Cowdray Park: learning polo from scratch and watching the greats of the game in one place.
For our correspondent, learning then watching polo at Cowdray Park in Sussex was like picking up a tennis racket in the morning, and watching Wimbledon in the afternoon.
It is a breezy early summer day, I am sitting in a field on an old railway embankment – and something remarkable is happening.
I am at a polo match. But instead of flitting around flirting with the picnic and Pimms, I am staring at the action on the ground, and watching – intently – an invisible line.
“Can you see what happened there?” asks Guy Verdon, my guide for the day, as the whistle is blown.
“Err … He crossed the line, so that was a foul?” I reply hesitantly, to encouraging nods from Guy.
For the first time, I am beginning to understand polo – and it is a revelation.
It had all begun several hours earlier, at the farm on the Cowdray Estate where Guy, 42, this month opened Cowdray’s first ever official polo academy.
“It seems incredible that up until now there was no official polo school at Cowdray, which really is the home of the sport,” said Guy, who has played professionally around the world for over 20 years. Before arriving in Cowdray he ran the polo academy at Guards polo club in Windsor, and taught clients all around the world – from Argentina to the US, Spain and Dubai.
“It’s really special to be able to come and learn here, at the same place where the world’s top professionals play.”
The school is housed at Madam’s Farm, an endearingly unassuming series of barns, outbuildings and polo fields in Midhurst – eight miles from Haslemere, the London train station.
Surrounded by rolling hills as far as the eye can see, the farm is home to Alan Kent – a former eight-goal international and one of England’s best ever polo professionals, who now runs a breeding, coaching and livery yard.
Guy keeps his five ponies for the school at the yard, and as the lads clattered past on their highly-bred steeds, I was shown to my mount: Woody, a pure-bred plywood specialist.
I can ride a horse, but sitting on the wooden version, attempting to swing the mallet, I realised this polo malarkey is entirely different. Guy made me focus on the position of my arm, so that the ball could be hit straight and smooth. It wasn’t as easy as it looked.
But soon it was time to swap Woody for something a little more lively – Motta, an Argentine import who, I was assured, was exceptionally patient.
She needed to be. Out in the field – those who haven’t ridden before would stay in an indoor arena – I attempted to stick and ball, while Guy rode behind, watching my movements and edging the ball forwards whenever I swung and spectacularly missed.
Without the mallet, we galloped about practicing turns and flying changes, learning how to shift the pony with your weight and turn with your head and body.
“I have one American client who had ridden in a few rodeos,” said Guy.
“He’s picking it up very quickly. Yesterday we had a corporate group, many of whom had never sat on a horse before, and at the end the two hours they were able to stick and ball in the arena quite happily. They were beaming from ear to ear by the end of it.”
For someone like me, who can already ride, Guy said after ten lessons I would be able to take part in “instructional chukkas”, where you play with other learners and coaches.
“I could put you in a game now, though,” he said. “You’d survive. But it’d be pretty dangerous.”
That afternoon I totally understood what he meant.
Watching high goal polo hammered home the immense skill and strength required – on the day I was there four matches were being played, and throughout the season it’s likely you will be able to catch a game. I was transfixed by how quickly it was played, and how fast-thinking the players needed to be. Guy talked me through the formations, and tactics, as well as the history and evolution of the game. It was like picking up a tennis racket in the morning, and watching Wimbledon in the afternoon.
Guy and Charlotte hope that people will be drawn to the area for all that Cowdray has to offer – the original estate, Cowdray House, has been turned into a spectacular home to hire for parties, weddings and corporate events. Up to 22 people can sleep in the sumptuous bedrooms, with dazzling views across the Sussex fields.
The current and fourth Viscount Cowdray – Michael Pearson – took over when his father died in 1995, and continues with the family commitment to the 16,500-acre estate, where over 450 polo matches are played a year.
Cowdray’s new chief executive, Jonathan Russell, has breathed new life into the area, which buzzes with a farm shop and café; golf course and holiday homes.
“There is so much to do here, it’s perfect for those who want to come and have an introduction as well as more serious players,” said Charlotte.
“In what other sports can you learn from scratch in the same place as the world’s greatest?”
Private lessons are £115/hr; group lessons £85/hr, based on three or more people.
Half days and corporate sessions available on request.
For more information see www.poloschool.uk, or email: charlotte.verdon@