Hickstead at Sixty Stages Only 2020 Show This Week

Hickstead in early years

This year was to have been a major celebration at The All England Jumping Course at Hickstead being the sixtieth anniversary since Douglas Bunn staged its first showjumping competition. Sadly, as we all know, this was not to be, due to the Covid 19 pandemic, (how many times have we had to write this!) However, despite the cancellation of the two major international meetings at the venue earlier this year, Hickstead have put on their Science Supplements September Meeting this week, which was initiated in 2011. All behind closed doors of course and with strict protocols.

The story of Hickstead is a fascinating one and was the brain child of one Douglas Bunn, a very colourful but determined character. Douglas Bunn was born in West Sussex on 29th February 1928, at Selsey, and was the youngest of three brothers. He was educated at Chichester High School before attending Trinity College in Cambridge, where he got a degree in law.

Master of Hickstead Douglas Bunn

He started at Lincolns Inn as a barrister in London in 1953 where he made a considerable amount of money. Like his father, Douglas Bunn loved horses and was a very keen showjumper and was on Great Britain’s Teams of the time. It is said that he was so keen on his riding, that he would often turn up in court dressed in full riding regalia covered up by his stripped trousers, gown and wig, so as soon as the business of the day was completed, he could go straight to a competition or back home to further train his horses. How things have changed – no barrister would dare turn up in court today so inappropriately dressed!!

Not only was Bunn a successful barrister, but he soon showed his adeptness at business. He purchased a plot of land – marsh land at that – near his birthplace in West Sussex from his father where he had the land properly drained and then put a caravan park up which was the biggest park of its kind in Europe. Bunn Leisure was born and is still run by the family today. Despite his extraordinary work load, Bunn still rode horses and realised that unlike mainland Europe, who had built purpose built horse show venues, there were none in Britain and this he was determined to change. He brought Hickstead Place in 1959 – a large manor house with a decent acreage and set about building a purpose built equine arena and showground. Again, this venue is still run by the family today.

The famous Derby Bank at Hickstead

Douglas Bunn didn’t want just any old arena, he wanted something that was unique, so he set about its building. He wanted to replicate the ‘Derby Bank’ at the Hamburg equestrian venue. Complete with tape measure, off he went during the winter to Hamburg, but as the story has it, he measured the ten foot bank during a snow storm but failed to take account of six inches of snow – hence the Hickstead Bank is the tallest in the world at ten foot six inches. In 1960, the bank was not ready, but the first show opened and its popularity was quick to see, despite the show opening on the same day of the Royal wedding of Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong-Jones in London. The famous Derby Bank was first used in 1961. Other unique fences were put in place for the annual competition. The ‘Devils Dyke’ was built as replica of a local tourist spot, a valley within the South Downs. This was and still is a three jumps where the horse has to jump the first going steeply downhill, at the bottom of which there is another fence when the horse has to gather itself for the ‘jump out’ another set of poles, this time with the horse having to jump uphill. Many horses refuse this and the combination is thought by many to be the most difficult of the whole course. Having successfully negotiated the Devils Dyke, the very next jump is the water jump. This was the first permanent water jump to be built in Britain and was to Olympic standards. Its span is fifteen foot. There are many other jumps of note, but this article is too short to name them all. But one thing that is not seen on TV or in images is that the ground falls away towards the entrance to the famous arena quite steeply, which further tests the ability of horse and rider.

Harvey Smith didn’t always see eye to eye with Bunn

Douglas Bunn certainly achieved his aim of giving British Showjumping a home to proud of. Not only are there normally  two international events each year – The Derby Meeting and The home of The Royal International Horse Show, it has hosted either the European championships or The World Equestrian Games on nine occasions. Bunn was not a man to be trifled with, as Harvey Smith, who won the Derby in 1970 got to find out. Harvey Smith arrived the following year to defend his crown but failed to return the Derby Trophy. Bunn was furious, made even more so when Smith declared that it didn’t matter anyway as he would win it again. Bunn dismissed Smiths declaration suggesting he had no chance. However, Harvey Smith did win it riding Matty Brown, and in celebration fired his famous ‘V’ sign. Douglas Bunn refused to give him the prize money and reported him for the offensive sign to the British Showjumping Board. In appeal, Harvey Smith said he was simply copying Winston Churchill, and the sign was for victory. This unlikely excuse was accepted and Smith finally got his prize money.

Ed and Lizzie Bunn now run Hickstead

Douglas Bunn had a colourful private life as well. He married three times and had nine children who survived him following his death in June 2009. The family still run the most successful Bunn Leisure business as a holiday venue as well as The All England Jumping Course. It is said that there are more hours of sunshine in the year at Bunn Leisure’s holiday complex than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. Whether that is true is a matter of debate perhaps, but The Hickstead Showground is undoubtedly one of the most prestigious and popular show venues anywhere in the world. All the top riders over the last sixty years have appeared and jumped the hallowed turf together with the world’s top showjumping horses.

It is such a shame that the celebrations of Hickstead and its founder Douglas Bunn have had to be put on hold, but we all hope that 2021 will allow us all to return to enjoy the spectacular sport and ambiance that the venue continues to provide. Even so, hats off to the team at Hickstead for staging what probably will be the biggest showjumping event in the UK in 2020 – even if it is held behind closed doors.

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