Sunday, 13 October 2013

Equestrian Pursuits 3

Riding and Driving in the Parks          

     Whilst horses were used for various forms of transport throughout the Regency and beyond, for many they were not only a status symbol, but a way to ‘take the air’ or an agreeable form of exercise. Riding was often the only manner in which a gently-born lady might enjoy vigorous exercise, or meet eligible gentlemen in an informal setting.
     Riding or driving in Rotten Row, in London’s Hyde Park, at the fashionable hour, was not just an amusement, it was a way for the ton to display the quality of their horseflesh, equestrian skill and, above all, affluence. The park hack had therefore to add to the overall appearance of eye-catching elegance, possess graceful movement and the most perfect manners.
     Rotten Row, originally ‘Route de Roi’ or Way of the King, has been so called from the time of William III. His gracious Majesty commanded the route from Kensington Palace to St. James’s to be lit with oil lamps for safety, for it was then a wide thoroughfare which encircled the inner boundary of the park. In Rotten Row, a Regency lady might ride with a gentleman with perfect propriety; two ladies could drive alone together; lovers could meet ‘by accident’ and dowagers were able to bow in dignified acknowledgement of friends and acquaintances. Because of the number of vehicles and pedestrians, riding was conducted at decorous paces only and it was severely frowned upon to flout this rule.
     A greater measure of freedom could be had in Richmond Park, where the undulating landscape of grass, woodland, gardens and groves made it ideally suited for the more adventurous horseman and woman. The largest of the royal parks at two and a half thousand acres and situated only twelve miles from St. Paul’s Cathedral, it was also the perfect destination for alfresco entertainments, including walking, driving and picnics.
     Keeping a horse in London was a costly business and the aristocracy therefore flaunted their wealth with the unabashed splendour of their hacks and equipages. Showy, high-stepping horses were chosen for single turnouts, while matched pairs (and teams) of prime cattle were in demand for sporting curricles, dashing high-perch phaetons and elegant barouches. Captain Gronow relates, in his Reminiscences, that Lord Petersham’s carriages were, ‘…entirely brown, with brown horses and harness’, and Lord Barrymore drove, ‘…four splendid greys, unmatched in symmetry, action and power.’
     Although favoured by sporting gentlemen for its slightly raffish appearance, ladies would sometimes drive a phaeton, but in general these were the lower versions pulled by ponies. Matched teams of cream, black and grey ponies were considered all the rage. Sir John and Lady Lade each drove a four-in-hand of stunning bays, whilst on occasion Sir John was to be seen on the box behind the Prince of Wales’ six highly-bred greys. During his later years, when he became somewhat stout, George IV could be seen taking his daily exercise in Windsor Great Park. Accompanied by his grooms, he drove a low phaeton drawn by two bay or brown horses, as depicted in an engraving by Melville and in another by Dickenson. This model came to be known as the George IV phaeton. 
     Of course, there were inevitably those few, intrepid ladies who thought nothing of driving both perch and high-perch phaetons. Georgette Heyer’s Grand Sophy wickedly drove the annoying Miss Wraxton down St. James’s Street, the bastion of male preserves, in her racy, high-perch version!


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