known only to themselves, the organisers decided to end them in favour of a boating regatta instead. The first being held in 1871. It seemed strange to make a change just as the railway had been constructed which could bring even more people to the races. However the regattas failed to attract the same interest as that generated by the races, even though novelty events were put on.
As a local journalist of the day stated: “The reason for this is not difficult to understand for maritime nation though we be, Englishmen not connected to the sea do not as a rule take much interest in the sailing of vessels but every Englishman thinks he can discern the good or bad points of a horse. While we may be correctly described as a maritime, we may with equal correctness be described as ‘horsey’.” So in 1880 it decided to reinstate the horse races.
The date chosen was Tuesday July 28th. The weather beside the sea was beautifully fine with a light breeze to lessen the heat. It happened to be just the right time of year for those involved in agriculture, as haymaking was almost finished and the corn not yet ready for threshing, to allow both farmers and labourers a day of pleasure.
In fact many employers gave their men a day’s holiday and lent them waggons and horses to convey themselves, their families and friends to the scene of the races. From every direction vehicles of all descriptions, from the well-appointed break down to the humble donkey cart, poured into the town during the morning filled with people bent on enjoying themselves to the maximum extent.
Special trains were run on the Great Western Railway Line from Exeter, Bristol and all intervening towns as well as every station on the branch line. These trains were so crowded that the preparations which had been made to accommodate passengers were woefully inadequate, so other trains had to be started to pick up all those left behind at various stations.
In the end due to officials ‘straining every nerve’ everyone despite being late was brought to the town. Altogether nearly 3,000 people were conveyed by the railway alone. Two steamboats also arrived one from Cardiff and the other from Bristol both landing large numbers of visitors. As before the course was on the sand but in a different position to the previous events.
The majority of the committee felt that it was inadvisable to use the old course because it was soft or ‘slimey’ in some places and so a spot just beyond Warren House was chosen. This meant that there had to be a smaller tract than usual, consequently the distance of about one mile, consisted of two, instead of one rounds of the course, meaning there was not so much straight running for the horses. However the sand was firm and the racing easy.
So despite much difference of opinion as to the locale, the course proved to be successful. The raised portion of the shore formed the perfect place from which the assembled crowds could watch the proceedings easily. A Grandstand and a stand for the committee and judges was erected. The former was well patronised and the latter crowded with non-committee members !
There were refreshment and other stalls available so the scene around the crowded course was extremely animated. The racing went very well with one or two exciting finishes, especially in the first heat of the Minehead Stakes which was won by a short head. The arrangements for getting the horses ready to start was somewhat defective in the beginning causing considerable delays.
It was agreed that such delay should be prevented on future occasions, as punctuality is essential on a course which can only be used for a limited time on account of the tide, or the programme cannot be completed. The racing finished soon after 6 o’clock when people speedily dispersed. The main thoroughfares of the town were crowded with pedestrians and conveyances bound for home. But by 9 o’clock all was quiet, everything having passed off in an orderly fashion. The annual races continued for many more years and remained as popular as ever. Maybe they should be re-instated but doubtless Health and Safety would put a few obstacles in the way!
Still we are not short of horsey activities in our area. We have local Point-Points, riding schools, equestrian centres, local Gymkhanas and of course our own renowned Philip Hobbs Racing stables at Bilbrook.
In an article in Country Life entitled ‘To horse! Our long love affair.’ The writer John Lewis-Stempel echoes the views of the journalist a 150 yrs ago when he says: “Equus caballus has served us for millennia on the land, the battlefield and in the sporting arena, so it’s no wonder our passion for our trusty steed remains unbridled.”
Remember Shakespeare’s line spoken by Richard III on losing his horse in battle, “a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse”
Compiled by Sally Bainbridge on behalf of Minehead Conservation Society.
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